NOVEMBER 27, 1950
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 quickdraw 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 flatbottomed "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 firelight 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 twentyseven, 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 general, 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.
During the first six months of the Korean War, its ebb and flow had pushed Fox Company to a remote, windswept tableland 210 miles north of the 38th Parallel, which had been established as the border between the two Koreas after World War II. The locals called it Kaema-kowon, the roof of the Korean peninsula.
In the sixteenth century, the first European missionaries and traders painted a romantic portrait of this sawtooth terrain, likening it to a sea in a heavy gale. For weeks, Fox had been traversing this knotted ground, up one desolate mountain, down the next, hiking cold and wet toward the Yalu-and these exhausted men did not compose any lyrical odes to the place. Some Marines in Fox Company had come to consider the situation a cruel game, and with nothing to lose they began playing it themselves. At dusk they would search the compass points and pick out the highest, coldest-looking hills. Then they would wager on which one they would be sent to hold for the night.
Now, on the morning of November 27, 1950, they were on the move again. The knoll Fox was abandoning after Thanksgiving rose west of the village of Hagaru-ri, which to the Americans resembled nothing so much as an old Klondike mining camp with its dilapidated houses packed close around newly erected canvas tents. The village was situated atop a muddy, triangular plateau whose southern terminus was a broad field crammed with more rows of American tents, supply trains, and fuel and ammunition dumps. On the edge of this clearing Marine engineers operated five Caterpillar tractors day and night under fixed floodlights, chugging to and fro, carving a crude airstrip out of the frozen earth. Scuttlebutt had it inside Hagaru-ri's defensive perimeter that Fox was preparing to move up a winding, twelve-foot-wide dirt road the Americans had designated Main Service Road NK72, or simply the MSR.
Most of the men believed they would be traveling the fourteen miles north to another tiny village, Yudam-ni, which was in a floodplain between two rivers and the northwestern tip of the Chosin Reservoir. There they assumed they would rejoin the bulk of their Seventh Regiment and its commanding officer, Colonel Homer Litzenberg Jr., a stubborn, impatient Dutchman known as "Blitzen Litzen." Litzenberg's regiment was part of a force of 8,400 thatalong with most of Colonel Raymond Murray's Fifth Regiment and three artillery battalions of the Eleventh Regiment-was the tip of X Corps' spear. Eight miles to the east, across the reservoir, 2,550 GIs who were part of two Army battalions were also positioned to storm north, locked and loaded, anticipating MacArthur's order to commence the final push to the Yalu.
But as Fox Company assembled outside the Battalion Command Post in Hagaru-ri, word filtered down that they were headed not to the reservoir, but instead to Toktong Pass-seven miles north, midway between Hagaru-ri and Yudam-ni. There they were to dig in along one of the lower ridgelines of the highest mountain in the area, the 5,454-foot Toktong-san, which overlooked the MSR where it cut through the pass. It was the only road into or out of the Chosin.
This order to essentially babysit at a bottleneck did not sit well with Fox Company. In fact, the Marines could not comprehend it. The North Koreans had been on the run for ten weeks, and by this stage in the war even Hagaru-ri was considered a safe enough rear area to have its own PX, even if its stock was limited to Tootsie Rolls and shoe polish. Moreover, Marines did not retreat, so the very idea that Litzenberg's and Murray's rear supply route needed guarding was ludicrous. The enlisted men of Fox would have much preferred to push on farther north to Yudam-ni, lest they cede bragging rights to some undeserving outfit. Baker Company of the regiment's First Battalion was already boasting about the carpet of corpses it had left in the hilltops, gorges, and draws around Sudong. This was more than nettlesome, particularly because in Fox's opinion Baker Company wouldn't know its ass from a hole in the ground.
Naturally, the Marines blamed this strange turn of events-as they blamed most things-on MacArthur's inconceivable decision to place X Corps under the overall command of an Army general: Almond. Rivalries among the Marines themselves may have been spirited, if good natured. By contrast, there was no love lost at all between the Corps and the pogue doggies-a pejorative slang term Marines originally had applied to anyone with a soft, rear-area job but which by now was used to describe any dogface in the Army, a branch of the service that the jarheads deemed so thick with deadwood it should have been declared a fire hazard. This was another reason for Fox Company to add Almond's name to their already long shit list.
The gouged, dome-topped Toktong-san, eroded by time and Korea's bitter winters, is a southeastern spur of the ancient Taebaek mountain range. This stunted cordillera hugs the Sea of Japan from the Chinese border well into South Korea, and it reminded some of the Americans of the Appalachian range. The young Marine recruits from the East Coast on their way to Camp Pendleton in California had been particularly impressed when the troop trains had climbed the Appalachians-that is, until they glimpsed the Rockies from the flat plains of Colorado. After they crossed the Rockies, the puny Appalachians-like the scrubby piles of granite they gazed up at now in North Korea-had diminished in their memories. Compared with the Rockies, the Taebaeks seemed more hills than mountains. This impression changed when they had to climb one.
Recruiting posters showed the typical leatherneck as tall, squarejawed, powerful, and mature, but the majority of the "men" of Fox were baby-faced "boots" who had only recently started to shave. On leave they preferred malt shops to gin mills, and the opposite sex came in three flavors: Mom, Sis, and an exotic type that existed only to be lied about or ogled. Their train trips from towns and cities across the United States to Pendleton, near their debarkation point to Japan, had for most of them been their first time away from home. Now, in Korea, with their gaunt profiles reflecting the rigors of constant battle marches, they suggested not so much a picture of American samurai as a scraggly crew of teenage pirates.
The onset of the North Korean winter had been harsh; they were frozen and exhausted when it snowed, and they were frozen and exhausted when it didn't snow. An unremitting wet gale blew constantly-the Marines took to calling it the "Siberian Ex- press"-and glazed every rock with ice. Their knees, knuckles, and elbows were covered with bloody scabs from continually slipping on treacherous slopes, and their feet and hands were always numb. Hours during the day were hardly noted, as they set their body clocks only by daylight and darkness. And aside from a vague awareness that Thanksgiving had just passed and Christmas was coming, many had no idea what date it was, much less what day of the week.
Moreover, because canteen water had to be thawed over campfires, stateside notions of hygiene had been abandoned from almost the moment they had set foot on Korean soil. A twig often had to do for a toothbrush, and they could barely lay their heads down for the night in an abandoned hootch without waking up with a scalpful of lice. Most had given up trying to wipe their runny noses with anything other than the sleeves of their filthy uniforms, and anyone who grew a mustache soon had a revolting mass of frozen mucus layered across his upper lip.
They bitched and groused, but they never shirked a command, remaining true to the Latin motto above the eagle on the Marine emblem: Semper Fidelis, "always faithful." And so, just past noon, while Fox Company mustered in the village of Hagaru-ri, Lieutenant Colonel Randolph Lockwood, commanding officer of the Seventh Regiment's Second Battalion, summoned his subordinate Captain William Edward Barber, Fox Company's new CO, for a trip in the company Jeep to scout Toktong Pass.
Barber was a decorated World War II veteran who had assumed command of Fox three weeks earlier at Koto-ri, after his predecessor, Captain Zorn, was transferred to Division headquarters. Barber was a tall thirty-year-old with a broad, nondescript face, an odd round nose, and thinning brown hair. In mufti he might have been taken for an actuary rather than a commander of a Marine rifle company, and few encountering him could have guessed that he'd been a star college baseball and basketball player. Yet despite his unremarkable exterior-his physical appearance reminded a few men in Fox Company of a younger version of the irascible banker Henry F. Potter in the movie It's a Wonderful Life-the captain carried himself with the demeanor and bearing of a hussar. This may have been a result of the long bareback rides he had taken as a child through snow-packed Appalachian hollows when he ran errands on the family's one plow horse during winters.
Barber had grown up in the rural town of Dehart, Kentucky, near the Ohio River, in a homestead hit hard by the Depression. His father, Woodrow, was a subsistence farmer and sometime carpenter; his mother, Mabel, grew vegetables in a small garden behind their house. Young Billy, the eighth of ten children, was a shy, sensitive child who devoured every book he could borrow from the local library, particularly volumes on history and current events.
He was a precocious student, the valedictorian of his high school class when he graduated at age fifteen, and early on he determined that his four brothers and five sisters needed his assistance, both educationally and financially. He always managed to find time to take his siblings aside and help them with their reading and writ ing, and even when he moved on to the nearby Morehead State Teachers College he relished returning on school breaks to join his father and brothers plowing and harvesting the family's small cornfield. When the Barbers killed a hog for special occasions, such as Thanksgiving or Christmas, it was always Billy who volunteered to dress the carcass.
In the late 1930s, Barber sensed a world war approaching, and while studying at Morehead State he joined the Marine reservespointedly without informing his parents, who considered the military as a second-class career for such a smart young man and would have preferred him to become an educator. In 1940, following his sophomore year, he further distressed his mother and father by quitting college and shipping out to boot camp at the Marine Corps' recruiting depot on Parris Island in South Carolina. He was generous to a fault, and his brothers and sisters looked forward to his numerous letters, as he never forgot to include a few dollarsoften doubling the amount when he sent birthday cards. When he returned home on leaves, he made sure to bring small mementos from his travels for everyone.
Barber was what the Marines called a "mustang," an enlisted man promoted to officer whose leadership skills had been honed in the ranks as opposed to the saddle. He proved to be a crack shot, and after boot camp he was retained at Parris Island as a marksmanship instructor. A year later, in 1941, feeling confined on the tiny basethe Marine Corps was only a small force of 18,000 men when he enlisted-he volunteered for the Corps' new paratroop service. He proved so adept at falling from airplanes that he was again ordered to stay on as an instructor, now at the Naval Air Station in Lakewood, New Jersey. From early on his superiors recognized something special in his character and marked him as a candidate for promotion.
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Barber was transferred to the Marines' First Parachute Regiment in San Diego. It was there, at a USO canteen, that he met and fell in love with his future wife, lone. They were married in October 1942, the same year he was promoted to sergeant. Officer candidate school soon followed, and in February 1945, having received his commission, he landed with the Fifth Marines on Iwo Jima as a twenty-five-year-old lieutenant leading a rifle platoon. Through the awful attrition of the campaign, he wound up a company commander. On Iwo he was shot in the hand and was briefly evacuated when he began bleeding from both ears. He was diagnosed with a severe concussion, but he recovered and returned to the atoll, where he rescued two wounded Marines pinned down by enemy fire. For this he added the Silver Star for Gallantry to his Purple Heart.
