History

Documentary Recalls Horrors of Korean War

Survivors detail brutal Battle of Chosin.

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'The Battle of Chosin'
'American Experience: The Battle of Chosin'

American Experience: The Battle of Chosin. PBS. Tuesday, November 1, 9 p.m.

When the Chinese mortar shell exploded, it sent the American soldier hurtling through the air, his body savaged but his mind eerily dreamy as he fell back to earth, cataloging the carnage surrounding him. He took particular note of a severed limb casually askew on the ground. "Some poor guy lost a leg," the soldier thought to himself sadly. When he tried to stand, the dream blinked back to reality: The poor guy without a leg was him.

So it goes in The Battle of Chosin, an episode of the PBS documentary series American Experience airing November 1. It's a series of postcards—surreal, grisly, terrifying—from a largely forgotten battle in the mostly unremembered war that the United States fought in Korea from 1950 to 1953.

For two weeks beginning in late November 1950, a U.S.-commanded force of nearly 15,000 men, mostly U.S. Marines, fought its way out of an encirclement of 120,000 Chinese troops near the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea. The combat, at such close quarters that the fighting was often hand-to-hand, took place on steep, craggy mountain terrain ("you had two directions to go in Korea, that was either straight up or straight down, recalls one American soldier) in temperatures that plunged to 50 degrees below zero on some nights. It was a frozen killing field so gruesome that the soldiers interviewed in The Battle of Chosin are often reduced to ghastly free association in their attempts to describe it: "Grotesque. … Horrible. Nightmare."

Producer-director Randall MacLowry and writer Mark Zwonitzer, though both American Experience veterans (together and separately, they've chronicled everything from the creation of Silicon Valley to the campaign to stamp out polio), have little experience in making military documentaries.

That doesn't show at all in The Battle of Chosin, which dexterously alternates between broad discussions of strategy and grunt's-eye-view of the fighting on the ground. They've assembled a truly awesome collection of archival footage and still photographs; as grim and exhausting as the battle got, military combat photographers apparently never put down their cameras.

Battle opens with a quick, deft summary of the outbreak of the Korean War five months earlier. North Korean troops poured across the border, quickly captured Seoul and within a few weeks were on the verge of driving out U.S. and South Korean forces. But American commander Douglas MacArthur's risky decision to launch an amphibious assault behind the North Korean lines broke the communist offensive, sending them in headlong retreat north with U.S. forces in hot pursuit.

As Thanksgiving approached, American troops were nearing the Yalu River, the border between North Korea and China, and U.S. forces were so totally in control that American planes were ferrying turkey and dressing rather than bombs and bullets to the front. Though there were some nervous voices in Washington—including that of President Truman himself—expressing worries that China might intervene on behalf of the shattered North Korean army, MacArthur dismissed the Chinese as a "peasant army" that would crumble in the face of American military technology. Even when American troops traded some sporadic shots with infiltrated Chinese soldiers—their distinctive quilted uniforms made them easy to recognize—U.S. commanders were unconcerned.

The spearhead of the drive on the Yalu was the 1st U.S. Marine Division, augmented by smaller units of the U.S. and South Korean army, arrayed in a semi-circle around the Chosin Reservoir on the eve of an offensive that their commanders had promised them would end the war by Christmas. Instead, they were awakened the night of Nov. 27 by a series of murderous human-wave attacks by a Chinese force that would number at least 60,000 soldiers.

Under-armed (only the first wave of men all carried guns; most of those in subsequent waves were expected to snatch their weapons from the carpet of corpses they raced across toward U.S. lines), the Chinese used their massive advantage in sheer numbers to overrun American positions.

"You didn't have to look where they were," recalls one American soldier. "In back of you. In front of you. Right around you, right in the middle of you." Bullets gave way to bayonets and rifles turned into clubs, bodies were strewn everywhere. "It's terrifying," says another soldier. "You know you're gonna die and you wonder how it's gonna happen."

