The Americans moved in slow motion, as if their boots were sticking to the frozen sludge of snow, ice, and mud. They had been dug in on this godforsaken North Korean hillside for less than forty-eight hours, yet when the 192 officers and enlisted men of Fox Company, Second Battalion, Seventh Regiment were ordered to fall in, gear up, and move out, their mood became almost wistful—or what passed for wistful in the United States Marines.
Just past sunrise, Dick Bonelli, a nineteen-year-old private first class, crawled from his foxhole, stomped some warmth into his swollen feet, and took a look at the new line replacements. Most of these men—boys, really—were reservists who had joined the company within the past couple of weeks. He knew few of their names. “Greenhorns,” he spat. “Don’t know how good they had it sitting up here fat and happy.”
The words came out in a voice so gravelly you could walk on it, all the more menacing because of Bonelli’s tough New York City accent.
The sky began to spit snow as he packed his kit and continued to gripe. Corporal Howard Koone, Bonelli’s twenty-year-old fire team leader from the Second Squad, Third Platoon, shot him a sideways glance. Fat and happy? Two men from the outfit had been wounded on a recon patrol the previous night. But Koone, a taciturn Muskogee Indian from southern Michigan, let it slide. Bonelli had been in a foul mood since Thanksgiving, when his bowels were roiled by the frozen turkey he had wolfed down outside the battalion mess.
At first the holiday feast served three days earlier had seemed a welcome respite from the greasy canned bacon, lumpy powdered milk, and gristly beef turdlets that the mess cooks seemed to specialize in. But at least a third of the outfit had picked up the trots from eating the ice-cold candied sweet potatoes, sausage stuffing, and young toms smothered in gravy—served hot, of course, but flash-frozen to their tin trays by the time the Marines took the meals back to foxholes that felt more like meat lockers. Elongated strips of frozen diarrhea now littered the trench latrine.
Bonelli threw his pack over his shoulders. “Off to kill more shambos in some other shithole for God, country, and Dugout Doug,” he said. A couple of guys choked out a laugh at his scornful reference to the Supreme Allied Commander, General Douglas MacArthur.
With his jet-black pompadour, high cheekbones, and (often broken) Roman nose, Bonelli could have been cast as one of the quick-draw artists stalking Gregory Peck in The Gunfighter, the hit movie being shown on a continuous loop in the holds of Navy troopships steaming from California to northeast Asia. This was apt. Cowboys versus outlaws was an overriding American theme in 1950, almost as fashionable as cowboys versus communists. It was the year when Alger Hiss was convicted and Klaus Fuchs was arrested for spying for the Soviet Union, and an obscure senator from Wisconsin named Joseph McCarthy propelled himself into the headlines by charging that the State Department employed more than two hundred communist agents. It was the year President Harry S. Truman authorized the construction of the first hydrogen bomb, and Germany had settled into separate countries. It was the year when Winston Churchill warned in the House of Commons of a “looming World War III,” and across the Atlantic more than 100,000 U.S. National Guardsmen and reservists were recalled to active duty. Half a decade after the hottest war in history, the world in 1950 was on the cusp of George Orwell’s “cold war.” Though Orwell had died ten months earlier, his phrase was destined to live on, not least in the craggy mountains of North Korea.
But Dick Bonelli and the enlisted men of Fox Company were not much given to geopolitical strategy. Theirs was a tactical clash, not even dignified (as they noticed) by an official declaration of war; it had been designated, instead, a United Nations “police action.” It was a dirty little conflict in a faraway Asian country the size of Florida, a “Hermit Kingdom” that most Americans couldn’t even find on a map. The fighting was on foot and deadly: hilltop to hilltop, ridgeline to ridgeline. Whatever small plateau of land the Americans controlled at any given moment constituted their total zone of influence, and was ceded again to the enemy once they had departed.
The deadly Browning automatic rifle—the BAR—was the weapon of choice for the strongest Marines, and one of Fox Company’s BAR men was Warren McClure, a young private first class from Missouri. Just that morning, he had been introduced to his new assistant, Roger Gonzales, a reservist and private first class from Los Angeles. Gonzales had been in Korea less than a week. “Forget the flag, patriotism, and the Reds,” McClure told him. “We never own any territory; we’re just renting. You’re out here for the fight and the adventure.” Gonzales hung on the old-timer’s every word. McClure was all of twenty-one.
Dick Bonelli wouldn’t have argued with McClure’s advice. He had been born in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen and raised in the Bronx, and fighting and adventures were a way of life for him as the son of an Italian bus driver growing up in an Irish neighborhood. He had even beaten up one of his high school social science teachers who had dared suggest that Bonelli was descended from an ape. His truculent attitude had caught up to him sixteen months earlier, when he was arrested for “borrowing” a stranger’s car and was offered two options by the Bronx district attorney: the armed forces or an indictment for grand larceny.
Bonelli was a tough kid, and the Marine Corps, which by 1950 had become America’s warrior elite, was a natural fit for him. The farm boys and cowhands of the Army’s nascent Ranger units could still remember their origins as lowly mule skinners, the Navy’s SEALs were still only envisioned by former World War II frogmen, and the Green Berets did not yet exist. But the Marines—there was an outfit.
