The Chosin Reservoir Campaign of the Korean War is the stuff of legend in the Marine Corps. During the pivotal 1950 battle, 15,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines, alongside another 15,000 UN soldiers, fought through a force of 120,000 Chinese soldiers to reach the sea some 78 miles away.
During the campaign, U.S. forces successfully evacuated 98,000 refugees while inflicting heavy losses on the Chinese army.
The Marine Corps led the push against a numerically superior Chinese force. The Marines broke through an enemy encirclement, and even rebuilt a bridge that the Chinese destroyed.
In the process, they also saved the UN’s army in Korea from total defeat.
The campaign is one of the defining events of the Marine Corp’s modern history, but it remains largely unknown outside of military and historical circles. Marine Corps veterans Brian Iglesias and Anton Sattler have released an award-winning documentary, CHOSIN, that details the operation with interviews from veterans who fought there.
Here is a history of the campaign from the few archival photos that document one of the pivotal campaigns of the Korean War.
By the middle of 1950, the Korean War seemed all but won. The communist Korean People's Army was routed and UN forces were quickly advancing up through the northern half of the Korean Peninsula
Then, on October 19, 1950, Chinese leader Mao Tze Tung secretly sent large formations of troops into North Korea in an attempt to rescue the communists' war effort.
On November 2, Chinese forces encountered U.S. Marines. The Chinese suffered heavy casualties and withdrew to the Chosin Reservoir in an attempt to lure allied forces into a trap.
The 30,000 UN troops were quickly surrounded and overwhelmed by a Chinese force lying in wait -- an army somewhere between 67,000 and 120,000 strong.
Overwhelmed and caught off guard, General Douglas MacArthur ordered the Home-by-Christmas Offensive.
The offensive, undertaken from November 25 to December 2, had the express goal of evicting Chinese forces from northern Korea and ending the war for good.
The offensive instead ended in a decisive Chinese victory that broke the UN army's cohesion and forced it to withdraw towards the 38th parallel.
With the allies surrounded by Chinese forces, the remainder of the Chosin campaign was aimed at preserving the UN's army against a massive enemy onslaught.
Mountain passes along the retreat were at times only wide enough for a single vehicle and extreme temperatures and exposure caused 7,338 frostbite casualties.
Overall, there were an estimated 17,000 UN casualties in the campaign. The Chinese suffered over 40,000 casualties.
Still, the UN forces reached Hungnam by December 24. A 193-ship armada evacuated the soldiers, along with 98,000 refugees that the U.N. and Marines Corps troops protected on the long march to the sea. After the evacuation, the U.S. destroyed the port to deny the Chinese access to it.
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