Even after the first night's fighting, U.S. commanders remained sanguine. "You gonna let a few Chinese laundrymen stop you?" U.S. Army General Ned Almond sneered to his officers on the ground. By the second night, American forces were completely surrounded and had no choice to fight their way south, 80 miles down a road built for oxcarts, the Chinese bombarding them from the surrounding peaks every step of the way.

The Battle of Chosin is a melange of horrifying images that compound themselves into something other-worldly. Newsreel shows Marines chipping uselessly at the frozen ground with picks in a futile effort to dig foxholes to shelter themselves from the glacial winds and the clouds of enemy bullets. When that didn't work, survivors explain, they huddled inside walls made of icy Chinese corpses.

American dead, too, were put to work; they were stripped naked so their clothing could be searched for stray ammo or grenades, then wrapped around wounded men, stacked three deep in trucks, in an often futile attempt to keep them from freezing to death. The arctic cold inflicted almost as much damage on the Marines as the Chinese did; the photos of blackened, mutilated feet will forever dispel you of any idea that frostbite is a minor injury. One soldier describes how when medics finally used an axe to get his frozen boots off, his toes stayed inside.

Sometimes words fail the survivors, particularly when they're describing the weapon that saved so many of them: napalm, dropped by American planes on Chinese attackers at altitudes so low that soldiers on the ground could see their faces as they flew by. A Marine who walked through a field of charred Chinese corpses after one of the attacks can say only, "There were smells that, to this day, I can't get rid of." Other times their stories have no narrative point but are merely—though that's surely not the right word—horrifying images trapped in their brains seven decades later, including one of an American soldier's body windmilling down a mountainside, his face torn off by a Chinese shell, blood spraying everywhere in what seems like a terrible rebuke to the very concept of humanity.

If Battle goes off-track anyplace, it's in the documentary's brief forays into political analysis—particularly the undisputed assertion of University of Chicago historian Bruce Cumings, a longtime apologist for North Korea's Stalinst Kim dynasty, that China's decision to send troops into North Korea was an understandable act of self-defense by an innocent bystander to American aggression. "What would the U.S. do if the Chinese communist army were marching up Mexico, talking about rolling back American capitalism in the Southwest?" asks Cumings in wide-eyed innocence. That's a scrambled analogy that not only ignores the fact that North Korea's invasion of the South started the war, but voluminous documentary evidence uncovered by other historians that Mao lobbied Joseph Stalin for more than a year to approve the invasion, promising help from Chinese troops if anything went awry.

But that errant minute or two of Battle is easily ignored in a documentary that is a both a magnificent piece of military history and an appalling testament to the reality of war. The latter includes testimony that the soldiers at the Chosin Reservoir, even in the battle's ugliest moments, retained a heartbreaking ability to recognize their own roles in an agonizing tableau of suffering and bloodshed.

One Marine, after tossing a grenade into an enemy bunker, entered it to find a lone Chinese machine-gunner still at his post, his legs and stomach torn away but his heart somehow still beating. "He kept talking to me in Chinese," the American remembers, his eyes red and moist. "Was he telling me about his family; was he pleading with me to dispatch him? … I still think about him at night sometimes, just wishing I could have understood what he was saying. It's nothing to kill them at a distance. It's when you look them in the eye, that's different." The Battle of Chosin never breaks its gaze.

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62 responses to “Documentary Recalls Horrors of Korean War

  1. Death in battle is glorious — is a quote I like to say whenever no military chaps are present to ream me sideways for being a war romanticizing coward.