Then, as now, it was the frontline Marine rifleman who preoccupied the strategists and tacticians at Quantico in Virginia, the acclaimed Warfighting Laboratory—specifically, how to infuse in every man in every rifle company the Corps’ basic doctrine that battle had nothing to do with strength of armaments or technology or any theoretical factors dreamed up by intellectuals. Instead, according to the Marine Corps Manual, warfare was a clash of opposing wills, “an extreme trial of moral and physical strength and stamina.” To its acolytes, the Marine Corps was no less than a secular religion—Jesuits with guns—grounded in a training regimen and an ethos that relied on a historical narrative of comradeship and brotherhood in arms stretching over 150 years. In short, if a man wanted to be part of America’s toughest lineup, he had best join the institution that had fought at the Halls of Montezuma and Tripoli, Belleau Wood and Guadalcanal, Tarawa and Iwo Jima. And Dick Bonelli certainly wanted to fight. He may have been pushed into the Corps by the law, but now, as he put it, he would “run through hell in a gasoline suit to find the gook party.”
From the beginning of the war, American soldiers had been approached by Korean children who pointed at them and said something that sounded like “me gook.” Actually, the Korean word gook means “country,” and the children’s use of the phrase mee-gook was probably a complimentary reference to the United States as a “beautiful country.” However, among the Americans the term gook soon took on a pejorative sense, meaning any Asian, especially any enemy Asian. Bonelli’s constant refrain since the landings at Inchon had been, “When do we get the gook party started?” It was now Fox Company’s catchphrase after every ambush and firefight: Hey, Bonelli, big enough party for you?
The men of the company had attracted their share of fighting. Admittedly, one month earlier they had endured a ten-day “sail to nowhere” around the Korean peninsula. They had boarded flat-bottomed “landing ships, tank” (LSTs) at Inchon on the west coast and had steamed to an unopposed landing near the mined seaport of Wonsan in the northeast. To their humiliation, they had been beaten there by a flight carrying Bob Hope and his USO dancing girls.
Yet this peaceful debarkation at Wonsan was the exception. Almost from the moment they waded ashore, the Marines of Fox Company encountered bloody, if sporadic, resistance along their two-hundred-mile slog north. The newspaper columnist Ambrose Bierce once noted that war was God’s way of teaching Americans geography, and now obscure dots on the North Korean map with names like Hungnam and Hamhung and Koto-ri were proving his prescience. The company had lost good men in each of these places, and nearly a month earlier, during a two-day firefight at the Sudong Gorge, the Seventh Regiment encountered its first Chinese. They’d beaten them decisively, but afterward Fox had buried another eight Marines.
Fox Rifle Company was only a tiny component of the First Marine Division, which was itself just part of a pincer movement organized by General MacArthur. From his headquarters seven hundred miles across the Sea of Japan in occupied Tokyo, MacArthur commanded two separate United Nations columns moving inexorably north toward Manchuria. The columns were separated by fifty-five miles of what MacArthur described as the “merciless wasteland” of North Korea’s mountains. In the western half of North Korea, near the Yellow Sea, the U.S. Eighth Army, augmented by South Korean, British, Australian, and Turkish troops—more than 120,000 combat soldiers in all—was overstretched in a thin line running from Seoul deep into the barren northern countryside.
Farther east on the Korean peninsula, MacArthur’s X Corps, 35,000 strong, was also marching north, with eventual plans to meet the Eighth Army somewhere along the Yalu River, the country’s northern border with China. Commanded by the Army’s Major General Edward M. Almond, X Corps was a fusion of two South Korean Army divisions; a small commando unit of British Royal Marines; and a regimental combat team, put together from the U.S. Army’s Seventh and Third Divisions. There was also the First Marine Division, the oldest, largest, and most decorated division in the Corps. The Marines considered General Almond as somewhat too adoring of MacArthur, and there was a tacit understanding among seasoned military observers both on the ground in Korea and back in Washington, D.C., that this fight belonged to the First Marine Division.
The First Marine Division was commanded by Major General Oliver Prince Smith and consisted of three infantry regiments—the First, the Fifth, and the Seventh—which were supported by the Eleventh, an artillery regiment. Each regiment consisted of about 3,500 men: three rifle battalions, each of approximately 1,000 men in three rifle companies of anywhere from 200 to 300 men. All told, General Smith had about 15,000 of his Marines along sixty-five miles of a rutted North Korean road that ran north to an enormous man-made lake the Americans called the Chosin Reservoir—a Japanese bastardization of the Korean name, Changjin—or the “frozen” Chosin.
MacArthur’s plan was to sweep North Korea free of the communist dictator Kim Il Sung’s fleeing North Korea People’s Army all the way to the Yalu River. He boasted to reporters that once his troops had mopped up the last stragglers and diehards of Kim’s army, the American boys would be home for Christmas. This would be a nice, short little war, wrapped up in five months. But even after the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, fell to the dogfaces of the Eighth Army, the Marines of Fox Company were hard-pressed to reconcile their own reality with MacArthur’s optimism.
