The Skeptics

The Battle of Chosin Reservoir: How China Saved North Korea from Extinction

On June 25, 1950, the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) under Marshal Kim Il-sung launched a no-notice invasion of South Korea. Many are familiar with the failings of “Task Force Smith” in the first week of the war and MacArthur’s brilliant landings at Inchon that September. Few, however, realize the decisive moment of the war came three months after Inchon, amidst the most brutal cold wave imaginable, at a place called the Chosin Reservoir. American arrogance and bigotry forfeited what could have been a spectacular strategic victory.

Our current nuclear standoff with Kim Jong-un is, in large measure, the bitter fruit of that failure.

For the United States, the war started off disastrously. After their surprise attack, Kim’s forces blew past the badly outgunned and outmatched South Korean military forces north of Seoul, and continued the march south. Near the city of Osan, about twenty-five miles south of Seoul, America’s first combat unit, 120 men of Task Force Smith, set up a defensive position to block the NKPA’s drive south.

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American leaders expected that when the North Koreans saw U.S. troops, they would stop their advance or even run away. But in a classic example of unpreparedness resulting from years of neglected training and equipping with modern weapons, the T-34 tanks of the North’s lead elements virtually destroyed Task Force Smith and continued the attack. The United States and allied nations rushed to get more combat power into South Korea before the North could capture the southern port of Pusan.

The North’s drive started to stall by September, and on September 21, Gen. Douglas MacArthur executed a surprise landing on the coast west of Seoul at Inchon, sending the NKPA into a full retreat. The allied forces then began a devastating counterattack to the north that within two months had conquered almost all of North Korea.

On November 23—Thanksgiving Day—the Americans were jubilant, some enjoying actual turkey dinners within view of the Yalu River, which marked the border with China. MacArthur told troops the war was in hand and would probably be over by Christmas.

Unbeknownst to most of those happy troops, however, was that MacArthur and many of his senior intelligence officers had received numerous reports of massive Chinese troops buildups north of the Yalu. They discounted them all, however, believing the Chinese to be backward and vastly inferior, and thus rejected the notion they would attack.

Besides, MacArthur had planned what he expected would be the final thrust to the Yalu and the end of the war. He didn’t want his timetables disturbed. His dismissal of the warnings, and the arrogant assumption that his attack would succeed anyway, condemned thousands of Americans to their deaths and forfeited what otherwise might have been the complete conquest of the Korean Peninsula.

The northeastern prong of MacArthur’s final push included fifteen thousand troops made up of the First Marine Division and the Army’s Seventh Infantry Division, positioned for the attack on either side of a large lake known as the Chosin Reservoir. After the sun went down on November 25, however, thousands of Chinese troops seemingly came out of nowhere and swarmed into both the Marine and Army units, causing significant casualties. As the sun came up, however, the Chinese didn’t press the attack, and withdrew.

MacArthur was concerned by the attack, but considered it a minor episode, likely a weak attempt to spoil the American offensive. He ordered the Marines and soldiers to remain on schedule and attack on November 27 as planned. Aside from the difficulty of the mountainous terrain, the lake that separated the U.S. force and the possibility of many Chinese soldiers, the weather turned against the Americans: temperatures fell on September 27 to zero degrees. Later, it would plunge to nearly 30 degrees below zero.