    1. The rah-rah support the troops faux patriots need to see this reality.

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  2. oft-forgotten battle of Korean War

    Chosin Reservoir is about the only Korean War battle I can name off the top of my head

    1. Really? The mentioned Battle of Inchon is more well-known because we won it.

    2. http://nckorea.lostsoulsgenealogy.com/battles.htm
      Pusan Perimeter
      Aug 4-Sep 16,1950

      Chosin Reservoir
      Nov 27-Dec 9, 1950

      Kunu-Ri
      Nov 29-Dec 9, 1950

      Naktong Breakout
      Sep 16-27, 1950

      Hoengsong
      Feb 11-13, 1951

      Taejon
      Jul 19-20, 1950

      Heartbreak Ridge
      Sep 13-Oct 15, 1951

      Kum River
      Jul 13-16, 1950

      Unsan
      Nov 1-2, 1950

      Soyang River
      May 17-20, 1951

      Chochiwon
      Jul 10-12, 1950

      Triangle Hill
      Oct 14-25, 1952

      Seoul
      Sep 20-27, 1950

      Bloody Ridge
      Aug 18-Sep 5, 1951

      Hadong
      July 27, 1950

      Kumsong River Salient
      Jul 13-20, 1953

      Pork Chop Hill
      Jul 6-10, 1953

      Outpost Harry
      Jun 10-16, 1953

      Nevada Cities
      Mar 26-30, 1953

      Koto-Ri
      Dec 12, 1950

      1. Kum River

        Kinky.

        1. Favorite food there is Kream of Sum Yum Guy.

  3. “You gonna let a few Chinese laundrymen stop you?”

    1. Ned Almond was a fucking disaster who almost caused the complete annihilation of the entire 1st Marine Division because he refused to believe that the Chinese could inflict such a massive attack. Oliver Smith had him pegged.

  4. One Marine, after tossing a grenade into an enemy bunker, entered it to find a lone Chinese machine-gunner still at his post, his legs and stomach torn away but his heart somehow still beating. “He kept talking to me in Chinese,” the American remembers, his eyes red and moist. “Was he telling me about his family; was he pleading with me to dispatch him? … I still think about him at night sometimes, just wishing I could have understood what he was saying. It’s nothing to kill them at a distance. It’s when you look them in the eye, that’s different.”

    Holy. Shit…

    1. It’s nothing to kill them at a distance

      Pretty much sums up governance, both of the Welfare and the Warfare type, in a nutshell. The things we allow others, AND OURSELVES, to do because The Wizard behind the curtain says so. Nothing like double-blind systems, and plenty of distance to allow for mental recusal from cause and effect, to make the world go ’round.

  5. Another great review by Garvin.

  6. My grandfather was part of the 1st Marine Division, very fortunate he arrived in Korea after this battle or else I might not have existed.

    When you look at the sheer number of Chinese casualties it really is staggering. Probably the worst Pyrrhic victory in history.

    1. My theory is that Mao was using a tactic dictators use to consolidate power. Once your shock troops put you on the throne, come up with another crusade for them to chase after so that they’ll eliminate themselves before they turn on you. So a pyrrhic victory is a useful one. Sound implausible? Think about all the other ideas Mao had.

      1. Maybe. Mao definitely didn’t want America too close because his regime was unstable.

        Kim Il Sung’s regime in North Korea was also unstable after its founding in 1948. The USSR and China were worried that North Korea would fall and Korea would be a united free democracy. 38th parallel is easier to keep Communists in than having to keep Chinese Communists in along the entire Korean border with China.

        1. Not sure how much of a student of history Mao was. But when the Entente powers tried to support the mensheviks prior (?) to the russian civil war, that didn’t last very long. Given that Japan failed to conquer China, it seems a little unlikely to me at least that US forces would cross the Yalu even if they were “invited” to by the UN. If you’re really worried about US invasion of China (which could unify Chinese around your regime with Republican forces gone), then it’s daft to launch a human wave assault against US forces, giving them the opportunity to decimate what would be a more effective insurgency in a US invasion.

  7. Thanks for the review, Glenn. I will definitely check it out.

  8. expressing worries that China might intervene on behalf of the shattered North Korean army, MacArthur dismissed the Chinese as a “peasant army” that would crumble in the face of American military technology.

    MacArthur was generally right. Just wrong about their resolve and willingness to die.

    By some accounts, the battle of Chosin was a fairly decisive U.S. victory. The U.S. fought what’s largely considered a rather brilliant fighting retreat which in the end, decimated the Chinese soldiers.

