Why the Korean War Battle of Chosin Was so Bloody

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October 11, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ChinaPeople's Liberation ArmyKorean WarNorth KoreaU.S. Marines

Why the Korean War Battle of Chosin Was so Bloody

China's intervention was a nasty surprise.

The first activity near Hill 1282 was noted at about 10 pm, when several squads of PLA soldiers approached the previously unoccupied rear spur and ran into 1st Lt. Robert Bey’s 3rd Platoon of Easy/2/7. Light skirmishing ensued for about 30 minutes, in which time the probes were driven off at a cost of three Marines wounded.

Dog Company, to the east, was also lightly probed. The company commanders, communicating by phone, agreed to pull in their horns; both men canceled the routine patrols that were to have covered the open ground between the ridges.

“Nobody lives forever. You die!”

In late 1942, John Yancey had been a corporal fighting on Guadalcanal with the famed 2nd Marine Raider Battalion, known as Carlson’s Raiders. At 24, the Arkansan had striven to be the best Marine in the Corps, and he had been awarded a Navy Cross and a battlefield commission as a testament to his coolness under fire.

In late 1950, Yancey was a 32-year-old family man and the proprietor of a Little Rock liquor store he had built up between the wars. Older and wiser, he had volunteered to fight again in Korea, more out of a yearning for action than anything else. In that sense, 1st Lt. John Yancey, commanding Easy/2/7’s 1st Platoon, was typical of many Pacific War veterans who had stayed in the Reserves in the late 1940s and who had been called to the colors from good jobs and fledgling businesses in the summer of 1950. Yancey, however, was a certified hero, and the impulse to stand and fight was still very much with him.

The second round of Chinese probes on Hill 1282 unfolded directly in front of Yancey’s 1st Platoon. As usual, the probes were light, and the Chinese recoiled upon contact, content to draw fire to learn the whereabouts of the rifle pits and supporting machine guns.

Yancey was not overly perturbed by the probes. He had ordered his machine gunners to hold their fire to avoid giving away their positions. It was business as usual, but only for a few moments.

The unearthly silence was replaced by the cadenced tread of thousands of sneaker-shod feet crunching upon the thin film of snow that mantled Hill 1282. In the distance, above the crunching, Yancey and his men could discern the rhythmic chant of a single voice. Straining his hearing to the limit, the former Marine Raider thought he heard the words, “Nobody lives forever. You die!” repeated over and over in heavily accented English. It was almost too bizarre to believe.

Yancey cranked the handle of his sound-powered telephone set and was answered in a whisper by the company executive officer, 1st Lt. Raymond Ball. “Ray, they’re building up for an attack. Get the eighty-ones [81mm mortars] and give us some light, and then lay in on the ridge and work back toward us.”

“There’s a shortage of eighty-ones,” Ball revealed. “We can’t give you many.”

Yancey’s platoon waited while the shadowy mass of Chinese soldiers closed on their position. But for the crunching of feet on the snow, the only sound was that lone Chinese voice: “Nobody lives forever. You die!”

Index fingers lightly traced the outlines of triggers and trigger guards. Moments passed and those fingers toyed with the first pull, then tensed and froze before squeezing through the final, firing pull.

It was midnight. The first tripflares burst, giving the illusion that the Chinese were motionless silhouettes. The picture that was burned into the retinas and memory cells of Yancey’s Marines was unprecedented, horrifying.

The Chinese ranks extended, endlessly it seemed, from one flank to the other. Each Chinese soldier was a precise 15 yards from the man in front, as far back as the eye could see. Leading the mass of white-clad infantry was a lone officer, who yelled over and over, “Nobody lives forever. You die!”

Yancey leaped to his feet and hurled a challenge at the Chinese officer, but his voice was lost in a din of Chinese war chants and the cacophonous bleats of whistles, bugles, and shepherds’ horns that erupted at that precise moment.

Repulsing the First Attack

“Lay it on, Ray,” Yancey blurted into the phone to the Easy Company exec. He dropped the receiver and fired a full clip from his M2 carbine at the Chinese officer leading the attack.

