For Robert Whited and Jean White, there was never a question that they would serve in the military. And they never doubted the merit of the war they were sent to fight in Korea.
It was this unbending faith in their service as U.S. Marines that carried both men through America’s darkest hour in the Korean War: the harrowing retreat from North Korea’s Chosin Reservoir, where American forces were surrounded, vastly outnumbered and facing mass slaughter in brutally cold mountains near the Chinese border.
It wasn’t supposed to go that way. The Korean War began in June 1950, when communist-backed troops from the north of the recently divided nation stormed into the Western-aligned south. But by the end of that summer, a coalition of South Korean and United Nations forces, led by the United States and General Douglas MacArthur, had regained territory and made significant inroads into the north. Military leaders talked of ending the war by Christmas and reuniting the nation under democratic rule.
Then, Communist China entered the conflict at “frozen Chosin,” shifting the war’s momentum again. In a surprise attack, more than 100,000 Chinese troops trapped American forces in some of the harshest, most remote territory of the region—in temperatures that regularly fell to 25 degrees below zero. In a place where it was too frigid to dig foxholes without explosives and bulldozers, combatants piled frozen bodies in lieu of sandbags. Feet froze into blocks of ice inside boots. Even bullet wounds sometimes froze, keeping soldiers from bleeding out until they went inside heated tents.
Ultimately, some American units took the brunt of the attack, allowing others to escape on a hard-fought 70-mile march to the sea. Casualties were high. And victory, seemingly in reach, evaporated, leaving the war to slog on for several more years.
The Chosin Reservoir battle has become one of the most storied exploits of grit and sacrifice in Marine Corps history. In the words of Commanding General Oliver P. Smith: “Retreat, hell. We’re not retreating. We’re just advancing in another direction.”
This is the story of two Chosin veterans and their experiences on the frigid front lines.
Children of WWII, Hungry to Fight
Growing up during war years, neither White nor Whited could wait to enlist.
White, who spent his formative years in Idaho, Missouri and eastern Washington state, saw his father move from job to job as a bookkeeper to keep the family afloat during the Depression. As a high-school freshman in Spokane in 1941, White idealized young pilots training for war, who seemed ever-popular with the girls. By the time of his graduation and 18th birthday in 1945, he switched gears, signing up for the Marine Corps. He had barely finished his training at Camp Pendleton when Japan surrendered, ending World War II.
Robert Whited, two years White’s junior, also spent his childhood in the heartland, in Nebraska. Like many Midwesterners, his family moved to California where preparations for World War II were revitalizing the economy. With his father working in the Oakland shipyards and relatives fighting the war in Europe and the Pacific, Whited was chomping at the bit to enlist.
“I tried to sneak in. I was only 16, but big enough,” says Whited, who was working as a chaser in a bull ring in Wyoming when he made his first attempt. “I got as far as the Denver recruiting station when my parents caught up with me. And man, that was the end of the line. So back I went.”
Two years later Whited, at 18, he joined the Corps, which deployed him to the Marine Brigade in Guam after training in San Diego.
For the two men, the Marine Corps began as a job. “I was good at what I was doing, and I was making progress at it, so I thought it might make a good career,” White remembers. Neither paid attention to world events or followed the nation’s politics of building a new world order in the wake of WWII. Nor did they pay heed to the escalating events of the Cold War—like the 1945 division of Korea into two superpower-backed spheres of influence, separated at the 38 parallel. “We concentrated on what our job was,” Whited recalls. “If we had to go fight a war somewhere, we packed up and went.”
The Coalition Gains Ground
Neither man had given any thought to Korea when they learned that the U.S. was to lead a U.N. coalition in an effort to push back North Korea’s invasion of its southern sibling nation on June 25, 1950.
By early August, when Bob Whited arrived in Pusan, on the southeastern corner of the Korean peninsula, U.S. forces held no more than 10 percent of the Korean peninsula. Over the following weeks, the U.S. and its allies transformed Pusan from a ragtag refuge to holding a well-equipped point of departure for General MacArthur’s boldest and most successful strategic move in the Korean War. His plan? To land troops behind enemy lines at Inchon, a port city just west of Seoul, and retake the South Korean capital.
On September 15, 1950, Whited’s unit moved quickly after the Inchon landing. At Kimpo Airbase, his squadron found itself run through by North Koreans.
“We had no clue where we were. It was the dark of night. We got attacked… There were North Koreans…trying to flee from the onslaught from the South. It turned out they came right through the middle of our position.”
Both Whited and White remember heated house-to-house combat as they closed in on retaking Seoul. About 30 miles further north, White had a close call.
“My platoon leader saw signs of activity up on the hill. He told me to take my squad up this hill and we did. All of a sudden I saw something moving and I fired my weapon in the brush, and four North Korean soldiers jumped up with their hands in the air and surrendered. I am glad they did because my weapon jammed.”
The next day, his luck ran out. Pinned down by artillery fire, White got hit by shrapnel in the face and leg and was evacuated to a naval hospital in Japan.
Chinese Reinforcements Arrive, Stealthily
By the time White returned to his unit in early December, a lot had changed on the front lines. Together with U.N. allies and South Korean troops, U.S. forces had pressed northward through Korea, capturing the northern capital of Pyongyang on October 19 and approaching the Yalu River, the border to China, by the end of November.
Fearing an invasion, Communist China’s leader Mao Zedong deployed 200,000 soldiers of the People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) across the Yalu, 120,000 of whom headed toward the Chosin River Valley. With highly disciplined nighttime-only marches, these forces evaded detection and entered the war in early November. But their evasive maneuvers lured Marines and U.S. Army divisions into a valley around a storage lake called the Chosin Reservoir.
