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Frozen Chosin: How China's Surprise Attack Took the U.S. Marines off Guard During the Korean War

September 19, 2019 Topic: History Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ChinaPeople's Liberation ArmyKorean WarNorth KoreaU.S. Marines

Frozen Chosin: How China's Surprise Attack Took the U.S. Marines off Guard During the Korean War

It was shock and awe.

Key point: China's intervention into the war took American and United Nations forces completely flat-footed.

The 1st Marine Division was on the move toward the Yalu River. With any luck, if the weather cooperated, the United Nations police action in Korea would be over in weeks.

The 5th Marine Regiment (5th Marines), most of the 7th Marines, and three artillery battalions of the 11th Marines spent the daylight hours of November 27, 1950, staging into the North Korean mountain-valley town of Yudam-ni, on the frozen shore of the Chosin Reservoir. While company-size units of the 7th Marines patrolled and fought through the day to secure the far-flung ridge lines that dominated the valley, a battalion of the 5th Marines mounted a limited assault aimed at striking off into the unsecured hinterland of North Korea.

Strangely, for the Marines had faced no serious opposition in more than a month, all their patrols, sweeps, and advances on November 27 were strongly contested. Unbeknownst to the Marines, tens of thousands of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers were set to spring an enormous trap on the main body of the 1st Marine Division.

Isolated and Unaware

The temperature was minus 30 degrees F, so by 9 pm all but the regular watchkeepers were snuggled in their soft down sleeping bags, shoeless and exhausted by the day’s prodigious physical exertions and the sub-zero cold.

Yudam-ni was seen by all higher headquarters as a temporary staging area. No strong hostile action was anticipated, and there was no central authority determining where this battalion or that company was to be placed. Too large to be defended by a continuous line, the valley of Yudam-ni was merely screened by several isolated pockets of Marines: How Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines (How/3/7) to the northwest; Charlie/1/7 to the southeast; Dog/2/7 and Easy/2/7 to the east. Units of the 5th Marines on the “perimeter” just happened to be there when the day’s activities had drawn to a close. There was nothing wrong with the deployment; indeed, it was an adequate response to the latest intelligence data from higher headquarters, reflecting the solid combat experience of the planners.

Nowhere did the element of luck come into greater play at Yudam-ni that night than in the case of two orphan companies of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines (2/7). The companies were orphans because of the way Marine divisions of the era were not built. They were not built for moving and victualing themselves over very long lines of supply. There was not sufficient motor transport in the 1st Marine Division for moving so many men so quickly over so many road miles to a place like Yudam-ni. Owing to movement schedules worked out by harried motor-transport officers juggling conflicting priorities, it just happened that the 2/7 was split up for the longest period of time. On November 26, there were sufficient trucks to get two companies to Yudam-ni from the battalion’s old base at Hagaru-ri. The remainder of the battalion had to await the vehicles that were bringing up its relief from the south on November 28. Thus, the two companies, about 400 Marines in all, moved early and were attached administratively to the 1st Battalion, 7th, whose staff placed them out of the way in the hills east of the long central valley of Yudam-ni.

Although composed largely of Reservists, Dog/2/7 and Easy/2/7 were considered first-rate combat units. They had been baptized in blood on the Inchon–Seoul Highway in September, and they had been in steady action all the way up from Wonsan.

After arriving at Yudam-ni on November 26, the companies had been sent east of town to outpost Hill 1240 and Hill 1282, the former about 1,000 yards east by south of the latter. The relative isolation of their positions was not lost upon the company commanders. Patrols were dispatched to examine and cover the intervening ground through the first day and night. As with the other 7th Marines units guarding the heights on the periphery of the valley, the two companies of 2/7 were to be aided in covering their ground by 105mm howitzers of the 3rd Battalion, 11th Marines, the regimental 4.2-inch mortars, and such other mortars and heavy armaments as could be brought to bear in an emergency. It was a standard solution to a standard problem.

Meeting Chinese Forces

During the night of November 26, an Easy/2/7 light machine gunner at the left extremity of the company line on Hill 1282 detected movement to the front. He tossed a grenade and bagged a Chinese infantry officer who had been busily plotting in the company position when he met his end. Strewn about the corpse was a plotting board, tape measure, and alidade. Papers on the dead man identified him as a member of the 79th PLA Division.