He remained a company commander during the postwar occupation of Japan, and in early 1946 he was posted to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina as a recruiting officer. Then he was promoted to captain and transferred to Altoona, Pennsylvania. He was living at the Marine barracks there, training reservists, when on June 25, 1950, Kim 11 Sung's 90,000-man army, led by 150 Soviet-made tanks, swarmed across the 38th Parallel. Kim's forces routed the South Koreans and their American protectors and captured the capital of Seoul in three days. Halfway around the world, Bill Barber followed early news accounts of the war with a mixture of fascination, disgust, and sadness.
His fascination stemmed from a Marine officer's professional appreciation of the fighting spirit of Kim's ill-equipped but courageous and tenacious forces. The Koreans, geographically isolated, hemmed in by Russians, Mongols, and Japanese, had for centuries accepted their role as "shrimps among whales." It had actually made them tougher. They reminded Barber of the imperial Japanese forces he had fought in the Pacific. On the other hand, he was disgusted by the disorganized retreat of the unprepared U.S. Army down the peninsula. And he was saddened by the unusually high number of Marine company commanders, most of them fellow veterans of World War II, who were killed as the North Korea People's Army swiftly occupied 95 percent of the country.
By the time of MacArthur's audacious counterattack-the amphibious landing at Inchon, just southwest of Seoul, on September 15-Barber had received his orders to report to the front. He was en route as Fox Company embarked on the long sail around the peninsula and landed at Wonsan. He caught up with them just south of the secured village of Koto-ri.
Barber did not endear himself to Fox's careworn veterans when he arrived from Japan. His uniform was starched and spotless; even his dungarees were pressed; and one Marine noted that "he was all dressed up like a well-kept grave." But he believed that a Marine's appearance should reflect combat-readiness, and he was appalled at his new outfit's slovenly demeanor; he told several fellow officers that they reminded him of one of Pancho Villa's bandit gangs. He introduced himself by directing his platoon leaders to order all the Marines in Fox to field-shave with cold water, clean their filthy weapons, and prepare for a conditioning hike at 0600 the next morning. He also spread word to knock off the fairy-tale talk about being home for Christmas.
"Just what we need," said the veteran private first class Graydon Davis, "some candy-ass captain who wants us to troop and stomp. What in hell is this war coming to?"
Nor did Barber's official introductory remarks the next morning before the hike go over well. He told his assembled company that there was a lot of war left to fight, and Fox was damn well going to be prepared to fight it. He spoke in a tangy drawl. "I may not know about strategy," he said, "but I know a lot about tactics. And frankly, I'm a hell of a good infantry officer."
As the "Old Man's" coming-aboard speech ended and the assembly broke up, Dick Bonelli remarked to a group of buddies, "Somebody ought to tell this guy that Marines are more show-me than tell-me."
Barber overheard him but said nothing. He liked grumbling Marines. The more they bitched, the harder they fought. Plus, as an enlisted man he'd been a griper himself. Fox would learn soon enough that behind the new CO's prickly and fastidious exterior was a saltiness earned on the black sand beaches of the South Pacific.
Although Barber had only just met his superior Lieutenant Colonel Randolph Lockwood, he already admired Lockwood's moxie. The story of how the pudgy, pink-cheeked, pipe-smoking officer had held his own during his first meeting with "Blitzen Litzen" three weeks earlier had circulated swiftly throughout the Seventh Regiment. When Lockwood, a genial graduate of the Naval Academy and Harvard, arrived at Koto-ri to assume command of the Second Battalion, Litzenberg had taken in his preppy demeanor with a thunderous stare from his big coal eyes.
"I see you're overweight," Litzenberg said by way of introduction.
"Nothing like a mountain campaign to get a man into shape," Lockwood replied. His voice was a little too cheerful.
"I'm a hard taskmaster," Litzenberg said, glaring at him.
Lockwood smiled. "That's what I've heard, Colonel."
No one else dared talk to Litzenberg like this, and the exchange immediately elevated Lockwood's status among Litzenberg's underlings, if not with the colonel himself.
Now, as Barber and Lockwood's Jeep ascended the road to Toktong Pass, the weak sun burned the haze off mountain meadows dotted with thatched-roof huts and empty oxcarts standing nearby. This was a sudden new world-big, muscular, and edged at its margins by brooding storm clouds. It was not lost on either Marine that mountain warfare was alien territory for an amphibious force trained and accustomed to fighting on beaches. Both men had received sketchy reports of enemy contact earlier that day at the Chosin, probably involving Chinese units that had forded the Yalu, and this gave their seven-mile drive an uneasy tone.
In fact, as they snaked farther away from Hagaru-ri and up the steep slopes toward Toktong-san, two things struck them with foreboding. The first was their topographical maps. These were outdated, adapted from old Japanese documents, and nothing on the charts seemed to match the contours of the terrain. Peaks loomed high on the wrong side of the road, valleys opened where there should have been hills, and snow-covered foot trails meandered next to streams-frozen solid and marbled with blue ice-that should not have existed. More ominous was the absence of refugees. Since the landings at Wonsan the Americans had encountered emaciated North Korean civilians on nearly every road and donkey path. But this morning the MSR was deserted even by the small groups of bedraggled boys who usually begged for candy and chewing gum.
Barber had done his homework, which included reading a translated copy of Military Lessons, the propaganda tract the communist high command had disseminated among its troops. This pamphlet had been found in the pocket of a dead Chinese NCO at Sudong. After grudgingly noting the tactical superiority of U.S. tanks, planes, and artillery, it declared, "Their infantry is weak. These men are afraid to die, and will neither press home a bold attack nor defend to the death. If their source of supply is cut, their fighting suffers, and if you interdict their rear, they will withdraw."
Barber had also scanned intelligence files prepared by the South Korean army interpreters at HQ in Hagaru-ri. Several local farmers had been interviewed, and they reported that the area's abundant game had lately been spooked out of the narrow mountain vales around the Toktong Pass. It was as if something was moving around in there. He suspected it was a shitload of Reds.
Upon reaching the switchback where the MSR looped east to west at the apex of the pass, Barber and Lockwood dismounted before a steep, broad eminence on the north side of the road and began climbing in the shadow of Toktong-san. They were at 4,850 feet when they reached the eighty-yard-wide crest of the promontory, a shoulder of the big mountain. The effect of being cut off from the sea by mountains to the west, east, and southeast had extraordinary consequences. The raw, wet wind screaming out of the Arctic and across the Manchurian plain, and then funneling through the pass, was the fiercest either man had ever encountered. The area around the Chosin Reservoir was said to be the coldest place in Korea, and the fallow terrain was the only ground in the country where rice could not be grown. The local peasants knew to expect an average of sixteen to twenty weeks each winter when the average temperature never rose above zero degrees Fahrenheit, and Barber could not help wondering how drastically this cold would reduce his company's combat efficiency.
The hill they stood on loomed above two narrow valleys and occupied an area about the size of three football fields. At the top of the hill, on the northwest quadrant, the ground extended to form a narrow saddle-seventy-five yards wide and humped like a whale's back. This land bridge, which ran three hundred yards, fell away sharply on both sides and ended at a large rocky knoll. Above and beyond the rocky knoll a string of higher, serrated rocky ridges ran another one-third mile like a gleaming white staircase up the looming bulk of Toktong-san.
Except for the narrow saddle, the hill was well separated from the other heights in all directions by slender, snow-covered valleys. The basins to the east and west stretched a bit over two hundred yards across, with the western depression bisected by a deep ravine running lengthwise up to the edge of the saddle. The wider southern vale-level bottom ground with brown tufts of alpine grass dotting the snow like miniature haystacks-ran nearly three hundred yards. These valleys separated the hill from three similar, treeskirted knolls to the east, west, and south.
Delineating the base of the hill, adjacent to the road, was a sheer cut bank, ten feet high by forty feet long, where the MSR had been chiseled out of the heights eighteen years earlier during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Past this steep wall, neat rows of fir trees, four to five inches thick at the trunk and perhaps forty feet tall, climbed two-thirds of the way up the slope. These immature dwarf pines, also planted by the Japanese as part of an emergency reforestation program, were spaced eight to ten feet apart. Above the tree line the crest of the hill sported small patches of gnarled brush that pushed through the hard-packed, knee-deep snow. The undulating hilltop was also broken by countless rocks and colossal boulders. Two of the largest boulders-a pair of tall, flat-faced rocks, eight feet high by six feet across-dominated the northwest corner of the peak at the beginning of the saddle. They resembled giant dominoes.
The hill's main, central ridgeline rose to 225 yards above the road at its northeast corner, and dipped to 175 yards high at the northwest peak, where the saddle began. A secondary, catty-corner ridgeline bisected the hill from the lower, southwest corner and petered out at the tree line. The entire hill was pocked and pleated with depressions, erosion folds, and a few old bivouac bunkers and foxholes that had been rocketed and napalmed by the Americans as Litzenberg had ascended the pass on his march to Yudam-ni. A shallow gully, twenty yards wide, ran straight up the middle of the hill from the road to just beyond the trees. In the lower, southeast corner, below the fir tree plantation, a freshwater spring flowed out of the mountains despite the freezing temperature.
Near the spring, two abandoned huts had been built several yards back from the road. These structures were about ten feet high, with dirt floors, low-pitched roofs, and doorless openings at either end. The larger hut, which ran parallel to the MSR, was perhaps twelve by twenty feet and was divided into two sections. It looked as if it had been a subsistence farmhouse-half of it seemed to be a kitchen. The slightly smaller hut, sitting at a right angle about ten yards up the hill behind the main house, retained a strong odor of farm animals and had a large grain storage bin at its south end, closest to the main building.
