Changjin Reservoir Campaign
The battle for the Changjin (Chosin) Reservoir during the Korean War (1950– 1953) was followed by one of the most masterly withdrawals in military history. Following the landing of Major General Edward M. Almond’s X Corps of the United Nations Command (UNC) at Inchon on September 15, 1950, Lieutenant General Walton H. Walker’s Eighth Army broke out from the Pusan Perimeter. UNC forces recaptured Seoul and then invaded the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea). UNC commander General Douglas MacArthur ordered X Corps transferred by sea from Inchon on the west coast to the port of Wonsan on the east coast, while the Eighth Army remained in the west to move into northwestern Korea.
In the drive to the Yalu River that MacArthur expected would end the war, the Eighth Army and the reinforced X Corps in northeastern Korea would be separated by a 20–50 mile gap formed by the Taebaek Range. MacArthur assumed that this terrain would not allow Communist forces to conduct large-scale operations.X Corps arrived off Wonsan on October 19 but remained a week at sea until mines were cleared from the port, which meanwhile had been taken by Republic of Korea Army (ROKA, South Korean Army) forces by land. The delay in resuming the offensive permitted Korean People’s Army (KPA, North Korean Army) forces time to regroup and allowed the Chinese to bring troops into North Korea.
Almond’s plan for X Corps called for the ROKA I Corps to drive up the coast to the Siberian border of the Soviet Union. Major General David W. Barr’s U.S. 7th Division would advance to Hyesanjin. The 1st Marine Division would remain in the Wonsan-Hungnam area and protect X Corps’ rear area and lines of communication until relieved by the 3rd Infantry Division from Japan. The marines would then move to the Changjin Reservoir and then continue northward to the Manchurian border, depending on the situation.
On October 24 MacArthur ordered the offensive to begin. Victory seemed imminent. In eastern Korea the ROKA I Corps started the 26th Regiment of its 3rd Division up the road to the Changjin Reservoir without waiting for the 1st Marine Division. On October 25 about halfway to the reservoir, the 26th Regiment encountered Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (CPVA) troops and was halted by them and KPA tanks. As in northwestern Korea, the Chinese then suddenly halted operations and broke contact.
Despite the confirmation of Chinese troops, MacArthur ordered the advance to continue. On October 26 the ROKA Capital Division captured the industrial center of Chobongjin, only 65 miles from the Siberian border. To its west, elements of the U.S. 7th Division drove toward the Pujon Reservoir but on November 8 ran into CPVA troops on its southern end.The 17th Regiment of the 7th Division took Kapsan on November 14 and Hyesanjin on November 21.Leaving strong detachments to hold the mountain passes east of the reservoir leading to the areas to the rear of his division.
Barr consolidated his division in the Hyesanjin-Samsu-Kapsan area.In late October the 3rd Infantry Division arrived at Wonsan and set up a 100mile defensive perimeter from south of Wonsan to north of Hamhung. This action freed the 1st Marine Division, and on October 30 Almond ordered it to relieve the ROKA troops on the road to the Changjin Reservoir. The 60-mile road from Hamhung to Changjin climbs some 4,000 feet, and at the beginning of the steepest stretch of road, near Sudong, CPVA units set up a blocking position.
The 1st Marine Division, spearheaded by Colonel Homer Litzenberg’s 7th Regiment, set out on November 1. The next morning the 7th Regiment relieved the ROKA troops and promptly ran into the Chinese blocking position. The 7th Regiment then bivouacked for the night. Shortly after midnight on November 3 the CPVA 124th Division struck; by daylight it had secured a dominating position overlooking a bridge separating two of the three U.S. battalions. U.S. Marine Corps air support combined with determined ground action and artillery fire drove off the Chinese, killing about 700 and wounding many more. On November 4 the 7th Regiment took Sudong. On November 10 the regiment moved through the pass to Koto-ri, only seven miles from its objective of Hagaru-ri.
The weather now turned bitter cold. On the night of November 10–11, winds of 35 miles an hour and temperatures of 8 degrees below zero; several hundred men collapsed from cold over the next days. In these circumstances Litzenberg and 1st Marine Division commander Major General Oliver P. Smith were in no hurry to push on to Hagaru-ri. Smith was sufficiently concerned to communicate his doubts directly to U.S. Marine Corps commandant General Clifton P. Cates. Smith was especially worried about the nearly 100-mile gap between his own division (the left flank of X Corps) and the Eighth Army to the west. He therefore worked to improve and secure his supply line and to concentrate his division in the Hagaru-ri area before pushing on to the Yalu.
