Thursday, April 21, 2011

The chosen few at the frozen Chosin

Pinned down by sniper fire during the day and facing mass attacks at night, the 246 Marines and Navy Corpsmen of Fox Company (2/7, 1st Marine Div) held open a vital choke point controlling the only road from the Chosin Reservoir to the Marine base camp at Hagaru during the brutally cold December of 1950.  By defending the Toktong Pass against a vastly superior Chinese force, the men of Fox Company made it possible for the three regiments of roughly 8,000 Marines at Yadum-ni, on the west side of the reservoir, to perform a successful retrograde to Hagaru, while under heavy attack from multiple Chinese divisions. 

With the aid of artillery firing from Hagaru and close air support provided by Marine and allied aircraft, the men of Fox Company were able to hold the hill overlooking the dirt and gravel road for five-days against the Chinses 59th Division.  Bob Drury and Tom Clavin do a masterful job of telling this small unit’s story in The Last Stand of Fox Company.

At negative 35-degrees, the weather was just as deadly as the bullets and grenades flying around the hill – aptly named Fox Hill – as the Marines suffered from frostbite and exposure.  The ground was frozen solid, making it impossible to dig-in, forcing the men to use the frozen bodies of the dead to build parapets as protection against enemy fire; weapons became inoperable as the firing pins and other moving parts froze solid; often in whiteout conditions, snow blizzards reduced visibility to just a few yards.  Yet the warriors overcame all these obstacles knowing that they alone were keeping the road and pass open to allow their fellow Marines a chance at escape.

The authors do a masterful job painting a mental picture of what the Marines endured.  Through interviewing survivors of the engagement and researching historical documents Drury and Clavin bring into perspective the numbing cold, the searing pain of bullets piercing flesh, the throbbing of frozen feet, and the mental anguish of a near hopeless situation.  They also show what makes a Marine a Marine and that the adage “uncommon valor was a common virtue” again held true for the Corps. 

I highly recommend this book as a look into the isolated hilltop defense of Toktong Pass, but must recommend you read Breakout by Martin Russ as the definitive source of the overall Chosin Campaign, of the Korean War, and the retreat to the port of Hungnam.