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.

“Eas-ee Compan-ee! Eas-ee Compan-ee?”

There was no overall commander at Yudam-ni, merely two equal regimental commanders, each with his own set of problems. Colonel Homer Litzenberg of the 7th Marines was by far the senior to the 5th Marines’ Lt. Col. Raymond Murray, but he had no mandate for taking overall command, and he did not. Murray, on the other hand, controlled the only viable reserve force in the valley, Lt. Col. John Stevens’ 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, which was encamped in the shadow of Hill 1282. Stevens was ordered to dispatch a relief force to bail out the orphan companies on Hills 1282 and 1240.

The only officer in Stevens’ battalion who had ever been on Hill 1282 was 2nd Lt. Nicholas Trapnell, a professional Marine who had been leading his platoon in constant action since joining Able/1/5 as a replacement on the Inchon-Seoul Highway in September. While establishing an outpost line between his battalion’s command post and the hill mass late that afternoon, Trapnell had been shown the awesome terrain by Captain Phillips, with whom he had shared some prewar service. Phillips took pains to call Trapnell’s attention to the numerous white-clad Chinese in plain view on distant ridges.

The night’s action began for Trapnell when one of his fire team leaders crashed into the platoon’s command post screaming, “They’re coming! They’re coming! There are thousands of ’em!” Terrified at the prospect of being caught on low ground in the dark, Trapnell immediately gathered in the fire team outposts he had strung across the open ground and, without instructions, reformed his platoon on higher ground. Closest to Hill 1282, Trapnell’s platoon was the first of Lt. Col. Stevens’ units to be ordered to the aid of Easy/2/7. That platoon was composed of no more than 35 men, probably a smaller number than the losses Easy/2/7 had already sustained.

The trek up the back of Hill 1282 was frightening, strange, and confusing. Tracers passed overhead, but the reinforcements did not hear the sound of gunfire until they were virtually on top of the besieged summit. Unsure of the way, unsure even if Easy/2/7 still existed, Trapnell’s platoon stumbled upward, calling vainly into the threatening void, “Eas-ee Compan-ee! Eas-ee Compan-ee?”

Lieutenant Yancey was speaking with the right platoon leader, 1st Lt. Leonard Clements, trying to coordinate a defense, when the Chinese approached through the almost silent darkness. Before either officer could react, a large hole appeared in the front of Clements’ helmet and blood spurted out. Although they and their wives were the best of friends, Yancey did not waste one instant seeing how his fellow platoon leader fared, for it was obvious to him that the round through Clements’ forehead was fatal. Yancey simply raced to rejoin his thin platoon. In fact, Clements had been knocked unconscious, but he had not been badly injured. The bullet had glanced off his head at an oblique angle and had spun about harmlessly in the helmet’s liner.

The 1st Battalion, 235th PLA Regiment, tore back into Easy Company’s line after a 30-minute respite. Hard one-two punches beat at one flank, then the other. Marines were deafened by the discharge of bullets and the close-in bursts of their own and Chinese grenades. The line was thinning as more and more Marines were killed or disabled.

Yancey was wounded again, seriously this time, when a grenade fragment holed the roof of his mouth. And Phillips was cut down by machine-gun fire just as he thrust a bayoneted rifle into the frozen earth. “This is Easy Company,” Phillips roared an instant before the fatal burst hurled him to the ground, “and we hold here!”

First Lieutenant Ray Ball, the company executive officer, was too badly injured to assume command of the company. He propped himself up in a rifleman’s sitting position beside his foxhole and fired his carbine with telling effect as his life’s blood froze in expanding puddles beside him. In time, he fainted, then died.

Trapnell’s Able/1/5 platoon found its way into the position of the rearmost Easy/2/7 unit, 1st Lt. Bey’s 3d Platoon. Bey had no idea of the dire straits his company was in, so he suggested that Trapnell’s platoon push off to the right to cover the open ground between Hill 1282 and Hill 1240. Trapnell did not have nearly enough Marines for the job, but he gamely led his riflemen into the void, dropping them off, two at a time, until he was alone on the dangling flank. When another Able/1/5 platoon arrived on the hill directly behind the engaged portion of Easy/2/7, it was cannibalized to flesh out Yancey’s and Clements’ beleaguered platoons.