As Barber and Lockwood climbed back down to their Jeep, the new commanding officer of Fox Company was already conceptualizing his defensive perimeter. His Marines, Barber told Lockwood, would defend Toktong Pass from this hill. He would align his men up the gentler eastern grade, across the crest, and down the steep western slope in the general shape of an inverted horseshoe, the "reverse U" position taught at Quantico. The road would "close" the two piers of the horseshoe, with the breadth of the oval perhaps 155 yards wide from east to west.
After Lockwood accepted his plan, Barber asked to remain at the pass while Lockwood returned to Hagaru-ri. Lockwood reluctantly agreed and told him to expect the arrival of his company within the hour.
Back in the village, however, Lockwood could find no vehicles to transport Fox Company up the MSR. At 2 p.m. word passed among the men that they would be hiking the seven miles up the icy, muddy, glorified goat trail. One Marine noted in his journal, "Now we gripe openly and vociferously."
The footsore Marines of Fox Company were not happy to be lugging more than sixty pounds each of weapons, ammo, and gear up the road. In addition to the standard-issue Garland MI-an eight-shot, clip-fed semiautomatic rifle that weighed about ten pounds-they carried carbines, .45-caliber sidearms, light machine guns, mortar barrel tubes and plates, bazookas, entrenching tools, boxes and bandoliers of ammunition, cartons of C rations, satchels of grenades, heavy down sleeping bags, command post and medical tents, medical supplies, a radio and field phones, half-tent covers, and personal items such as books, extra socks, souvenirs, and a bathroom kit. Some had .38-caliber pistols, gifts sent from home, in shoulder holsters under their armpits.
They were also swathed in bulky layers of winter clothing. Each man wore a pair of "windproof " dungarees over a pair of puke-green wool trousers and cotton long johns; a four-tiered upper-body layer of cotton undershirt, wool top shirt, dungaree jacket, and Navyissue, calf-length, alpaca-lined hooded parka; a wool cap with earflaps and visor beneath a helmet; wool shoe pads and socks worn beneath cleated, rubberized winter boots, or shoepacs; and heavyduty gloves covering leather or canvas mittens. Some men had cut the trigger finger off their gloves.
This late in the afternoon, no one was confident of reaching Toktong Pass before dark, but luck struck when the company's forward artillery observer announced that he had scrounged transport from the commanding officer of How Company, the Second Battalion's 105-mm howitzer unit based at Hagaru-ri. The "arty boys" had agreed to lend Fox the nine trucks they used to lug their big guns.
"Bring them back with the tanks full," one of the artillerymen joked, and at 2:30 p.m. the company was ordered to saddle up. As men climbed onto the open flatbeds of the six-by-sixes and squeezed into the seats of the company Jeep-some Marines riding on the hoods-more than a few freezing men wondered where their new commanding officer was.
If Fox Company was suspicious of its new spit-and-polish CO, he too was leery of them. Following the landings at Inchon, the company had taken heavy casualties during the Uijongbu campaign north of Seoul. Then, on the push north to the Yalu as winter set in, frostbite had become more effective at thinning the outfit than the random roadside ambushes. By the time Barber assumed command at Koto-ri nearly half the unit consisted of fresh "boots" and most of its officers were as new to Korea as Barber was.
The company was nowhere near its full strength, and one day on the road near Koto-ri Barber watched aghast as an entire squad failed to take out three fleeing North Korean soldiers no more than two hundred yards away. On Iwo, this would have been a job for one Marine. Barber's defining character trait may have been his rigorous self-discipline, and he expected no less from the men under his command. Thereafter he instituted a routine of daily rifle practice on makeshift ranges, using cans cadged from the mess tents as targets.
This did not sit well with weary, frozen Marines who could see warming campfires and smell coffee roasting while they lay prone in the snow firing at bacon tins. Oddly, however, despite the punishment no one considered Barber a mean-spirited leader. Unlike many Marine commanders, he took pains to explain the reasons for every reprimand he issued. And in this case the regimen worked. Before long each man in the outfit had improved his marksmanship impressively.
Similarly, during skirmishes along the trek to Hagaru-ri, Barber found hands-on opportunities to teach his new line replacements how to call in close air support, register artillery rounds, and fire the mortars at night. (Sometimes, to his men's perplexed amazement, he would simultaneously break out in a full-throated rendition of the Marine Corps hymn.) All in all, Barber felt that by the time Fox Company set off for Toktong Pass his "training on the run" had not only improved his unit's fighting skills but brought the men together as a cohesive team. They would need to be.
Barber had studied Sun-tzu and was also familiar with the military writings of Mao Tse-tung, who had been strongly influenced by Sun-tzu's ancient but still practical strategies during the recent Chinese civil war. "The reason we have always advanced a policy of luring the enemy to penetrate deeply," Mao had written in On Protracted War, "is that it is the most effective tactic against a strong opponent."
Now, alone on a vital pass, Barber took another look at North Korea's unforgiving mountains. Who was out there? And in what strength? The Chinese had been fighting in these hills for millennia, and Barber again considered Sun-tzu, who had set down his ideas in the fourth century BC. If Mao was still following those precepts, the odds were that the First Marine Division was being lured into a trap.
And, Barber noted, his company, his first command in Korea, was right in the thick of it.
At 3 p.m. the convoy carrying most of the three rifle platoons and the headquarters staff of Fox Company left Hagaru-ri and began the climb up to Toktong Pass. Even with the nine borrowed trucks, however, there were not enough vehicles to transport the entire outfit, its equipment, and the adjunct details now assigned to it. The company had been reinforced by an 81-mm mortar section consisting of two tubes each manned by ten Marines, as well as an additional eighteen Marines from the Second Battalion's heavy weapons section who toted two water-cooled Browning. 3 0-caliber heavy machine guns. About two dozen men from the First Rifle Platoon had to be left behind until the trucks could return for them. As drivers gunned their engines, more than a few men slept where they dropped in the flatbeds.
The MSR was wide enough to permit the passage of only a single vehicle, and the convoy's progress was delayed when it found itself in a trace to a column of slow-moving tractors towing a battery of 155-mm howitzers to Yudam-ni. Not until 5 p.m. did Captain Barber-by now rejoined by Lieutenant Colonel Lockwood, who had transported a cameraman to the hill to record the company's arrival-see Fox's lead Jeep coming up the winding road. The Jeep, its trailer laden with gear, pulled over next to the two abandoned huts. Barber directed the convoy onward, until the entire line of vehicles was adjacent to the base of the hill. Upon orders to dismount, several Marines had to be shaken awake, including Private First Class Warren McClure, the BAR man of the First Fire Team, Second Squad, Second Platoon.
McClure had dreamed of carrying a BAR since high school, when his guidance counselor, a Marine veteran who had earned a Bronze Star on Iwo Jima, regaled him with stories about fighting the Japanese. McClure, who described himself as a hillbilly, had grown up in a small town in central Missouri near the Lake of the Ozarks. He and his friends had devoured war movies of the 1940s and reenacted famous battles of World War II almost daily in their backyard fields. When his family moved to Kansas City, he enlisted in his school's Marine reserve program and spent summers and weekends with an artillery battalion learning to operate 105-mm howitzers.
In the summer of 1950 McClure was preparing to leave for boot camp. When war broke out in Korea, he was instead ordered onto a troop train bound for San Diego. He assumed he would be assigned to an artillery outfit. Instead, to his surprise and delight, when he arrived at Camp Pendleton he was drafted into a Marine rifle company.
"We went out and threw three grenades and fired twenty rounds from a BAR, and that was my training," he would later explain to his assistant in Fox Company, Private First Class Roger Gonzales. "Then they asked for a volunteer to be the BAR man."
McClure jumped at the opportunity. The air-cooled, gasoperated BAR-the Browning automatic rifle, steady, fast-firing, and accurate to five hundred yards-was considered the finest oneman weapon in the infantry, the ultimate in battlefield efficiency. It weighed twenty pounds complete with bipod and twenty-round magazine, and it was the basis for a Marine fire team. The model for this four-man team had been developed ten years earlier at Quantico, and once again the Corps seemed to have borrowed from the Society of Jesus, for the concept was a variation of the Jesuit tenet of freedom within discipline. Its beauty lay in its simplicity.
A Marine rifle company was a vertically integrated pyramid-each company had three platoons, each platoon had three squads, and each squad had three fire teams. The fire team was an eminently sensible idea, for in the confusion of battle no one man could reasonably be expected to be responsible for more than three others. More important, in the heat of a gunfight there was a comfort in knowing that a Marine hefting a deadly BAR was no more than a few steps away.
Now McClure told Gonzales, "If the earth didn't curve, who knows from how far away I could hit a man?" The two jumped from a six-by-six onto the road, stretched, and stamped blood into their freezing feet. McClure was about to start a monologue regarding the killing power of the BAR when he noticed another Marine take a thermometer from a pack. It registered minus-twelve degrees Fahrenheit. A dark cloudbank, whipped by twenty-five-knot winds out of the north, obscured the peak of Toktong-san.
"Smells like snow," the Marine with the thermometer said.
McClure shook his head. Back in Missouri, he and his younger brother had often spent hours hunting and fishing in the forests and creeks of the Ozarks. On weekends they might bring home enough rabbits to feed the family for days. Except for the higher elevation, these North Korean hills reminded McClure of the mountains at home in winter. He felt no hesitation in correcting the other man. "Too cold to snow," he said.
A few moments later the first snowflakes began caking his helmet and plastering his wavy blond hair to his forehead.
Not far away, Captain Barber ordered the first two trucks to return to Hagaru-ri for the rest of his men, and he directed a sixteenby-eighteen tent erected just east of the larger hut to serve as his command post. The company radio operator was setting up his communications post in and around the tent as Barber called his team leaders together. The captain was immediately interrupted by Lieutenant Lawrence Schmitt, the company's communications officer. Schmitt told him that the SCR-300 radio was already low on battery power because of the intense cold.
Both the radio-which would keep Barber in touch with the howitzer unit in Hagaru-ri, as well as Colonel Litzenberg up at the Chosin-and the company's 610 field phones, used for communication between platoon leaders, ran on batteries. Cold weather slows the chemical reaction that generates electrons to supply electrical current inside a battery. The bitter cold of Toktong Pass drained them in minutes. This was a problem that had not been anticipated by the American forces in northeast Asia, who were unfamiliar with the peninsula's fierce winter temperatures. Moreover, the Korean winter of 1950 would be the coldest recorded in thirty years.