    If you count by sheer number of losses, the Americans had 1029 KIA, and the Chinese lost almost 14,000 kia, and something like 30,000 “non battle casualties”.

    1. I wouldn’t call it a decisive victory – 1st MarDiv DID have to retreat, and they did incur heavy losses, although not as heavy as they inflicted. It was a strategic victory, however. The Marines killed enough of the Chinese 9th Army to take them out of the fighting just long enough to stall the overall Chinese offensive in January-March 1951.

      1. Decisive was probably the wrong word here, given what everyone’s goals were. But the Chinese got a pretty bad beatdown in this fight, and suffered from the non-combat elements as much as (or worse) than the Americans, given that Mao didn’t really think much about the welfare of his soldiers.

      2. they advanced to the rear!

    2. MacArthur was generally right.

      MacArthur was an arrogant and wrong on nearly everything.

      He fought the Bonus Army of WW I veterans who wanted the bonuses they had been promised.

      He styled himself a colonial god when he retired from the Army to become governor of the Philippines in the 1930s.

      He probably dragged the Pacific War on a year longer with his sideshow through New Guinea and the Philippines, which was entirely to satisfy his egotistical “I shall return” crap.

      He let Hirohito off while letting undeserving Japanese generals hang for war crimes.

      He tried to start nuclear war with China and Russia.

      FDR should have left him in the Philippines, and Truman should have sacked him sooner. He did nothing right in WW II, and the only thing he got right ever was Inchon, which leads me to believe it was someone else’s idea he took credit for.

      1. MacArthur was an arrogant and wrong on nearly everything.

        MacArther was an insufferable blowhard and egotist that you don’t want anywhere near political office, but he’s he’s an insufferable blowhard and egotist that you want on your side in a fight.

        1. So he could prolong the war a year? No thanks. He had no positives on the battlefield or anywhere else.

          1. Ah, an armchair general who only seems to know the basics.

            Like it or not, MacArthur was one of the USA’s best generals of all time. He saved UN forces in Korea by conducting the Inchon landing. Just one of the many great tactical/strategic coups of his career.

      2. MacArthur, in whose mind Supreme Commander and Supreme Being were often confused…

        John Dower, Embracing Defeat

      3. “He let Hirohito off while letting undeserving Japanese generals hang for war crimes.”

        Gonna disagree; that decision was not his.

        1. MacArthur had a nice secret meeting with Hirohito before making the decision, and while he no doubt had to run it up the chain of command, his opinion carried more weight than anybody else’s, and FDR was dead and Truman a neophyte in such matters. To say it was not MacArthur’s decision is the kind of technically accurate and superbly wrong answer that pedants love.

          1. MacArthur never asked Hirohito for his opinions. Hirohito was there for one purpose, to keep the Japanese people in line which MacArthur implemented the Japanese constitution and de-militarized Japan.

            1. “Hirohito was there for one purpose, to keep the Japanese people in line which MacArthur implemented the Japanese constitution and de-militarized Japan.”

              Exactly.
              As early and the March ’45 fire-bombing, the crews were ordered to avoid the palace as Hirohito “was not (then) a liability and could become an asset”
              As he did.

        2. I should also say that I do not consider Hirohito a war criminal. I think he really was an old fashioned kind of Emperor that Japan had for so long, under the “care” of the shoguns or other military commanders, and that if he had stuck his neck out, he would have been replaced one way or the other. I believe this because even when he did finally stick out his neck and decide they had to surrender, some top generals and admirals refused to accept it and went on personal suicide missions. There were two recordings made of his surrender speech, and a bunch of junior offiers tried a palace coup to “protect” the emperor, which would have been unthinkable if he really was as highly esteemed and had as much power as people make out.

          But this should have been made public with proper public hearings and investigations. Instead, MacArthur decided to be the next Shogun and rule Japan through the Emperor. That is what I mean by letting Hirohito off.