As Whited remembers, the 5 Marines Division was driving straight into a trap:
“When we were aboard trucks going up there, things were looking a little strange. You…could see these freshly dug bunkers along the sides of the hills… Turns out, the Chinese were there all along.”
Whited occupied a roadblock with his anti-tank unit between Hagaru-ri and Yudam-ni, the farthest western concentration of Marines in the valley. When Chinese forces launched a major assault there on the night of November 27th, all hell broke loose, he remembers.
“They came rushing up over the hills, they ran right through us. The first [Chinese fighter] that I hit, I hit him six times with my carbine, and the guy ran right past me. He went back around 20 yards before he fell. And I looked at my weapon and thought, ‘I need to change this.’”
Like many Marines and Infantrymen in the Korean War, Whited felt ill-equipped for the type of combat he faced there.
Whited and his anti-tank unit spent the coming days crawling up mountainsides to use their 75-millimeter recoilless “rifle”—a shoulder-mounted anti-tank weapon—to bust Chinese bunkers. This allowed the 5 and 7 Marines to move east and southward out of the valley. Far worse off were the 31 and 32 Infantry Regiments on the east side of the Reservoir, who suffered the brunt of Chinese attacks.
Moving Through 'Hellfire Valley'
Having just returned to action on December 2, White was now part of the effort to bring about 4,000 men northward from the southeastern tip of the reservoir to secure the exit of the 10,000 Marines and Army Infantry men trapped in the Chosin Reservoir valley. Altogether, between 20,000 and 25,000 U.N. troops were involved in the Chosin Reservoir battle. Sergeant White’s provisional company, though, was “pretty short-handed from casualties,” with only about 30 men, instead of the usual 160.
Making their way south toward an evacuation seaport required the Marines and Army Infantry to march some 70 miles down a winding, icy mountain road—through a stretch called Hellfire Valley and then down Funchilin Pass. The narrow road was littered with burnt-out cars, broken equipment, redundant gear and dead Chinese soldiers. “In Hellfire Valley,” Whited recalls, “we got into a big fire fight and it took us 24 hours before we finally were able to breach that and…link up with the rest of the division.”
Escaping Wholesale Slaughter, Trying Not to Freeze
The night of December 7th was the coldest night of that winter, at least by these Marines’ recollection. Under a clear sky, the troops huddled together at 40 below zero. One bright light above them inspired one of White’s friends to later write a country song about the “Star of Koto’ri.” Whited remembers, “That was it, our ray of hope. And luckily, the skies cleared and we were able to bring in airpower and everything.”
The air support did little to keep the men warm, however. Like everyone else, Jean White wore watertight winter boots that captured and stored the sweat of a day’s march. At night, however, these “sweat packs” ended up freezing around the men’s feet. For White, his frostbite ended his combat career, and he was carried out through the Funchilin Pass.
But things looked dire when that path out of Koto-Ri almost closed off for U.S. forces. On December 6, Chinese forces blew up a crucial bridge over a treacherous mountain gorge, cutting off the evacuation route. But air support saved the day, Whited recalls, by air-dropping two portable, prefab Bailey bridges via parachute: “Had it not been for that, well, I can only say that we would have been the guests of the Chinese for a long time.”
Instead, about two weeks later, the two veterans enjoyed Christmas in Pusan—with a hot turkey dinner.
A Steep Toll on Both Sides
Neither White nor Whited recalls much concern over the fact that their liberation of South Korea had escalated into a war against Communist China. “We had no clue,” remembers Whited, “as to really what was going on as far the Chinese involved in the war was concerned.” Nor did they think much about the dangers of war with China. “Well,” says White, “one enemy is as good as another, we take them as they come... If you got a target, shoot at it.”
The men on the ground were not the only ones unprepared for Chinese intervention. The headquarters of the UN war effort in Tokyo lacked the necessary intelligence to warn advancing troops. “In Tokyo, we wrote you guys off,” Whited’s friend and veteran of military intelligence confessed to him later. Whited and White not only feel let down by Tokyo, but they have little good to say about General MacArthur who, after Chosin, pressed to expand the war into and against China. MacArthur was ultimately relieved of his command by President Truman, who opposed the idea, remaining committed to keeping Korea a "limited war."
White and Whited also point to the American military’s lack of preparation for such a forbidding climate. To shoot their weapons, they had to take off their clumsy mittens. Weapons failed to fire, car batteries went dead and lubricant jelled up in weapons and in vehicles. The blood plasma the U.S. Armed Forces had discovered for first-aid purposes during World War II froze to solid blocks in the North Korean winter.
The losses at Chosin Reservoir had been painfully high for U.S. troops. The estimated 18,000 casualties included about 2,500 killed in action, 5,000 wounded and almost 8,000 who suffered from frostbite.
But there were troops worse off still—the Chinese. “Some of the Chinese prisoners that we got, they were happy to be with us,” remembers Whited. “I just absolutely felt sorry for them. Their feet were nothing but ice.”
“They had much lower morale than we did,” White says he concluded at the time. Hastily mobilized from Manchuria for deployment in Korea, they lacked any winter clothing or sufficient food. With similarly faulty information, Chinese military leadership made crucial mistakes that cost troops’ lives and gave U.S. forces time to retreat. Some 30,000 Chinese soldiers perished from cold alone, along with about 20,000 combat casualties.
Was Chosin Reservoir a defeat for American troops? Any map illustrating the troop movements would suggest yes. But White and Whited won’t have any of it. Both veterans are proud of the fact they saved their own lives and that of their comrades to fight another day.
“I am damn proud. We won!” says Whited of the war that ended, for all intents and purposes, in a stalemate.
White puts it slightly differently: “We never quit. We weren’t defeated.”
History Reads features the work of prominent authors and historians.