Meanwhile, at the Hagaru-ri defensive perimeter, the six big 105mm howitzers of How Company, which were specifically dedicated to the support of Fox, were still a full seven miles from Toktong Pass. Factoring in the effect of the cold weather on the gases that propelled the shells, as well as the effect of the elevation, this left the pass barely within their maximum firing range-another quarter mile, and the shells would have been useless. And now there was a chance that Barber might not even be able to reach the how itzer commander by radio. The captain ordered Schmitt to fix the communications problem and turned back to the briefing.
"Follow me," he said, leading his company officers and platoon sergeants on a brisk trot up the hill. At the crest the little group paused to watch the headlights of a convoy of six-by-sixes rumbling south from Yudam-ni, carrying wounded Marines. When the grinding gears of the final vehicle were only a distant echo, Barber informed his battle commanders that he had reached a hard decision. Despite the approaching darkness, the bitter cold, and the mind-numbing winds, he wanted the men dug in before any warming tents were erected.
Waiting atop Toktong Pass, his face swollen and nearly bleeding from the lash of the gale, Barber had vacillated over his choices for several hours. His men were dog-tired, and it would have been more compassionate to let them break out their entrenching tools tomorrow morning after a good night's rest. He had even checked the frost level with his bayonet; it sank to a depth of sixteen inches. Jackhammers would be more appropriate than shovels for this ground.
But something in Barber's gut told him the company needed to protect itself as well as possible as soon as possible. He would have preferred to have enough personnel to send a squad across the saddle to occupy the higher ground of the rocky knoll and the ridge behind it, but he didn't. He assumed they were being watched even now by Chinese scouts on those heights. Barber wanted to register the artillery at Hagaru-ri by asking the battery to fire a few shells, but it was too dark. He also understood, from his experience in the Pacific, that during a firefight it was psychologically harder for a man to retreat from a foxhole than from a poncho spread across the ground. He reiterated the directive to dig in-"I don't like casual compliance with my orders"-and assigned the following areas of responsibility.
The sixty-two Marines and one corpsman of First Lieutenant Elmo Peterson's Second Rifle Platoon would dig in across the steeper western slope, from just above the vertical ten-foot cut bank and up the 175 yards over the thirty-degree grade until they reached the saddle on the northwest corner. Looking at the hill from the road, this would be on the left.
First Lieutenant Robert McCarthy's Third Rifle Platoon of fiftyfour Marines and one corpsman would string out across the wide hilltop, their left flank linking up with Second Platoon's right flank in front of the saddle. Barber realized that this would be the most dangerous area to defend, because when the Chinese attacked they would undoubtedly stream across that land bridge.
"Two forward squads up, one reserve back," he told McCarthy, elucidating the Marines' classic defensive V position. McCarthy nodded. As if I don't know how to dig in for the night.
Finally, the First Rifle Platoon-sixty-two Marines and one corpsman commanded by First Lieutenant John Dunne-would complete the horseshoe, entrenching in a 225-yard line down the gentler eastern slope, nearly to the road. Each platoon would space its two air-cooled light machine guns accordingly, with as much firepower as possible concentrated on the saddle.
The defense of the "open" seventy-five-yard space along the road would be the responsibility of the sixty-nine Marines and Navy corpsmen of the heavy machine-gun units, the mortarmen, and Barber's headquarters and staff (H&S) section, stationed near the command post. The mortar units-under the command of Lieutenant Joseph Brady and consisting of Fox Company's three 60-mm tubes, augmented by the two 81-mm tubes-were positioned a few yards east of the smaller hut. Since it was now almost dark, Barber directed his mortarmen to spend what daylight they had left firing on the rocky knoll and rocky ridge-registering their ordnance for correct distances-while a motor pool detachment erected a sixteen-by-eighteen tent just below the mouth of the shallow gully. He then assigned the company's two bazooka teams and their ammo carriers-seventeen Marines in all-to occupy the larger hut, where half a dozen corpsmen had already sacked out for the night. The bazookas were to be stored inside the hut and test-fired in the morning while the corpsmen set up their two twelve-by-sixteen med tents.
Finally, Barber ordered the leader of his heavy machine-gun section, Staff Sergeant John O. Henry, to locate the optimal sites for his two heavy Brownings. At twenty-five, Henry was a sturdy veteran who had served as an Army Air Corps turret gunner aboard B-24 bombers during World War II, cashed out after the war, and reenlisted in the Corps. With his broad oval face, bulging biceps, and blond sidewall haircut, Henry looked like the Hollywood version of a five-striper, and in keeping with that image he didn't mind being known as a place where trouble started.
Barber and Henry had hit it off immediately when they'd met in Hagaru-ri-this often happened with veterans of the Pacific war-and the captain knew he could rely on the "old" machine gunner's judgment and experience. Their relationship was strengthened because Barber immediately recognized that Henry knew heavy weapons inside and out. This was why Barber allowed Henry to select his own emplacements on the hill.
The snow was coming down more heavily now, thick dry flakes that fell like a curtain. On Henry's orders the heavy machine gunners set up about twenty-five yards above the MSR and a bit closer to the eastern slope. From these nests-twenty yards apart to prevent them from being taken out by a single mortar shell-the two nine-man crews would be able to cover movement both up and down the road as well as catch, in a daunting crossfire, any enemy attacking from across the southern valley.
At one point, just before dusk, Lt. McCarthy came down from the hilltop and ordered Henry to move his units farther up the grade, nearer to the Third Platoon Marines covering the saddle. Henry argued that his guns simply had to overwatch the road just below. McCarthy and Henry's disagreement had nearly reached the shouting stage when Captain Barber appeared out of the white mist. Barber stopped and listened, and after both men had made their cases he merely shrugged. "Bob, John knows what he's doing," he said. "Leave him be." That made Henry feel good.
It was close to 5:30 p.m. by the time the last Marines from the First Platoon who had been left behind at Hagaru-ri arrived in the returning six-by-sixes. Barber told them to complete the southeast section of the perimeter nearest the road. Behind them a six-foot-high, seventy-five-yard erosion ridge arced southeast to northwest, cutting off sightlines to the crest of the hill. These men would serve as the end of the right flank of the "horseshoe" that would tie in with the units parallel to the road, albeit slightly above them.
Several Marines could not help noticing that the company command post tent, the mortar units, the bazooka section, the two huts, the parked Jeep and its trailer, and the freshwater spring-though protected by the heavy machine gun emplacements above-were all situated about thirty yards to the southeast of and outside Fox Company's defensive perimeter. One of those who noticed this was Private First Class Troy Williford of the Third Platoon, who scanned the outlying positions and shot a quizzical glance at his partner on the fire team, Corporal Wayne Pickett.
"Old Man must know what he's doin'," Pickett said as they trudged up the hill. "I mean, he's a World War Two vet and all."
Over the next few hours an aerial view of the terrain would have resembled a particularly motivated ant farm. As the sun set behind the western mountains, platoon sergeants yelled at squad leaders who in turn hollered at fire team leaders to move their Marines off the goddamn road and up the goddamn mountain. Orders were nearly impossible to make out in the heavy snowfall. Despite this impediment, light machine gun emplacements were allocated, listening posts were designated, platoon command posts were established, interlocking fields of fire were sighted and calculated to exacting degrees, and sites for two-man foxholes were assigned ten paces apart. The only sounds were those of shivering men pinging entrenching tools into the frozen earth. Occasionally the stinging vibration of metal slamming into rock would reverberate through a man's hands and up his arms and cause him to yelp. Gradually the outline of an inverted horseshoe took shape across the heights while emotional, psychological, and physical dramas played out.
Private First Class Graydon "Gray" Davis was bone tired. Every part of his body hurt. He lagged behind his squad mates, who were scrambling over the sheer cut bank near the road and up the western slope. He had spent the first seventeen years of his life in hot, humid southern Florida, and in the two years since he'd enlisted he had never encountered such cold. He was certain he would never grow accustomed to the tricks it played. The water in his canteen, for instance, was frozen solid. Alternately blowing into his gloves and swinging his arms to regain circulation, Davis reflected on the juxtaposition of the surreal and the quotidian in this crazy land.
On the one hand, he hated most things about the country: the freezing winter, the harrowing mountain paths, the fleas and lice, and not least the North Koreans themselves. Davis was a history buff and knew well that Korea was a country forged in war. Fighting had been a way of life here for centuries, and when the various clans, tribes, and provincial armies were not trying to kill each other they were trying to kill outside aggressors, who now, apparently, included Gray Davis.
On the other hand, only a few days earlier Davis and some buddies had commandeered a heated "gook hootch" near Hagaru-ri in order to clean, oil, and wipe dry their weapons and heat their little cans of C-rats-meatballs and string beans, hash, beef stew, ham and lima beans. Inside they found a mama-san and her two kids. As in most Korean homes, the chimneys were ducted under the kitchen floor to provide radiant heat, and during those rare few hours of God-sent warmth Davis's antagonism toward the natives had relaxed.
In fact, while the Marines were chowing down one of them had begun whistling a couple of bars of the Christian hymn "Amazing Grace." Suddenly the woman and her two children were smiling. She sent one of the kids outside to fetch her husband, who returned, headed straight for a corner of the hut, and stuck his arm into a sack of old potatoes. The Americans leaped up and leveled their rifles. But then the man retrieved a tattered hymnal left behind long ago by a missionary. The entire family then lined up and sang the hymn for them in Korean. Davis was floored. Maybe these people were human after all.
As he recalled this incident at the side of the MSR, Davis's reverie was broken when the company's gunnery master sergeant got up in his face and demanded to know what the hell his problem was.
"Sarge, it's just too cold to move," he said. This took stones, for the gunny was rumored to have a right hook that could stun a brick.
The master sergeant wore a lion tamer's expression as he briefly pondered this response. He then inquired if a shoepac directed up Davis's butt might possibly help to warm him. Davis double-timed it, clawing over the cut, seeking a place to dig in.