The marines took what remained of Hagaru-ri on November 14. That night temperatures dropped to 15 degrees below zero, and snow fell. The 7th Regiment took up defensive positions around Hagaru-ri, and work soon began on an airstrip there to supplement supply by road and to provide a means of evacuating sick and wounded. Engineers also improved the road for trucks. The 7th Marine Regiment took over responsibility for maintaining the supply line to Hamhung, while Colonel Lewis B. Puller’s 1st Marine Regiment in the vicinity of Hamhung protected the rear from harassment by Communist guerrillas.
Smith deliberately delayed compliance with X Corps’ orders to push on to the Yalu as quickly as possible. He did order the 7th Regiment to secure a blocking position at Yudam-ni, some 15 miles from Hagaru-ri over a high mountain pass. He also pushed his 5th Regiment up the east side of the reservoir toward the Manchurian border in accordance with orders. But these moves were deliberately slowed. Smith halted his 7th Regiment on the Hagaru-ri side of the pass until he could close his 1st Regiment into a supporting position. This caution undoubtedly saved his division from annihilation in the weeks to follow.
MacArthur was unconcerned by the Chinese. He believed that if they were to intervene in force, they would be destroyed by artillery fire and bombing. The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) was concerned but also reluctant to impose its will on its field commander. MacArthur did, however, agree to a recommendation by his operations staff for a shift in X Corps’ axis of attack to the northwest, thereby threatening the flank and rear of any Chinese units that might try to turn the east flank of the Eighth Army. X Corps was now to secure the reservoir and town of Changjin and then drive northwest with two divisions to cut the Chinese Manpojin–Kanggye–Mupyong-ni supply route. In the revised plan, the 1st Marine Division would attack along the Hagaru-ri–Mupyong-ni axis while the 7th Division protected its right flank by assigning a regimental combat team to take Changjin. Almond set the advance to begin on November 27.
MacArthur expected to crush what remained of Communist forces in a great pincer movement of the Eighth Army and X Corps, but within 24 hours of the resumption of the Eighth Army’s offensive on November 24 the situation changed dramatically. The next night the Chinese struck in force, devastating the three divisions of the ROKA II Corps. Eighteen Chinese divisions now smashed into Walker’s open right flank, forcing the Eighth Army’s withdrawal. This caught X Corps exposed and vulnerable; its southernmost element, the 7th Marine Regiment at Yudam-ni, was almost 90 miles northeast of the bulk of the Eighth Army near Kunu-ri.
The Chinese struck X Corps on November 27 and ultimately fed 12 divisions totaling 120,000 men of their Ninth Army Group commanded by General Song Shlun into the battle in northeastern Korea. MacArthur now agreed that Almond’s first task should be to extricate the 1st Marine Division and the two battalions of the 7th Division cut off in the Changjin Reservoir area. He ordered Almond to withdraw as far as necessary to prevent being flanked and to concentrate in the Hamhung-Hungnam area. The JCS in Washington, with President Harry S. Truman’s concurrence, approved this shift to the defensive.
With the bulk of the 7th Division well to the north, Almond placed under Smith’s command the 31st Regimental Combat Team, known as Task Force MacLean for its commander, Lieutenant Colonel Allan D. MacLean. It consisted of only two battalions and supporting artillery, all east of the reservoir. Following MacLean’s capture on November 29, Lieutenant Colonel Don C. Faith Jr. headed the task force, which became Task Force Faith.Almond ordered Smith to withdraw his 5th and 7th Marine regiments from Yudam-ni and to work with Barr to rescue Task Force Faith. The assembled units were then to fight their way out down the Hagaru-ri–Koto-ri supply route to Hungnam. ROKA divisions would also withdraw, while the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division covered the concentration of X Corps in the Yonpo–Hungnam–Hamhung area.
Generals Barr and Smith agreed that no relief force could reach the retreating marines and Task Force Faith until they gained Hagaru-ri, held by only a battalion of the 1st Marine Regiment and a mix of marine and army service troops. Smith feared that Task Force Faith could not hold out until he could concentrate at Hagaru-ri, and he ordered Faith to fight his way out, promising close air support. At the same time the 5th Marines would withdraw from Yudam-ni to Hagaru-ri.The 13-day retreat of nearly 80 miles began on December 1. The marines came out in an orderly single column, despite Chinese resistance and movement over narrow snow-covered roads and below-zero weather. They reached Hagaru-ri largely intact with minimum loss in equipment, bringing out with them some 1,500 casualties.
Weakened by two days of attacks by an entire CPVA division, Task Force Faith had a more difficult time. Before starting out, Faith ordered his artillery and excess supplies destroyed along with all but 22 vehicles, sufficient to carry his 600 wounded. Task Force Faith immediately encountered Chinese resistance, but what happened next was not anticipated. U.S. pilots, miscalculating their bomb runs, dropped napalm on the front of Faith’s column and scattered its leading companies. Faith got the column moving again but then was mortally wounded leading a flanking attack against a Chinese roadblock. With many of the trucks broken down, Faith’s successor, Major Robert E. Jones, had to make the difficult decision to leave behind many of his wounded.
