While the Chinese massed on the Yalu for their attack against X Corps, General MacArthur was living in splendid isolation 700 miles away in Tokyo. His inner circle shielded the great man from increasingly bad news, and he realized too late that he and those close to him had committed an astounding military blunder. Although he demonstrated exceptional personal courage as a young officer during WWI, MacArthur had later come to lead from far behind the lines in pipe-smoking, brandy-sniffing comfort, if not luxury. This practice had become so well-known and resented among his troops in WWII that they named him "Dugout Doug." Korea had been more of the same.
As the sentry waved me through the gate at Pendleton, I wondered what the Marines thought of MacArthur. Retreat Hell! notes that MacArthur and Almond ordered the First Mardiv north into the lurking, massed Chinese, but the only strongly worded criticism in the book is a brief quote from a Marine staff officer who had been at Hagaru-ri: "We didn't believe anything we heard from MacArthur's headquarters. The information from there was a bunch of baloney."
Pretty mild stuff when you think of all those soldiers and Marines who paid such an awful price for MacArthur's bizarre plan and Almond's folly. Would I be able to find a more biting assessment from someone among the Chosin Few? I would try.
I drove the final miles along Rattlesnake Canyon Road to an enormous parade ground, where bands were already playing and flags waving in a Santa Ana that had scoured the sky of all but a few clouds. On the far side of the parade ground were bleachers filled with perhaps 2000 people, many of whom were elderly men wearing red or blue shirts with matching ball-caps that proclaimed their status as members of the Chosin Few. I parked near the parade ground and stumbled up the bleachers to sit among them. Many laughed and offered their hands to keep me from falling. Perhaps my own ball-cap that identified me as an aging Navy SEAL provoked their mirth.
The event began shortly after I took my seat. Jerry Coleman was the master of ceremonies who would introduce each speaker. I was delighted. Whatever one might think of him as a play-by-play announcer, no one could doubt his selfless courage. When duty called, Colonel Coleman had stepped forward. He served as a Marine pilot in both WWII and Korea, which was a great deal more than his illustrious Yankee teammate had done. Wherever Joltin' Joe may have gone, Mrs. Robinson, it sure as hell wasn't to war.
The first speaker was one of 14 Marines who had won the Big Blue for action above and beyond the call during the Chosin Campaign. Retired General Ray Davis as a lieutenant colonel had led his battalion cross-country through an ice-shrouded night with temperatures plummeting 20 degrees below zero. His mission: to relieve a 222-man company on the brink of destruction by thousands of Chinese. Despite their overwhelming numbers, the Chinese had retreated in the face of near-maniacal attacks by Davis's men.
The next speaker Coleman introduced was James Brady, who had been a Marine captain in Korea. The name struck a chord, but it was not until Coleman gave a brief bio that I recognized Brady. He was the writer who churned out weekly pieces on Hollywood personalities for Parade magazine. He had also been editor of such publications as Woman's World and Mademoiselle. I was surprised to learn he'd been a combat Marine.
But a greater and more profitable surprise awaited as Brady launched into his speech. "Every good story," he began, "has a villain. The story of the Chosin Campaign has three: the Chinese, the weather, and -- General Douglas MacArthur." I reached for my tape recorder.
"In the United States," Brady said in a New York accent well-suited for the task at hand, "the Chicago Tribune and Hearst newspapers were beating the drums for a MacArthur presidential candidacy. MacArthur had defeated Japan with less men and materiel than his rival, Dwight Eisenhower, had needed to defeat Germany -- a fact MacArthur was fond of pointing out.
"But MacArthur had one last war to win — in a rather nasty, faraway placed called Korea. The general had started well. He'd stabilized the line at Pusan, thanks to a Marine brigade. He'd conjured up a brilliant left hook at Inchon — magnificently carried out by the First Mardiv — and had recaptured Seoul. He had smashed the North Korean Army and was racing north to victory.
"Then, wanting a quick win, MacArthur did a very strange thing: he divided his forces into the Eighth Army as the left wing and Tenth Corps — of which the First Mardiv was a part — as the right. In between were the Taebaek Mountains running north and south at heights up to 9000 feet, and in October the snow was already falling.
"There were no good east-west roads, so the left wing couldn't support the right, and the right couldn't support the left. Winter was now coming on and the Chinese were coming in.
"Ghengis Khan once wrote: 'No one can win a winter war in the land of the Mongols.' MacArthur must have cut that history class at West Point." The crowd laughed.
"On October 8 in Beijing Mao Tse-tung ordered the Chinese Army to secretly infiltrate North Korea in overwhelming force. Every soldier toted a sort of white bedsheet for camouflage — primitive yet effective.
"Just a year earlier Mao had defeated Chiang Kai-shek and chased him to sanctuary on Taiwan. The Chinese Army was good. The men here today can tell you that....
"And Mao was not about to put up with a U.S. Army camped on his frontier at the Yalu River. Mao warned that if the U.S. passed this line or that, 'We will fight you and we will fight you well.'
"MacArthur didn't listen. He said, 'The Chinese are one huge bluff.' In Washington, President Truman didn't trust MacArthur but feared the political consequences if he confronted the general.