If Gray Davis had known what awaited him on this icy hill in the middle of nowhere, he might well have opted for that shoepac up his butt. Though officially the South Koreans were being assisted in their "defensive struggle" by the United Nations, in reality the war was being waged nearly exclusively by Americans like Davis. Unlike World War II, this fight was viewed by the rest of the "free world"-still emerging from the rubble of the previous war-as limited in scope. It was a problem for the United States to handle. Worse, even in the United States there was little enthusiasm for what was being officially described as a mere "conflict" or "police action."
Although Great Britain, Australia, and a few other nations dutifully sent a limited number of troops to Korea, their governments were not necessarily supportive; none wanted to see the war expanded to China. Even the usually bellicose Winston Churchill warned, "The United Nations should avoid by any means in their power becoming entangled inextricably in a war with China. The sooner the Far Eastern diversion can be brought into something like a static condition and stabilized, the better it will be."
But Churchill and other world leaders-and to that list some added President Harry Truman-had not fully taken into account what one critic called MacArthur's "deranged blood lust." The Supreme Allied Commander confided to his staff that he wanted to strangle the Communist Chinese government in its infancy, before it could accumulate more power and territory. MacArthur dreamed of reinstating Chiang Kai-shek (or some other American puppet) to leadership in Peking-if only Truman would untie his hands. To that end, he tried his best.
Beginning in early November 1950, MacArthur ordered his various air forces to turn upper North Korea into a "wasteland." Factories, cities, and villages across a 1,000-square-mile area were vaporized by air strikes. Three weeks before Fox Company climbed Toktong Pass, seventy-nine B-29s dropped 550 tons of incendiaries on the town of Sinuiju and, in the words of a British attache to MacArthur's headquarters, essentially "removed it from the map." A week later the town of Hoeryong was napalmed, creating "a wilderness of scorched earth."
The rest of the world may not have been paying attention to this carnage, but MacArthur's tactics were not lost on Mao Tse-tung. Mao intuited that it was time to face this threat and confront MacArthur before American bombers began appearing over Peking's Forbidden City.
On the northeast crest of the hill, Corporal Howard Koone and Private First Class Dick Bonelli muttered juicy oaths as their small shovels clanged off the frozen turf. Bonelli slammed his spade into the ground with all his strength and cursed as it sprang back up and nearly took off his head. He knelt in his "snow hole" and looked to his right, where ten paces away two raw boots-Corporal Stan "Ski" Golembieski and Private Bernard "Goldy" Goldstein-were experiencing similar difficulty. Golembieski and Goldstein had joined the company a week earlier, and since then they had spent most of their time pestering Bonelli with questions about how to stay alive in a firefight. He decided that now was the time for their first lesson.
"The first thing you do," Bonelli said, "is you never take your eyes off me. Everything I do, you do too. But, I gotta repeat, you watch my back all the time, real close. And you never let anything happen to me. Ever. 'Cause something happens to me, your chances of surviving drop real fast."
The two reservists hung on Bonelli's words, and Koone wondered how his partner managed to keep a straight face talking such bullshit. At one point Bonelli broke off his chatter and peered past Golembieski and Goldstein, searching for the upper left flank of the First Platoon, which would complete the "bridge" to his fire team's sector. His view, however, was obstructed by the hill's central ridgeline.
"Aren't we supposed to meet up with the First here on our right flank?" he said.
"They heard all about you and your moods," Koone said, deadpan. "They ain't coming anywhere near us."
There was a large, impenetrable thicket of brush almost directly in front of their position, and Bonelli eyed it suspiciously. "Here's hoping the Chinks feel the same way," he said.
Bonelli almost hadn't made it to Toktong Pass. On the long voyage from Inchon he'd drawn mess duty aboard one of the giant LSTs, working as a galley waiter serving Marine and Navy officers. (And helping himself to the leftovers.) When the ship anchored off Wonsan he was washing dishes in the mess hall, and because of a bureaucratic snafu he had not been issued any orders. When he finally climbed topside he saw that all his fellow Marines had disembarked on the smaller amtrac vehicles that were used for beach landings.
The Navy stewards with whom he'd become friends urged Bonelli to remain aboard and sail back with them to Japan. He took one look at Wonsan's shabby port and its oil refineries, blown to smithereens, and nearly heeded their pleas. But at the last minute his conscience got the better of him and he climbed over the side and down the nets onto the last vessel ferrying troops to the beachalthough when the freezing water hit him he almost turned around and clambered back up.
Now memories of those three-course meals served on real china, as well as memories of his new Navy friends, crossed his mind. Surely by now they were all sipping hot sake in Kobe or Yokohama. "Yup," he said, this time under his breath. "Here's hoping the Chinks feel the same way."
Unlike their American counterparts, the Chinese forces entering Korea in 1950 did not advance by the leapfrogging, "fire and maneuver" tactics. Instead they relied on stealth, stamina, and the sheer volume of their superior numbers to overcome any objective. Since their defeat at Sudong they had learned to attack at night to exploit these assets as well as to reduce their vulnerability to the superior artillery and close air support provided by American and Australian pilots. Their evolving battle strategy was simple and effective: isolate and destroy.
Every Chinese Communist soldier wore a thick, two-piece, reversible winter uniform of quilted cotton, white on one side, dingy yellow on the other. In lieu of helmets the troops were issued fur-lined caps with thick earflaps. A few officers marched into battle wearing fur-lined boots-some were even seen riding shaggy Mongolian ponies-but most fought in canvas shoes with crepe soles, and the Marines would soon grow accustomed to hearing the "scritchy" approach of these "tennis shoes." (Another telltale sign was a pervasive smell of garlic. Garlic had been a traditional cold remedy in Asia for centuries, and Chinese units had a pungent odor that carried hundreds of yards.)
The Chinese infantryman's primary weapon was the 7.92-mm Mauser rifle, which had been manufactured in China since 1918 and was reliable and effective at long range. Chinese troops also carried numerous international weapons captured after the defeat of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists a year earlier, and they were proficient at firing small-caliber mortars, their heaviest artillery. Each soldier was issued eighty to a hundred rounds of ammunition, as well as a few of the fuse-lit, bamboo-encased stick grenades the Americans called "potato mashers." Kitted out to move light and fast-their corn, beans, and rice balls precooked to avoid any telltale campfires -they reminded some of the more literate American officers of the ancient Norse beserksganger, twelfth-century warriors so fierce they fought without armor and ravaged like wolves.
For millennia Chinese warlords and emperors had relied on a considerable percentage of teenage peasant conscripts to fill their armies. So vast was the country, and so huge the population, that "fodder" may have been a better term for these fighters, and soldiering was not a career held in high esteem. This had changed somewhat by 1950. Now, at the core of the officer and NCO classes in the Communist Chinese Army there were tough, battle-hardened veterans whose fighting ability had been developed by defeating Chiang's better-equipped forces in the civil war. Many had also been at Mao's side during the "Long March" over eighteen mountain ranges and across twenty-four rivers in 1934. These experiences, combined with a culture of patriotism and ancestral honor, enabled the Chinese Communist regime to assemble a trim fighting force nearly equal to western military standards-and much greater in total size.
Chinese "Tactical Field Forces," which were the elite of the CCF's combat strength, numbered somewhere between 2 million and 3 million men. Second-line troops, or garrison armies, nearly doubled that number. Finally, a Chinese militia, which was similar to America's National Guard and from which the official CCF drew recruits, doubled the number again. All told, China had nearly 10 million men under strength of arms.
If these forces had an Achilles' heel, it was that officers at the company level were granted virtually no latitude to adjust tactics once an order of battle had been issued. This inflexibility often resulted, as the Marines had seen at Sudong, in bloody, futile slaugh ter as units fought to the last man no matter what the circumstances were. This situation could be partly attributed to their communication system, which was primitive by western battle norms, relying as it did on bugle calls, flashlight signals, and the occasional flare. When the Chinese broke radio silence, it was more often than not a ruse to relay misleading intelligence to eavesdropping Americans. But by all accounts the Chinese Communists were brave fighters who rarely turned tail-owing, perhaps, to the fact that if they did try to run away, they would be shot by the politically appointed commissars who accompanied them-a field tactic Mao had learned from the Russian armies of World War II.
Finally, and perhaps most profoundly, the Chinese had enormous contempt for the American fighting man. This was evident in the captured book, Military Lessons, that Captain Barber had studied before ascending Toktong Pass. Soldiers were taught that the United States had surpassed Japan as the world's most exploitive colonizer, and their political tracts reflected this idea. "Soon we will meet the American Marines in battle," read another captured document circulated among all hands. "We will destroy them. When they are defeated the Americans will collapse and our country will be free from the threat of aggression. Kill these Marines as you would snakes in your homed"
Though certainly unintentionally, this analogy fit the current circumstances well. The entire First Marine Division, as well as the GIs on the east side of the Chosin Reservoir, had been cut into five separate chunks, much as one might chop up a deadly cobra. Unbeknownst to the Americans, Koto-ri, twenty-five miles to the south of Yudam-ni, was being encircled by the Sixtieth and Seventyseventh Chinese divisions; Hagaru-ri was being surrounded by the Fifty-eighth and Seventy-sixth Divisions; and the peaks around Yudam-ni and the Chosin Reservoir basin-including Fox Hillswarmed with Chinese from the Fifty-ninth, Seventy-ninth, and Eighty-ninth Divisions.
A typical Chinese Communist division had approximately 7,000 men, and three divisions constituted what the Chinese called an "army" (and the Americans a "corps"). On orders from the master military strategist Lin Biao, General Sung Shih-lun, commander of the Chinese Ninth Army Group-a force of fifteen divisions totaling about 100,000 men-had taken a page from MacArthur and set in motion his own pincer movement designed to trap the 8,000- odd Marines at the Chosin from the west while taking the Hagaruri airfield from the east. And what about the small American outpost holding the road from the Toktong Pass? A mere annoyance. There were fewer than 250 freezing, weary Marines at this pass. Sung allocated a battalion to wipe them out.
Warren McClure and his assistant BAR man Roger Gonzales of the Third Platoon were assigned to a location in a clearing just above the tree line, halfway up the western flank of the hill. Directly across the valley from their position rose a shorter knoll that would come to be called the West Hill. McClure and Gonzales settled into a shallow ditch and studied the serrated ground below them, especially the ravine that ran up the valley's center toward the high saddle. "Good cover for anybody coming at us from across the way," McClure said.