That night the remnants reached Hudong-ni, halfway to Hagaru-ri, but the Chinese controlled the village, and efforts to dislodge them failed. Jones tried to run the vehicles with the wounded through, but the Chinese shot the drivers in the lead vehicles and raked the remainder with fire. The men who remained now scattered, most of them toward the frozen ice of the reservoir. A small task force of army troops, accompanied by tanks, tried to break through from Hagaru-ri to Hudong-ni without success. The Chinese did not make a strong effort to pursue the escaping troops across the ice, and they did aid the wounded in Hudong-ni. Still, of 2,500 men in Task Force Faith, only slightly more than 1,000 made it to Hagaru-ri, and only 385 of these were fit to fight. Reequipped, these latter joined other army units there in a provisional battalion. The airstrip at Hagaru-ri proved vital to operations, enabling the evacuation of 4,316 casualties and flying in 537 replacements.
To the south, attempts to open the road between the 1st Marine Regiment’s base at Koto-ri and Hagaru-ri suffered a serious setback. The 41st Commando Battalion of the British Royal Marines, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Douglas S. Drysdale, had recently arrived in Korea and had yet to see combat. Ordered to join the U.S. marines, it received 30 tanks and a company of the U.S. Army’s 31st Infantry Regiment. Known as Task Force Drysdale, this 900-man force set out for Hagaru-ri, ordered to get there “at all costs.” On November 29 it encountered Chinese troops who were well dug in in what came to be known as Hell Fire Valley. About 300 were captured, and many more were wounded, including Drysdale. Only 300 men made it to Hagaru-ri. The remaining survivors fell back on Koto-ri. The UNC controlled the air, however, and Chinese ground formations were devastated in air strikes.
The next stage of the withdrawal, to Koto-ri, began on December 6. When correspondents met General Smith at Hagaru-ri and queried him about the withdrawal, he told them, “Gentlemen, we are not retreating. We are merely advancing in another direction.” It took a day and a half to cover 11 miles through snow under incessant Chinese attack. Smith again regrouped his forces for the 10 additional miles to Chinhung-ni, now held by units of the 3rd Division, freeing up the 1st Battalion of the 1st Marine Regiment and enabling it to strike north and aid the marine column coming from Koto-ri.
On December 8 a destroyed bridge over the gorge in Hwangchoryong Pass blocked the marines. Special prefabricated bridge-building equipment was dropped by parachute into Koto-ri and then laid across the gorge. On December 9 the advance resumed. On the afternoon of December 11 the last elements of Smith’s command passed through the 3rd Infantry Division perimeter around the Hamhung-Hungnam area.
This withdrawal must be considered one of the most masterly operations of its kind in the history of war. During October 26–December 11, 1950, the 1st Marine Division suffered 704 killed in action or died of wounds, 187 missing, and 3,489 wounded, for a total of 4,380 battle casualties. In addition, there were 6,000 nonbattle casualties, most from frostbite. Marines remember the withdrawal with pride, while the Chinese remember it with the admission that they now understand the impact of modern automatic weapons, artillery, and airpower. The campaign in northeastern Korea did tie down 12 Chinese divisions, which otherwise could have been utilized against the Eighth Army.
The UNC now evacuated northeastern Korea. Covered by substantial naval air assets, this had already begun when the marines reached Hungnam. Some 3,600 men, 200 vehicles, and 1,300 tons of cargo came out by air, while 105,000 U.S. and ROKA troops, 350,000 tons of cargo, and 17,500 vehicles were lifted off by sea, along with some 98,000 Korean refugees who did not want to remain. The evacuation involved more than 100 ships. When it was completed on Christmas Eve, engineers blew up the Hungnam waterfront with explosive charges. North Korea, half empty and devastated by the fighting, was left to the Communists.
Appleman, Roy E. East of Chosin: Entrapment and Breakout in Korea. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1987.
Hopkins, William B. One Bugle, No Drums: The Marines at Chosin Reservoir. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 1986.
Meid, Pat, and James M. Yingling. U.S. Marine Operations in Korea, 1950–1953: Operations in West Korea. Washington, DC: U.S. Marine Corps Historical Branch, 1972.
Montross, Lynn, and Nicholas A. Canzona. U.S. Marine Operations in Korea, 1950–1953, Vol. 3, The Chosin Reservoir Campaign. Washington, DC: U.S. Marine Corps Historical Branch, 1957.
Russ, Martin. The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950. New York: Fromm International, 1999.