As the Marine line erupted in gunfire, 60mm and 81mm mortar fire rained down on the Chinese, starting long and pulling closer to form a protective curtain. The supply of mortar ammunition was indeed limited, and the fire quickly abated. White-clad forms flitted between foxholes to assemble near the center of the company position, immune to fire from Marines who feared hitting their own.

Certain that Yancey’s 1st Platoon was bearing the brunt of the attack, Captain Phillips sprang from his command post and sprinted forward to take charge. Phillips found Yancey and his platoon sergeant leaping from fighting hole to fighting hole, shouting encouragement and distributing spare ammunition. Yancey could barely breathe because a grenade splinter had penetrated the bridge of his nose. His report was delivered amid much hawking and spitting of the blood that trickled down the back of his throat.

While Yancey moved one way, Phillips moved the other, shouting encouragement, seeing to the evacuation of the wounded, calling up his meager reinforcements from the company command post area. Although hit by bullets in an arm and a leg, Captain Phillips continued to stand his ground, an example to his troops.

First Lieutenant William Schreier, the company mortar officer, was directing his crews amid exploding hand grenades and mortar rounds when he glanced up to see a half-dozen PLA infantrymen coming right at him. He snapped his carbine up and fired, stopping the attackers momentarily, until the simultaneous explosions of numerous grenades forced him to duck. Schreier next saw about 20 Chinese heading his way. His fire had little or no effect, so he trundled uphill to the company command post, where he found the wounded company commander.

Phillips and Schreier spent the next several minutes attempting to form a line around the command post. There were no more than 10 Marines in the vicinity, and there was no cover. White forms were moving through the company area, and grenades were bursting in batches like firecrackers. Schreier had the distinct impression that Chinese grenadiers were dragging baskets of concussion grenades through the line platoons, stopping now and again to hurl whole clusters of them. He felt a sting in his left leg as he steadily fired his carbine at the grenadiers, but he had no time to check for a wound. Two or three grenades exploded practically on top of Schreier and he was wounded in the arm, wrist, and chest.

The Chinese attack faltered, then receded. In time, it was nearly quiet, but for the desultory discharge of weapons that frightened men from both armies fired at targets, real and imagined. It seemed to Marines on the line that hundreds of dead and dying Chinese had been stacked up within 10 feet of the 1st Platoon’s line and throughout the perimeter.

The Fight for Hill 1240

A thousand yards to the right of Hill 1282, across an open saddle the Chinese were using as a pathway into the center of the valley of Yudam-ni, Captain Hull’s Dog/2/7 was fighting a seesaw battle to hold Hill 1240. The typical PLA probes were followed by vicious, tearing assaults on the Dog Company line platoons. The company commander had placed all three of his understrength rifle platoons in a single line, and all three platoons were thrashed repeatedly by equally concentrated hammer blows. Two platoon leaders had been lost on the patrol to Kyodong-ni during the day, and two more were lost that night along with a large and growing number of riflemen and machine gunners. In time, the repeated blows dislodged the center platoon, forcing the entire company—all those Marines who could still move—into headlong retreat down the hill.

The rush was stemmed by the sturdy, bull-necked Captain Hull, who placed his burly, twice-wounded body between his Marines and the rear. Slowly, Dog Company reformed under intense pressure, won back a few square yards of lost ground, then followed the determined company commander up the dark, slippery slope toward the summit.

The Chinese were caught by surprise and allowed themselves to be forced from the newly won ground. They rallied within minutes, then stormed forward to retake the summit of Hill 1240. About 30 of them sideslipped the fighting and established a machine-gun strongpoint in the Marine right rear. The last of Hull’s officers was wounded, as was his best platoon sergeant. Hull raged at the survivors, “Hold fast! It’s only one gun, and it can’t kill us all.” The grenades put the weapon out of action, and the reinforced squad that was Dog Company held.

Captain Phillips telephoned his nominal superior, 1/7’s Lt. Col. Ray Davis, at the first opportunity. “We broke up the first attack, Colonel, but we’ve taken a lot of casualties. We need some help.”