BY DAVID H. HACKWORTH
29 September 1999
"PREPARED OR UNPREPARED FOR WAR: THERE'S NO IN BETWEEN"
Looking back over a bunch of years, the Korean War was the defining moment in my life. I headed for Korea in 1950, going on age 20, and came back in 1953, going on 50. The things I saw there scarred me deeply. And ensuring they don't happen again has become my life's purpose.
I suspect I'm the only Doggy -- Marine slang for Army grunt -- who has a painting behind his desk of our Marines fighting their way out of the Chosin Reservoir. My Waterhouse painting perfectly captures the way it was during the winter of 1950.
The Chinese had crossed the Yalu River into Korea with the mission to destroy the Leathernecks strung out along a narrow mountain road near the Chosin Reservoir. Not only had the Chinese arrived in big numbers, but so had winter, bringing a merciless wind which drove the temperature down to 30 below zero. Weapons froze, and if fingers and toes weren't constantly moved, they turned black and fell off.
The word "horror" does not describe the conditions of the Chosin Reservoir campaign, nor does "above and beyond the call of duty" describe the magnificent performance of the 12,000 Marines who fought there.
By the end of November, eight Chinese divisions had surrounded the Marines, and the stage was set for one of the most hellacious fights in U.S. history.
A new book by Martin Russ, "Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign" (Fromm International), describes this battle. Russ, himself a Korean War Marine vet, depicts the war at its darkest moment, interweaving the political, strategic and tactical aspects of the Chosin operation with stirring first-person reporting.
The book relates an epic of bravery, endurance and military excellence on the part of the only American unit during the Korean War prepared to fight from the word go: the 1st Marine Division.
Vastly outnumbered, unsupported except for Naval air and totally isolated from the rest of the 8th Army, the Marines blasted their way out of a trap, opened a path to the sea, and brought out their wounded and dead and their equipment while inflicting horrific casualties on the enemy.
Russ provides a clear view of the big picture, with stinging criticism of Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the exposure of Army Gen. Edward Almond, correctly depicted as the kind of fumbling officer who's far more dangerous to his own troops than to the enemy.
One of Almond's units, the 7th Infantry Division, was made up of soft garrison troops totally unprepared for the kind of hard campaigning the Marines took in stride. Even though they were only peripherally involved in the Reservoir campaign, they fell apart like a cheap pair of boots in the rain. One infantry battalion was totally destroyed -- a scenario depressingly similar to what's still going down a half a century later, as far as comparisons between Army and Marine combat readiness and warrior ethic are concerned.
"Breakout" is a heartbreaker. I was left grieving for the dead and again admiring the Marines, as I did as a kid in early 1951, after they executed their miracle up north and pulled back on the line near my unit down south.
The suspenseful narrative is loaded with vivid characters: 1st Lt. Chew-Een Lee, a small but formidable Marine leader whose men feared him as much as they loved him; Henry Litvin, a "combat doc" with no military training whatsoever, patching up his boys as combat swirled around him, doing his job quietly and expertly while barely controlling his mounting panic; and Gen. Oliver P. Smith, the skipper of the 1st Marine Division, whose tactical wisdom and old-soldier savvy not only saved the division but killed 25,000 Chinese in 10 days while losing 700 Marines killed in action.
One wonders why the U.S. Army never seems to learn the obvious lessons taught by all wars, especially the lessons under the rubric: BE PREPARED.
In a recent interview, Russ remarked that he regrets his fallen comrades have been forgotten, or at least not remembered for their sacrifice. Amen. Few have been braver or paid a higher price.
Russ has written a great book. As we approach the 50th anniversary of that "Forgotten War," it's time Americans had a hard look at the lessons learned.
Lest we repeat them.