          1. Hirohito was like all leaders, they are fine with things as long as you’re winning. Hirohito saw the writing on the wall in 1945, which is when he tried to end it. The Nationalist military leaders allowed Hirohito to lead them because Hirohito was on board with being Hitler’s ally and killing women and children. Hirohito allowed that to happen.

            Plus, Hirohito knew full well how devoted the Japanese people were to him and Japan and everyone (men, women and children) would die for him if he gave the order. Hirohito toured Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic attacks. He knew that bushido would mean shit when your roasted alive. Hirohito was schooled in the West and knew American technology would win sooner or later. It was time to surrender.

            1. “Hirohito saw the writing on the wall in 1945, which is when he tried to end it.”

              Tillman in “Whirlwind” and Frank in “Downfall” argue otherwise. Both make it clear, that according to the diaries of Kido, written after the war when there was ample incentive to change the story, Hirohito clung to the faith that Japan could find one more victory sufficient to force the allies to the bargaining table (this is what most lefties mean when they claim ‘Japan was *ready* to surrender!’). He never tried to end it until there was no alternative.
              Frank in particular makes it clear that the evidence shows there were two major drivers of Hirohito’s change of heart.
              One was reports from the Kempeitai that even with their brutal suppression, hunger was raising the specter of an overthrow of the Meiji.
              Also, and perhaps more importantly, he was concerned that Tokyo was next in line for a nuke, as it was. And HIS as was gonna be vaporized.
              IOWs, when push came to shove, he saved his own ass, and coincidentally, perhaps millions of Japanese.
              Slimy little bastard…

      4. “He probably dragged the Pacific War on a year longer with his sideshow through New Guinea and the Philippines, which was entirely to satisfy his egotistical “I shall return” crap.”

        Also disagree with everything here, except his shenanigans in the Philippines after the capture of Luzon. Any look at a map tells you the New Guinea coast had to be secure and we had to hold at least a major part of the Philippines.

        1. The original Plan Orange had a goal of relieving the Philippines; in that context, maybe New Guinea et al was useful, although I don’t think any of the war planners ever considered the Japanese advancing so far.

          But when the goal changed to stopping Japan itself, whether by invasion or blockade or bombing into submission, the Central Pacific route was all that mattered. Even Taiwan would have made more sense than the Philippines. Once the route between the Philippines and Japan was severed, there would have been no need to defeat the outer areas. They could have been left to wither on the vine as Truk and Rabaul were.

          New Guinea and the Philippines were a sideshow strictly to soothe MacArthur’s ego, or perhaps more importantly, to keep him active in the Pacific so he couldn’t pull a McClellan and contest the 1944 election.

          One argument against his uselessness is that the atomic bombs weren’t ready sooner, so without MacArthur’s sideshow, the US would have had to invade Japan a year sooner; thus MacArthur saved lives, inadvertently. But this ignores how much extra prep time the Japanese had to fortify Okinawa and Iwo Jima, and how many US lives would have been saved.

          1. I’m saying you’re hindsight is 20-20.
            Hardly any of the military knew about the nukes, that pathetic excuse for a CinC didn’t bother to inform Truman in spite of knowing there was no way he was going to complete his term; his corpse should have been tossed in a jail for criminal negligence.
            But up until the actual surrender, the plans for invasion were going forward; no way the Allies could invade Japan without New Guinea, the Philippines and Okinawa.
            No way could we leave the remains of their fleet, and aircraft on the Allies flank.

        2. The planned invasion of Japan home islands would have required a huge forward staging area. The Philippines would have provided that better than the numerous smaller islands like Wake, Iwo Jima, etc.

          It was also MacArthur’s ego. MacArthur would have stayed and died in the Philippines in 1942, if President FDR had let him. He was that kind of soldier but he was one of the few USA 5-star Generals ever. That shit can go to your head.

          He was kind of like the character Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump. He had a relative fight and die in every US war.