Below them the terrain fell away to form a yawning sinkholethe "deep dip," McClure called it-about twenty yards across by thirty yards long. McClure and Gonzales could not see the bottom of this sinkhole, and they contemplated the possibility of a squad of enemy soldiers hidden under its lip. Well to the north, somewhere near the Chosin, they watched distant flashes of artillery fire and heard what they assumed was one hell of a firefight.
The sound of the battle made both Marines anxious. They understood that, as they listened, their friends were being maimed and killed. They had little doubt that their own outfit would be next.
Four miles north of McClure and Gonzales's position, and two miles south of Yudam-ni, the 150-odd men of Charlie Company, First Battalion, Seventh Marines, were indeed fighting for their lives against an overwhelming Chinese attack. Like Fox, Charlie was an undermanned company. Still, it had been ordered to overwatch until dawn a small knoll designated Hill 1419-the number was its elevation in meters-along the lonely stretch of road where the MSR began rising to Toktong Pass from the north. Charlie Company immediately dubbed the mound Turkey Hill because vast piles of Thanksgiving turkey bones had been dumped there by Baker Company, which had originally taken and secured the hill three days earlier. Charlie constituted a link in the strong American chain between the two Marine rifle regiments nearly within shouting distance to the north and the reinforced Fox Company guarding their southern flank. Though its strength had been nearly halved by an earlier firefight, and the company was also shy an entire platoon that had remained at Yudam-ni, Charlie's officers nonetheless felt secure in their position. They were wrong.
The outfit began earning its nickname, "Hard Luck Charlie," not long after midnight, when the first enemy assault knocked out the company's sole radio. As wave after wave of Chinese swarmed the hill, Charlie took 40 percent casualties and could not immediately contact Yudam-ni for either reinforcements or artillery fire. Platoons were overrun one by one until the Americans were forced back into a small defensive perimeter at the top of the hill.
Eventually, an enterprising Marine repaired the radio, and the survivors from Charlie Company were rescued at the last minute by the First Battalion's commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Raymond Davis, who would eventually lead two companies, including Baker, back from the reservoir through a screen of fire to flank the Chinese and allow Charlie to retreat from Turkey Hill. In the meantime, all Charlie could do was signal for help by mortaring off brace after brace of star shells and hope someone would come to its aid.
At the crest of their own hilltop, Corporal Pickett and Private First Class Williford of Fox Company were digging in. Aside from his knowledge of "fighting Chinamen," Wayne Pickett also knew a thing or two about cold weather.
Pickett came from the small town of Jenkins-population 225in northern Minnesota and would admit only to being somewhat taken aback by the speedy drop in temperature each night in Korea. Compared with the hardscrabble life he and his eight brothers and sisters had led at home, scratching out a frozen hole on a Korean hilltop was small beans. And it was nothing compared with ice fishing for dinner in the dead of a Minnesota winter. "Come home with no catch," he told Williford, "and you don't eat."
When Pickett was five years old, his mother died in childbirth delivering twins. His father, a fireman with the Northern Pacific Railroad, tried to keep the family together but found the financial burden impossible. A year after his mother's death, Wayne was sent to live in a state-run orphanage. He was subsequently farmed out to a dairy rancher in western Minnesota, where he worked for the next two years before returning to the orphanage. At age nine he was adopted by Allan and Clara Pickett of Duluth.
Like many of the Marines in Fox Company, while he was growing up Pickett had been mesmerized by newspaper and magazine articles, movies, and newsreels about World War II. He could quote entire scenes from Guadalcanal Diary, and he was dazzled by the glamour and glory of the fighting Marines. Upon graduation from Central High Duluth in 1946 he enlisted, and after boot camp he was assigned to the Corps' Sea School. He traveled to China aboard the heavy cruiser USS St. Paul as a seagoing Marine before taking an early discharge in 1948, when the Corps' manpower was reduced dramatically from its wartime height. Pickett remained in the active reserves while taking courses at Duluth Business College, and ten weeks after North Korea's invasion of South Korea he found himself on a crowded troopship bound for Kobe, Japan. He'd been fighting with Fox from Inchon to Seoul and had taken part in the voyage around the peninsula for the landing at Wonsan.
The names of the places where he'd fought, the places where he'd watched buddies die, were all a blur. Hungnam. Sudong. Hagaru-ri. And now here he was on a frigid hill above a place named Toktong Pass trying to crack the frozen crust of the earth with his spade. Finally, he and Williford gave up. There was a giant boulder, a nearly vertical slab of granite, a few paces from their position.
"See that rock?" Pickett said.
"That's our foxhole."
The two men gathered their kit, slid in behind the rock, and anchored one end of their pup tent to its base. They spoke of being home for Christmas.
One month earlier, on October 25, 1950-exactly four months after the North Korean armies had poured south across the 38th Parallel -advance elements of several South Korean ROK units reached the Yalu River. They had American air support, including napalm, a recent invention, which produced some of the most fearsome firebombing in history. At that point it seemed as if the North Koreans' plans to dominate northeast Asia-plans backed by the Soviet Union-were finished. A bottle of water from the Yalu was even sent to Syngman Rhee, the president of South Korea. Legend has it that after the bottle had been filled, ROK soldiers lined up on the banks of the river and urinated into it as an act of defiance toward the Chinese on the other side.
General Paek Sun Yap, possibly the ablest ROK commander, was not, however, in a mood to celebrate. A few Chinese soldiers had been captured on the Korean side of the border, and he insisted on interrogating them personally. "Are there many of you here?" he asked. They nodded and replied, "Many, many." But when he reported this to his American allies, the intelligence was dismissed as fantasy-and not merely by MacArthur.
In Washington, D.C., the Joint Chiefs of Staff and President Truman's other military advisers continued to believe that the Chinese had sent only a small number of troops into North Korea, purely as a gesture to save political face, and that Mao was unwilling and unprepared to take on the United Nations on behalf of such an ally as weak as North Korea. Still, the American brass seriously considered a suggestion forwarded from MacArthur's Tokyo war room: to bomb the Yalu River bridges and keep even the face-saving forces in China. The proposal was rejected by the Joint Chiefs when they decided that such an attack could have the effect of goading the Chinese leadership into action to save face yet again.
The Americans also believed that the CCF armies would never enter the Korean peninsula because the Soviet Union did not want to see the war extended. American intelligence, however, did not yet see that political and ideological cracks were opening between Stalin in Moscow and Mao in Peking. The Truman administration had no idea that China was bristling at being a "puppet state" of the Soviet Union. The administration also chose to overlook the fact that, in October, Chou En-lai had summoned the Indian ambassador to his ministry and told him that if MacArthur's United Nations forces crossed the 38th Parallel, China would intervene.
In the last week of November, no American official-military or civilian-had any idea that some 300,000 Chinese troops were already inside Korea, and an equal number were on alert in Manchuria. MacArthur in particular was unaware that his forces were significantly outnumbered in an unfamiliar and increasingly brutal territory centered on Fox Hill.
Private Hector Cafferata and Private First Class Kenny Benson, First Fire Team, First Squad, Second Platoon-two kids from New Jersey who had enlisted together and traveled cross-country by train to Pendleton-crawled out on the left flank of the saddle beyond the two tall "domino" rocks demarcating the northwest corner of the hill. They were about thirty yards in front of their platoon's defensive perimeter; the rocky knoll loomed above them, looking like some sinister medieval castle. The two constituted one of Fox Company's several forward listening posts. Like Pickett and Williford on the peak of the hill, they had the front lines just on the other side of their rifle sights.
Benson was shivering so much he was afraid the enemy would hear his bones rattling. "Christ," he said, "what this weather wouldn't do to a brass monkey."
Cafferata did not answer. It had stopped snowing, but the temperature had fallen to about twenty-five degrees below zero. That did not concern Cafferata as much as the wind, a strong whistling airstream blowing from their backs that lifted the snow into blinding squalls and white eddies. His parka, completely buttoned up, nonetheless whipped and fluttered like a sail. When the enemy charged down that knoll and across the saddle-a highly likely event, in Cafferata's estimation-the noise of the wind would surely cover their approach.
Cafferata did not utter a word as he and Benson shared a meager supper of frozen Tootsie Rolls. He'd been studying their situation. But finally, he turned to his foxhole buddy.
"Look at the bright side, Bense," he said. "At least we'll be the first to get a crack at 'em."
Benson shrugged. Sometimes he had a hard time figuring Cafferata out.
The two men, from neighboring small towns in northern Jersey, had first met playing for a semipro football team. Benson was a blond, six-foot, 200-pound all-around athlete who could recite all the statistics from his favorite publication, The Sporting News. By contrast, Cafferata had no love for organized sports. He'd signed up to play football only when the coach, impressed by his six-footfour, 230-pound frame, had offered him ten dollars a game.
"How could you not like baseball?" an incredulous Benson had asked Cafferata during one of their Marine reservist weekends at the Picatinny Arsenal in Jefferson, New Jersey. "It's the all-American pastime, for Chrissake."
"If I carry a stick in my hand it's got to have bullets in it for shooting turkey and duck, maybe some vermin for practice," Cafferata said. "Besides, I could never hit the damn ball anyway. I'm the world's worst baseball player."
Although Cafferata, at nineteen, was only a year older than Benson, he was physically a man among boys. Nicknamed "Moose," he had a large, clomping physique topped by a face that looked like a hard winter breaking up. His eyebrows resembled thick caterpillars crawling toward his mop of wavy black hair, and with his flattened nose, creased cheeks, and jutting ears he could have been cast as a heavyweight in the classic black-and-white boxing movies he had watched as a kid.
Cafferata had been a socially awkward boy who didn't drink or date girls in high school. He preferred to spend his free time hunting, fishing, and trapping in the forests and wetlands near his parents' house in New Jersey. On his long walks home from school he would set muskrat and raccoon traps, and the next morning he'd check them on the way to class. He also carried his shotgun every day in case he spotted something edible while visiting the traps, and the high school custodian grew accustomed to the sight of "Big Hec" changing out of his waders and filthy hunting vest and storing his gun in the janitor's closet before the first bell rang. By the age of thirteen he was also earning money after school and on weekends by cutting oak and hickory trees for firewood. Although his father worked at various part-time jobs, the family often depended on Hector's catch to feed the four voracious Cafferata brothers. Anything extra Hector would sell to the neighborhood butcher or a local Jewish fishmonger, who turned the carp into gefilte fish.
