The Skeptics

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

But before the U.S. attack got fully underway, U.S. leaders were again surprised—shocked, this time—when they were suddenly attacked from multiple directions by six Chinese infantry divisions, comprising more than sixty thousand troops. MacArthur had correctly assessed that a typical Chinese soldier was vastly inferior to his U.S. counterpart in terms of training, experience and equipment. What he failed to consider, however, was their sheer numbers, utter fearlessness and total dedication to the mission regardless of cost.

When the Chinese unleashed the full fury of their attack on November 29, the U.S. troops were caught off guard and staggered under the onslaught. The Army units on the east side of the lake caught the worst of it, however, because there were fewer of them. The Marines were unable to provide any assistance because of the lake that separated the two forces.

The nighttime attack caused great confusion for the Americans, and no small number of casualties. But when the sun came up the next morning, the Chinese had again withdrawn. MacArthur had disdain for the Chinese, and regarded them as a “peasant army” not worth worrying about; he ordered the previously scheduled attack to the Yalu to continue.

Mao Zedong, however, had studied MacArthur and detected a weakness: his hubris. He withdrew after the attack on November 29, gambling that the American would consider China’s forces inferior and immediately pursue. MacArthur took the bait and ordered the northward attack to immediately resume.

Because the Marines and soldiers were limited to narrow mountain roads and could not assist each other because of the lake, the Chinese took full advantage and began further dividing the U.S. troops, sending overwhelming numbers of soldiers against small, isolated contingents of Americans. On December 1, as casualties began to mount, the reality of the strength of the Chinese attack struck home, and U.S. forces began a fighting withdrawal to the Sea of Japan, still some eighty miles away.

By the time the Army units east of Chosin began their withdrawal, they had already incurred more than four hundred wounded. The troops gathered every truck vehicle that was still operational, loaded everyone aboard, wounded or not, and began the withdrawal; though a gut-wrenching decision, they was no room in the trucks and had to leave the dead where they fell. They began the march with approximately 2,500 soldiers. The convoy, however, would never make it to secure American lines.

For practically every yard of the trip, the Chinese were attacking the road-bound American retreat from the mountains above. One by one, the vehicles were shot out from under the soldiers. At first they transferred the survivors to other vehicles. As the losses piled up, however, there was no longer any room on the serviceable trucks. Eventually every single truck was knocked out.

The men were told to infiltrate through enemy lines as best they could to try and link up with the Marines south of the Chosin. Snowstorms picked up their intensity, and temperatures plunged to 30 below zero just as the U.S. troops lost all means of conveyance. Almost as many Americans suffered debilitating frostbite as enemy bullets.

The Army troops were forced to do the unthinkable: they had to leave each and every wounded man behind to have any chance of surviving the attacking Chinese. Of the 2,500 who began the withdrawal on December 1, fewer than 350 made it back to U.S. lines in fighting shape.

Mao believed that if he could push one of America’s most famous generals out of North Korea, he could cause great fear and doubt in Washington, which he could use to strategic advantage. Though his forces suffered a staggering fifty thousand casualties of their own, Mao was ultimately proven right: the Americans would never again threaten to overrun North Korea. An armistice was eventually signed on July 27, 1953, setting the border between North and South Korea at its current location.

Had MacArthur and other U.S. leaders heeded the intelligence warnings of massing Chinese troops in early November 1950, they could have conducted a consolidating move to the south—without any interference from enemy contact—and set up a defensive position in better terrain that offered routes to provide mutual support between units. Had the Chinese troops been required to attack the United States in defensible positions where reinforcements could be brought to bear, it is likely Mao’s troops would not have been able to force the United States into retreat.

In that case, the battle would have been fought on terms advantageous to the United States, in positions that U.S. forces could have held, and once Chinese troop strength had been spent, then MacArthur could have pushed to the Yalu and ended the war in complete tactical and strategic victory, sending the Chinese back across their border in defeat.

Instead, the U.S. retreat resulted in another two years of indecisive war, the deaths of thousands more Americans and eventually the permanent, tense division of Korea. That division has necessitated the expenditure of hundreds of billions and more than six decades of military occupation to maintain security.