The bulk of Captain Milton Hull’s Dog/2/7 stepped off late in the morning of November 27 to patrol the ground north of Hill 1240. After three hours on the go, the point platoon ran into a dozen Chinese and dispersed them. The middle platoon then passed through the point and swung eastward toward the village of Kyodong-ni, on the shore of the frozen Chosin Reservoir. The village had previously been burned out by marauding.

Marine Corps F4U Corsair fighter-bombers and was said to have been abandoned. The lead platoon, however, was hit by heavy fire as it crossed some low ground preparatory to entering the ruins. A strong Chinese infantry force was entrenched on high ground north and west of the hamlet.

Four Marine Corsairs made runs on the village as the two lead Dog Company platoons deployed to deliver an attack. One platoon leader was seriously wounded at the outset, but the other pressed on as a second air strike swept in. The Chinese had the terrain advantage and superior firepower, and the Marines were pressed back. The lead platoon leader was killed while attempting to make a stand.

Captain Hull informed his nominal superior, Lt. Col. Raymond Davis, the 1/7 commanding officer, that Dog/2/7 was under heavy pressure. Unable to do anything more constructive, Davis ordered Hull to return to Hill 1240 under friendly air and mortar cover. The Chinese chased Dog Company as far as they dared, then drifted back toward Kyodong-ni. In all, 16 Marines were killed or injured.

Preparations on Both Sides

Easy/2/7 had nowhere near as dramatic a day as its sister unit, but the troops were kept alert by almost constant sightings of white-clad Chinese soldiers swarming over distant ridges. Initially, Captain Walter Phillips had only two platoons with which to defend Hill 1282. These were placed in crescent-shaped arcs at the summit, one facing northeast, the other northwest. The detached platoon, which spent the day guarding the regimental command post, was returned in the early evening of November 27. This unit was placed in line on a low spur just to the south of the summit of Hill 1282, several dozen yards behind the lines of its sister platoons, almost like a tail protruding from the main body of the company. The company’s three 60mm mortars were emplaced below the summit, between the two forward rifle platoons and the company command post. All the company’s .30-caliber light and medium machine guns were deployed with the forward rifle platoons. Although they received no official warning of an impending attack, the troops routinely set out tripflares along the entire front, and all weapons were registered upon every reachable approach to the company lines.

Captain Hull’s somewhat shaken Dog Company on Hill 1240 was similarly vigilant, although its position was somewhat below the actual summit of the hill, possibly hidden from Chinese observers manning posts on the rim of hills to the east.

The 79th PLA Division had three regiments and three regimental objectives. The northernmost objective was Hill 1384, overlooking the bivouac of a battalion of the 5th Marines; the center regiment was to assault Hill 1240, held by Captain Hull’s Dog/2/7; and the left regiment was to take Hill 1167, an unoccupied eminence several hundred yards to Dog/2/7’s right. The Chinese had no plans to assault Hill 1282, which was occupied by Captain Phillips’s Easy/2/7, even though Hill 1282 was between the 5th Marines’ battalion and Dog/2/7. In fact, Hill 1282 overlooked the best route into Yudam-ni from the east. Since there is no question that the Chinese knew Hill 1282 was outposted by a Marine company, the only possible explanation for this lapse is that they did not know that Hill 1240 was similarly guarded by Dog/2/7, nor that the 5th Marines was on the low ground behind Hill 1384. It is apparent that the commander of the 79th PLA Division hoped to avoid Easy/2/7 on Hill 1282 and move on the valley of Yudam-ni by means of two routes that appeared, from his vantage point, to have been left unguarded.

The forbidding terrain knocked the Chinese plan askew. The regiment bound for Hill 1384 found its way in the dark, but the two southern regiments, attacking in columns of battalions deployed in columns of companies, veered northward. Thus, unoccupied Hill 1167 was not assaulted; the regiment bound for it moved on Hill 1240, and the regiment bound for Hill 1240 blundered toward Hill 1282. While this placed both companies of 2/7 in danger, the Chinese advantage of freedom to maneuver was negated by the fact that the PLA soldiers would be delivering their attacks across totally unfamiliar terrain, at night, against unanticipated opposition.