Although most of Fox Company took Cafferata for an ItalianAmerican, his father was a Peruvian immigrant who had enlisted in the U.S. Marines between the wars. When Hector was seventeen, he did the same, more out of a feeling that he had missed something important by being too young to fight the Nazis and the Japanese than from any sense of familial duty. But he described himself as a loner, and he'd hated the reservist summer camps and weekend meetings-"Nothing but drinking and card playing"-and when he quit attending he was dropped from his unit's roster. When the war in Korea broke out, he begged his way back into the Corps, pleading with his platoon sergeant to be allowed to jump on the troop train that was pulling away for Camp Pendleton. At literally the last minute Cafferata was allowed to rejoin his old unit; more than a few of his superior officers subsequently wondered over the wisdom of that decision.
On Cafferata and Benson's first night in Korea, they had both gone to sleep after shoving their shoepacs outside their tent without wiping them down. At reveille their squad leader could only shake his head in wonder and disgust as he watched the two confused reservists puzzling over their boots, which had frozen into blocks of ice. There was another legendary yarn about them in Fox Company. One night outside Hagaru-ri, Benson had decided to widen their foxhole while Cafferata went for coffee. He was still shoveling furiously upon Cafferata's return and failed to heed his buddy's warning that Colonel Litzenberg was standing above him.
"Yeah, sure, Hec," he'd said, refusing to look up and purposely heaping dirt over what he assumed were Cafferata's shoepacs. "I don't give a fuck if it's Santa Claus. I'm tired of you sleeping on my face."
Now Benson did look up at the man whose boots he had fouled. He swore he saw steam blowing from Blitzen Litzen's ears. To make matters worse, both men were cited for having a round in their rifle chambers and their safeties off in a secure rear area.
In short, Cafferata was considered a first-class screwup, with Benson not far behind. Perhaps, Benson thought, they were indeed better off up here on the front line, where they could stay out of trouble-if only the earth were as soft as it had been down at Hagaruri. He swung his entrenching tool again to no avail and turned to Cafferata in frustration.
"We'd need goddamn dynamite to make a hole here," he said. "Forget about the gooks for a minute, Hec. What say while it's still light we go chop down some of them trees and build ourselves a little nest?"
In Washington, D.C., President Truman was busy fending off calls for much more than the use of dynamite in Korea. In late June, when North Korea initially invaded South Korea, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had immediately ruled out the use of atomic weapons in this new war zone. North Korea, with the possible exception of the capital, Pyongyang, did not offer the large targets of opportunity that Japan had in World War II. Moreover, American generals and admirals advised the president that conventional weapons were more than adequate to deal with Kim's ragged army. Why destroy a gnat with a shotgun? This came as something of a relief to Truman. Only five years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he knew that the United States still faced the world's opprobrium for dropping the two A-bombs.
As Mao's threats intensified, however, some people rethought the Joint Chiefs' calculations. General Curtis LeMay of the Air Force, who had directed the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945, begged to unleash atom bombs on North Korea. And several members of Congress, led by Congressman Albert Gore Sr. of Tennessee, argued that "something cataclysmic" needed to be done to stop Korea from becoming a "meat grinder of American manhood." Gore suggested using atomic weapons on the 38th Parallel to make it a radiation belt separating the two Koreas. No one, however, argued for the atomic option more strenuously than General MacArthur.
MacArthur had disagreed with the Joint Chiefs' decision from the beginning of the war, and in mid-November he stepped up his attempts to push the atomic button. This, he said, would not only result in the complete capitulation of Kim 11-Sung within two weeks, but also end any possibility of a Chinese or Russian incursion into the country for three generations. No cordon sanitaire dividing North and South Korea would do for MacArthur. He wanted to separate the Korean peninsula from the rest of the Asian mainland "with a belt of radioactive cobalt strung along the neck of Manchuria." His plan was to saturate the strip of land just north of the Yalu River with thirty A-bombs. After that, 500,000 of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Chinese soldiers would be used to guard the border for the active life of the cobalt-then calculated to last between 60 and 120 years.
"I visualize a cul-de-sac," MacArthur wrote to the Joint Chiefs. "The only passages leading from Manchuria and [the Russian city of ] Vladivostok have many tunnels and bridges. I see here a unique use for the atomic bomb-to strike a blocking blow-which would ... sweeten up my B-29 force."
Although MacArthur insisted that his plan was "a cinch," American civilian leaders, wary of the Soviet Union's small, if growing, atomic stockpile, rejected it-for now.
Radiation strips and cobalt zones were the last thing on Private First Class Bob "Zeke" Ezell's mind as he hauled two heavy cans of ammo for the light machine guns up the east slope of the hill. He was freezing but trying his damnedest not to let the others see how miserable he was. Ezell, who had just turned nineteen, was a tall, skinny baseball star from Wilmington, California, near the Los Angeles harbor. In his hometown he was renowned for his reckless outfield play. Here in Korea he was nothing more than an assistant ammo carrier sick of hearing the northern boys, especially the squareheads from Minnesota, boast about adjusting to the cold. Corporal Harry Burke, a bazooka man from a small town in the southwest corner of Minnesota, had even taken it upon himself to lecture the company's "California queers" on foot care after one of Ezell's buddies was evacuated with frostbite. And just a few mornings ago, in Hagaru-ri, a couple of Marines who called themselves the "Minny Gang" had made Ezell the butt of their jokes when he'd poured milk on his cereal and found a stump to sit on outside the mess tent, only to discover the milk frozen solid.
"Gotta eat your Wheaties inside the tent, Zeke. Don't you pretty boys from California know anything about winter?"
Ezell learned fast that if you didn't come back at them quickly they'd ride you even harder, and he gave as good as he got. But he was at a natural disadvantage. He bore an eerie resemblance to the young Tyrone Power and was forever being kidded about his perpetual smile and his brilliant white teeth. Ezell was quick to remind his tormenters that Power had suspended his acting career to enlist in the Corps and had become a Marine pilot who'd taken wounded men off the islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. That shut them up for a while.
Like most of the kids in Fox, Ezell had spent his youth immersed in the movies of the World War II era, and he and his buddies had enlisted in the Marine Reserves to live out these fantasies. But his first love was baseball, and he was good. He'd been all-league in high school and he'd made the all-star team in his first season in the minor leagues, playing for an affiliate of the Boston Braves. He dreamed of following in the footsteps of a fellow graduate of Harbor High: George Witt, a minor leaguer who would eventually pitch for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
In the states, Ezell's recruiting officer had seen the marksmanship medal he'd won at a Marines summer camp and immediately assigned him to a rifle company in the Seventh Regiment. When Ezell asked about boot camp, the officer had grinned. "We need riflemen on the front line," he'd said. "You're an athlete. Pretend you went to boot camp."
Now he was thousands of miles from home, trying to scrape out a machine-gun nest on a windswept hill. Boy, would he like to pretend this away. Although Ezell was merely an ammo carrier, each man in his unit-one of the First Platoon's two light machine gun emplacements-had been trained to take over the gun in an emergency. They constituted the right flank of Captain Barber's "horseshoe," and the first thing Ezell did when he dropped his ammo cans in the snow was study the terrain.
The gun's field of fire would cover a seventy-five-yard arc across the treeless valley that separated this more gradual slope from what the Marines were calling the East Hill, two hundred yards away. In the fading light Ezell could just make out the top of the loop of the MSR, about 150 yards beyond the East Hill, where the road bent south to Hagaru-ri. At this fork in the turnpike a trampled path-what passed for a spur road in North Korea-broke off and veered northwest toward the hamlet of Chinghung-ni. A little beyond this crossroad the MSR intersected with a dry creek bed that ran parallel to, and below, Ezell's position. Where the creek bed met the road it ran under a small culvert. Ezell noted that the depression was large enough to hide perhaps four men if they squeezed in tight. Bet that'd be pretty toasty, he thought.
Winter war in North Korea was like fighting inside a snow globe. Prior to the Marine landings at Wonsan, American military physicians specializing in cold-weather warfare had studied winter campaigns such as the Russo-Finnish War, Hitler's march on Moscow, and the Battle of the Bulge, one of the coldest engagements on record. The idea of outfitting U.S. military personnel in layers, as opposed to a single piece of heavier outer clothing, was one result of these analyses. Another consequence was the ill-conceived decision to issue perspiration-absorbing, wool-felt shoe pads fitted into clunky shoepacs, whose rubberized shell did not allow air to circulate.
In fairness, given the limitations of cold-weather science at that time, no medical study could have prepared the Marines for Toktong Pass, where a sleeping man could freeze to death in his own sweat. Over the past few weeks frostbite had taken more American soldiers out of action than the North Koreans, and no matter how often or how loudly corpsmen and officers warned about it, men wouldn't listen. The first way to avoid frostbite was to keep your extremities from perspiring-easier said than done in a firefight. Once a man stopped moving, his sweat would freeze into a film of ice, usually between his hands and his gloves and between his feet and the felt insole of his shoepacs. Damage to the hands could be contained. But if he didn't periodically remove his shoepacs and wool pads, massage his feet, and change his socks, frostbite would set in within hours. Needless to say, there was little opportunity for such regular salubriousness on the hill, and men and shoepacs simultaneously seemed to lose the will to stay dry.
Moreover, the temperature and the constant gale drastically affected the men's appetite. As a rule human beings are genetically programmed to eat more as the temperature drops. But just as these Marines had little or no time to care for their feet, they had few opportunities to build fires, boil snow, and melt their rock-hard C-rations. The chow tasted like dog food to start with, and everyone in Fox recalled the result of eating the frozen Thanksgiving feast. Now, with those stomach disorders fresh in their minds, the Marines limited themselves to the dry items in their C-rations. The icy beef stew, beans, and congealed hash were all avoided in favor of a steady diet of crackers, biscuits, and candy. This diet made the men miserable and weak, and the more miserable a man was, the less he would eat. The less he would eat, the less he could eat. As a result of this cycle, the stomach shrank. Many Marines were losing four to eight pounds a day. Captain Barber worried that if he had to spend too many days on this hill he would end up commanding a company of scarecrows.