    3. MacArthur assumed that the USA could use any weapon in its arsenal to fight the Chinese peasants and he was wrong.

      If he could have used atomic weapons then the Chinese peasants would have been utterly destroyed. Not that Atomic weapons should have been used but the Chinese peasant army would not have had a chance.

      Lesson: Don’t fight wars unless you are prepared to use everything and win.

  9. This is a good review, but any fair history of Chosin should give a big nod to the efforts of Task Force Faith aka 31st Regimental Combat Team https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Task_Force_Faith

  10. There is no “Chosin” reservoir in Korea. The proper pronunciation is “Jang Jin”. (??)

    Yeah, I know it’s nit picking.

    1. What’s this “Korea” you mention? There’s no such country.

      1. That’s not a country, it’s a disease.

    2. Changjin, right?

  11. It’s interesting how much blame is put on MacArthur for the Chinese intervention.

    One documentary of the war I watched some years ago had MacArthur pushing to the 38th parallel (the agreed occupation line from 1945) and sending a request to Truman for instructions, indicating a willingness to sit and hold, having restored the status quo ante. Truman signaled back that the UN forces should push ahead and eliminate the Communist threat once and for all (or words to that effect).

    MacArthur took this to mean a push all the way to the Yalu R.

    I’m not sure exactly what the right version is given that ‘MacArthur dismissed the Chinese as a “peasant army”‘, the fact that he thought he needed Truman’s OK to push past the 38th parallel leaves me thinking that Truman has to bear some of the resposibility for prolong this “police action”.

    1. Truman was Commander-in-Chief so he deserves all the blame, as only he was MacArthur’s boss and MacArthur was commander of all UN forces.

      MacArthur dismissed the Chinese peasant army because he had just fought a 4 year war against real fighters, the Japanese. The Chinese was a peasant army but MacArthur had one-arm tied behind his back to fight the Korean War and he underestimated how many Chinese peasants would be in the horde and run to their deaths. There were 250k + Chinese troops in Korea in 1950.

  12. RE: How Political Extremism Sways Presidential Elections and Public Policy
    Models of American electoral behavior suggest that Clinton should lose, but worries about extremism may Trump

    Another needless war paid for in lives and tax dollars of the little people.
    But that’s a small price to pay to ensure our ruling elitist turds get rich off of war.

  13. Truman wouldn’t bomb the bridges across the Yalu River, letting the Chinese march right in.

    1. Democrats start most of the US wars. They cannot also be expected to win them.

  14. When the Chinese mortar shell exploded, it sent the American soldier hurtling through the air, his body savaged but his mind eerily dreamy as he fell back to earth, cataloging the carnage surrounding him. He took particular note of a severed limb casually askew on the ground. “Some poor guy lost a leg,” the soldier thought to himself sadly. When he tried to stand, the dream blinked back to reality: The poor guy without a leg was him.

    I can’t be the only one who LOL at that.

    There’s something cartoonishly hilarious about severed body parts generally, but the other part of the body’s observing it makes it even funnier. Still not as funny as Robin Williams in Munchausen, though.

    1. Until it happens to you. Not so funny then.

      Its hilarious that some American soldier gave a limb so you can crack jokes.

    2. Looking for attention?

      Or

      Might I say what a grimy little douche nozzle you must be.

    3. I laughed too. But it wasn’t the “that’s funny” kind of laugh.

    4. Sadly Robert, it is only runny when you read about it. Seeing it takes all the fun out.

  15. I think about the depths that China and North Korea regimes sunk to over the half century following and wish that MacArthur hadn’t been such a conceited git and gotten the necessary ordinance and area denial weaponry to the front lines before Chosin broke out.

  16. They called it “frozen Chosin.” The cold was as bad as the bullets.
    Fortunately, I wasn’t on the line. I had a “Radar O’Reilly” job.

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  18. No mention as to why it was America’s job to step into this hell I suppose. Or why were still there. Fuck Truman.

  19. This satellite photo of Korea at night…and the 38th parallel…shows quite powerfully what all the ruckus was about:

    http://journal.georgetown.edu/…..ommons.jpg

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