Command Falls to Staff Sergeant Daniel Murphy

The first news of his company’s dire predicament reached Bey when a squad leader and four riflemen from Yancey’s 1st Platoon tumbled off the summit almost into the arms of Bey’s platoon sergeant, Staff Sgt. Daniel Murphy. When Murphy heard for the first time the full story of the fight higher up, he rushed to Bey, repeated the gruesome tale, and requested permission to take every man he could find to help. Out of touch, unable to even hear the sounds of the furious battle because of strange breaks in the ground, Bey felt that he could spare no more than one squad and the platoon’s corpsman, who volunteered to go along. It wasn’t much: Staff Sgt. Murphy, the corpsman, 12 3rd Platoon riflemen, and five 1st Platoon stragglers.

Breasting the summit, Murphy’s group slammed into a gaggle of Chinese that had just broken through at the center of the Marine line. The tiny group of Americans clawed their way over the beaten ground, reclaimed the Easy Company command post, and reformed while the corpsman went to work on the wounded.

Captain Phillips was dead. Lieutenant Ball was dead. Lieutenant Clements appeared to be dead. Lieutenant Schreier was down with shrapnel in his wrist and a lung. The young officer commanding the second Able/1/5 platoon to reach Hill 1282 was severely injured. No one knew where Yancey was—cut off somewhere to the left, it was supposed. Easy Company’s senior noncommissioned officers were also missing. It was now all up to Staff Sgt. Murphy.

Bellowing for attention, the platoon sergeant rallied isolated Marines to his position by the Easy Company command post. He redeployed those who came to him, moved a machine gun to better advantage, kicked ass, threatened, and prepared for the worst.

The worst was not long in arriving. Masses of white-clad Chinese soldiers loomed out of the darkness and slammed into the Marines again. Murphy doled out the last of the hand grenades and began dismantling BAR clips to eke out the remaining the .30-caliber rifle ammunition.

“GUNG HO!”

On the far side of the gap, Yancey counted nine men who could still fight beside him. Hoping to instill some confidence in beaten men who would not lie down and die, Yancey hawked blood and gurgled the battle cry he had learned as a Marine Raider: “GUNG HO!” It means “Work Together,” and it is spoken in the Cantonese mother tongue of most of the PLA infantrymen who were then trampling victoriously across the summit of Hill 1282.

“GUNG HO!”

Ten weary, wounded Marines lifted themselves to their feet, fixed bayonets, and shuffled forward, their reedy battle cry cutting through the shrill night wind, their bayonets silhouetted in the firelight.

“GUNG HO!”

Yancey went to his knees as a shadowy Chinese soldier fired a Thompson submachine gun full into his face. The impact of the only .45-caliber round to hit him popped the Raider’s left eye out of its socket. The astonished platoon leader fingered the slimy orb back into place and crawled blindly up the hillside.

“GUNG HO!”

The thin Marine line faltered and dissolved.

Reinforcements

It was by merest coincidence that elements of Charlie/1/5, a Marine Corps Reserve unit from the Salt Lake City area, reached the summit of Hill 1282 as the last-gasp counterattacks by the last organized elements of Easy/2/7 were being turned aside by the Chinese victors of the night-long mauling match.

Originally deployed to support the battalion of the 5th Marines bivouacked a bit to the north of Hill 1282, one platoon of Charlie/1/5 had been sent at midnight to Hill 1240 to help Dog/2/7. The remainder of the support company was sent in the traces of the two Able/1/5 platoons that had begun their ascent of Hill 1282 much earlier.

The bobtail company hurriedly picked its way across the broken moonscape, stopping stragglers and wounded Easy/2/7 Marines to ask directions and learn more about the nature of the fighting. It was tedious work, and it took Charlie/1/5 an exhausting two hours, until 4:30 am, to get within range of the killing ground at the summit. The Charlie/1/5 commander, Captain Jack Jones, was also its pointman. He knew he had arrived when he was greeted by a long burst of machine-gun fire.

Jones made contact with Staff Sgt. Murphy about a hundred yards below the summit of the hill. By that time, Murphy’s small group of Easy/2/7 riflemen had been pushed onto a spur to the right of what had been the company main line. A little farther on was Trapnell’s unengaged platoon of Able/1/5. Murphy was at that moment attempting to reform about 20 Easy Company Marines for a stand across the center of the spur. He told Jones that he thought other Easy Company Marines were on the far side of the summit, possibly with survivors of the Able/1/5 platoon that had followed Trapnell’s platoon up from the valley floor hours earlier.