As Fox’s crusty platoon sergeant Richard Danford had muttered after the brief, brutal scuffle at Sudong, “If these are the goddamn stragglers, don’t even show me the diehards.” Danford, at twenty-seven, had a lot of hard bark on him, and he had learned through experience to trust little that came out of any general’s mouth, particularly an Army general in Japan and away from the front line. He once heard a saying by a French politician, that war is too serious to be left to the generals. Now, there was a guy who knew what he was talking about. Danford figured that the Frenchman must have once served as an enlisted man.
Fox Company had caught only the ragged edges of the battle at Sudong. Other Marine companies took the brunt of the attacks by what were described as a few Chinese ‘diplomatic volunteers’ who had sneaked across the Yalu River to aid the Koreans in the campaign against Western imperialism. Nonetheless, every American involved in the fight had been staggered by the disregard for life the Chinese displayed. Tales spread among the regiment of how an American machine-gun emplacement could take out half an enemy infantry company, and the remaining half would still keep charging. Someone even suggested that the Corps put together a special manual for fighting the “drug-addled Oriental.” Moreover, paramount in every Marine’s mind that November was a frightening question: Where were the rest of the Reds, and when were they coming?
A month earlier, the foreign minister of the People’s Republic of China, Chou En-lai, had issued a public warning to the Americans to keep their distance from the Yalu. Mao Tse-tung, the Chinese leader, backed up his minister’s threats by massing several armies of the Chinese Communist Force (CCF) on the far side of the river. This actually further inflamed MacArthur’s atomic ego. After the landings at Inchon, in a meeting with President Truman on Wake Island in the northern Pacific, MacArthur brushed off Mao’s move as “diplomatic blackmail.”
“We are no longer fearful of their intervention,” he told Truman. “If the Chinese tried to get down to Pyongyang, there would be the greatest slaughter.”
Perhaps. But despite MacArthur’s insistence that only a few Chinese had voluntarily crossed the Yalu—barely enough to make up a division—there were rumors running through the American lines that several CCF armies had in fact begun infiltrating North Korea in mid-October. These reports were not lost on the anxious Marine general Oliver Smith. Smith, a cautious man, had never shared MacArthur’s expectation of a quick victory in North Korea—privately, he scoffed at the “home by Christmas baloney.” He was certain that his Marines would face strong Chinese resistance west of the Chosin Reservoir as they pushed toward the Yalu. In a private dispatch to the Marine Corps commandant, Clifton B. Cates, in Washington—a back-channel communication that enraged MacArthur when he learned of it—Smith pleaded for “someone in high authority who will make his mind up as to what is our goal.” Smith apologized to Cates for the “pessimistic” tone of his letter but explained that to obey MacArthur’s and Almond’s instructions to push on with the First Division’s flanks so exposed “was to simply get further out on a limb.”
“I believe a winter campaign in the mountains of North Korea is too much to ask of the American soldier or Marine,” Smith wrote, “and I doubt the feasibility of supplying troops in this area during the winter or providing for evacuation of sick and wounded. I feel you are entitled to know what our on-the-spot reaction is.”
Smith noted in his letter that about half his fighting men were young, unseasoned reservists—despite the fact that when the First Marine Division had been hastily deployed to northeast Asia all the division’s seventeen-year-olds were culled from the ranks to remain in Japan. Moreover, in many cases reservists with summer-camp experience—either one summer with seventy-two drills or two summers with thirty-six drills each—were deemed “combat ready” by dint of this training, despite the fact that they had never been to boot camp.
Before Sudong, no more than a handful of Marines in Fox Company had ever seen a Chinese soldier—and the others probably wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between a Chinese and a North Korean. Corporal Wayne Pickett, who at twenty-one was another of the “old men” in Fox, was, however, one of the few. He had served a tour in Shanghai as a seagoing Marine in 1947, and he told his buddies that their firefight at Sudong was a picnic compared with what he’d seen and heard at Shanghai. He added that they would sure as hell recognize a full force of “fighting Chinamen” when they met it. For one thing, the Chinese were taller, Pickett said, and a hell of a lot more robust and better armed than the human scarecrows still loyal to Kim Il Sung. Pickett also warned that the Chinese soldiers were veterans of Mao’s civil war, and their fighting ability was not to be taken lightly. “And the ROKs damn well know that,” he added.
As Pickett’s stories spread, a few Marines in Fox Company thought back to a scene they had witnessed a couple of days after Sudong. While moving north, the outfit had passed a Republic of Korea Army unit marching south with a single Chinese prisoner. The Americans didn’t have much faith in the fighting ability of most ROKs to begin with, but at the time more than a few Marines were shaken by the overt fear their South Korean allies exhibited at the mere presence of this shackled Shina-jen, or Chinesu, in their midst.
Nonetheless, by the time Fox Company lined up for its Thanksgiving dinner, they hadn’t seen a hostile Chinese in the four weeks since Sudong. The Chinese had simply disappeared, and a buoyant feeling was slowly returning to the company—a sense that Christmas day 1950 might indeed be celebrated in dining rooms and at kitchen tables in Duluth and San Antonio and Pittsburgh, in Los Angeles and Miami and the Bronx.