Barber and his officers, most conspicuously the Second Platoon's Lieutenant Peterson, constantly impressed on the Marines the necessity of changing their socks as often as possible. Peterson had carried only two pairs of socks with him up to the pass, yet on his inspection rounds he made a point of demonstrating how he kept his spare pair hanging from his belt and down the inseam of his pants leg. It was the best-in fact the only-place to dry them out, he said.
When Peterson had trudged up the hill he discovered a small cave no more than ten yards behind the juncture of his First and Second squads on the western slope. He could hardly believe his good fortune. He directed his platoon sergeant, Richard Danford, to convert the snow-free grotto into his platoon command post, and he ordered William McLean, the corpsman attached to his platoon, to dig in nearby. Both kept a watchful eye on their new platoon commander as they complied.
Peterson was the Second Platoon's third CO since it had arrived in Korea five months earlier, and he was by far the most handsome man in the outfit-"prettier" even than Bob Ezell. A twenty-eightyear-old North Dakotan with a square jaw, broad shoulders, and wavy black hair, Peterson was the one Marine in the outfit who could have been on recruiting posters. He had enlisted at eighteen after finishing high school, had seen action on Guam and in China during World War II, and had cashed out at the end of that war. Like most of his contemporaries, he'd remained in the reserves while he went back to school-in his case, to earn a BS in civil engineering from the State University of Montana and a master's degree from the University of Iowa. He was teaching at Oklahoma State University when war broke out in Korea. Called back to active duty, he breezed through officer candidate school and was posted to Fox. Naturally, the men called him "Prof " behind his back.
Peterson had caught up with the company in Hagaru-ri, and he barely knew the names on his platoon roster when they left for the Toktong Pass. But his experience as an enlisted man in World War II lent him more authority, particularly among the veterans, than a shiny new second lieutenant might normally have received. His credibility increased when, leaving his sergeants to stand up his platoon command post in the cave, he made his inspection rounds.
Peterson was one of the few Marines who had any kind of experience with cold weather-he recalled several weeks during one winter in Montana when the temperature never rose above twenty below. So as he stopped by each foxhole he not only demonstrated his socks trick, but also imparted whatever other ideas he knew to ensure that his men were squared away as well as possible. He instructed them, for instance, to tuck in only alternate layers of their multiple shirts and jackets, as the circulating air warmed by body heat would act similarly to the insulating sheen of water trapped in a wet suit. He also showed them how to buddy up by combining their mummy bags so one man's free foot rested in the warmth of his partner's crotch.
Similarly, he knew that the best way to keep water in a canteen from freezing was to add a few drops of rubbing alcohol or, in a pinch, a dollop or two of hair tonic. And he advised his Marines to periodically take as many deep, diaphragmatic breaths as possible to keep the body flooded with oxygen at this elevation. Finallyand this was a surprise-he told them to try to wash their hair as often as possible.
"Clean hair retains heat," he said, "dirty hair doesn't." His men wondered where the lieutenant expected them to find even tepid water for shampooing. But they knew Peterson's heart was in the right place, and that he cared about their survival. This went a long way with them-whether or not a shampoo was feasible.
The rifleman Private First Class Bob Kirchner of the Second Platoon was certain he was burrowing into an old cemetery. He was near the top of the west slope, settled into an eerie, grave-like depression, and those were surely not rocks his entrenching shovel was crunching. He wondered whose bones he was disturbing.
The twenty-one-year-old Kirchner was used to mountainous terrain, but he'd never seen anything so desolate as North Korea. The steep, pointed peaks, tiers and tiers rising as far as the eye could see, reminded him of inverted ice cream cones. At home in Pittsburgh, the hills and hollows had at least some color, even in winter, with strong, thick stands of conifers and spruce shining green and verdant even during blizzards. But these were the barest damned mountains he'd ever seen, like a moonscape. He wondered what the Korean words for "Old Baldy" were.
Kirchner had dug no more than a few inches when Lieutenant Pet. rson, making his rounds, dropped by his hole. "Remember that kid I caught you wrestling with back in the village?" he said.
Peterson made a dramatic show of taking in the rolling heights in every direction. The sun was low in the sky and he thought the view was, in a way, soothing-the rolling swell of the mountains kissed by a bluish haze the color of cigarette smoke. "I'm thinking he's probably somewhere up there, and you might have to shoot him tonight."
When he'd first arrived in Hagaru-ri, Kirchner had spent a night in an impromptu warming station, a house his squad had confiscated from a North Korean family. They hadn't thrown the locals out into the cold, and the old mother, her teenage son and daughter, and a young girl of about three or four had huddled in a corner against the glaring white light of a Coleman lantern as the Marines had warmed themselves and rested. The little girl reminded Kirchner of his own baby daughter at home, and as the hours wore on he began playing with the Korean girl, cooing silly little songs and tickling her under the chin. This seemed to lighten the family's mood, and by daybreak you would have thought everyone had known everyone else for years. The woman had even pulled out a frying pan to beat with a stick, and the little girl did a few step dances to the tune.
Kirchner was a skinny kid of average height, with black hair slicked back from a broad forehead. He had a prominent, aquiline nose and powerful thighs and calves. In the morning, he and some of his buddies had started Indian leg wrestling to break the monotony. The teenage Korean boy watched them for a while and finally got up the gumption to challenge Kirchner to a match. Kirchner had been taught to raise his leg three times to signal the start of the action, but the boy did not know any such formality. As Kirchner was raising his leg for the first time the boy jumped him, caught him off balance, and nearly broke his back.
Everyone got a big laugh out of it, including Kirchner, who demanded a rematch. This time, prepared, Kirchner lifted the boy clear in the air and threw him right through the door-where he landed on top of Lieutenant Peterson.
Peterson came rushing into the hootch with his sidearm drawn, and it took the Marines a moment to explain that they were only playing. Two nights later, out on patrol east of Hagaru-ri, Kirchner and his squad were ambushed. During the firefight he recognized the same boy, who was about to heave a grenade when Kirchner shot him dead. He hadn't told anyone about the incident.
Now he set down his spade and gazed up at Lieutenant Peterson. "I don't know, sir," he said. There was a hint of sadness to his voice. "I don't think we'll be seeing that kid again."
Howard Koone and Dick Bonelli, having dug no more than twelve inches into the rocky, frozen ground, gave up. They placed their backpacks on the forward lip of the shallow depression to use as parapets for their rifles. They also piled more snow around the edges of their half-assed foxhole, fully aware that as hard-packed as it might be, it would not stop a bullet. Before sunset Bonelli had been able to look down from his elevated position and glimpse, between cloud banks, the black-ice contours of the southern arm of the Chosin Reservoir as it snaked behind the crevassed inclines of Toktong-san. Now the snow clouds had dispersed, the stars had not yet risen, and in the clear night sky Bonelli could see orange flashes of artillery fire up near the reservoir.
Their fingers numb from the cold, Bonelli and Koone tore scraps of paper from their C-ration boxes. Before being shipped overseas Bonelli had participated in cold-weather maneuvers in Labrador, Canada. That was Tahiti compared with this. He removed a mitten and lit a waterproof match, but the wind blew it out. He tried to pull another match from the folder, but his bare fingers were already so frozen and stiff he couldn't detach it from the pack. In the bitter cold even the simplest task became as difficult as boning a marlin.
He held out the solitary match, still attached to its folder. Koone whipped off a glove and got it lit. He put it to the paper while they both blocked the wind with their bodies. They sheltered the small flame, and across the crest of Fox Hill and up and down its flanks more fires began to flicker. "Eat everything," Koone said. "You don't know if we're even going to be here tomorrow."
One of the new boots asked Bonelli about the Uijongbu campaign, in which Bonelli had fought after the landing at Inchon six weeks earlier. Bonelli snorted.
"Like a Marx Brothers movie," he said. "One time I'm out on a listening post all by myself, cleaning my rifle, when out of nowhere this North Korean soldier walks right up to me. `Who the hell are you?' I said. 'And what the hell you doing here?' 'Strolling,' the guy tells me. Perfect English. Strolling! So I whipped my bayonet around and caught him in the thigh. He half-runs and half-gimps away. But I chase him down. Dove and caught him. Was about to give it to him good when a South Korean patrol comes by and nails him. Only time I ever saw a ROK do anything worthwhile."
He continued. "See, what the gooks did, they had these big mortars, and they had good maps. They would drop a shell in your lap before you could blink. And this guy was their spotter."
By now the two boots were mesmerized, and Bonelli couldn't help himself. "Ever tell you about the time I robbed the Korean bank?" he said.
It made for a good bedtime story for "the kids," Bonelli thought. He began to reminisce about how, during the Uijongbu campaign, his patrol had run across a bombed-out bank and blown the safe with grenades. They thought they were rich and would come back and buy the country after the war was over.
Bonelli looked at Koone. For once the Indian smiled. "Thousanddollar bills," Bonelli said. He drew his gloved hands apart. "Stacks of them. Filled a duffel bag."
Stan Golembieski leaned in. "What did you do with all the cash?"
Bonelli could feel the anticipation build as he made them wait for the kicker. Then he said, "Used 'em to make a fire the next morning. Brewed the best pot of coffee I ever tasted with that money."
A spectral winter fog stole up the valleys of the Toktong Pass at 6:30 p.m. as the Third Platoon commander Lieutenant McCarthy and his platoon sergeant, John Audas, inspected their dug-in positions along the crest of the hill. They informed their riflemen that earlier in the day the Seventh and Fifth Regiments at Yudam-ni had made contact with Chinese units. When Bonelli heard this he decided to move the knapsack he had placed on the parapet of his hole so it sat between him and the worrisome thicket. It had frozen solid to the snow.
At 7 p.m. a bonfire was started at the base of the hill near the company command post tent. The mortarmen, the heavy machine gun crews, and the headquarters unit moved close. Because of the rises, depressions, ridgeline contours, and fir trees, the flames could not be seen by Marines at the top of the hill. Stories around the fire tended, as usual, toward past conquests in love and war, some of them true. There is no sincerity like that of a soldier telling a lie. Soon the conversation came to be dominated by one question: Think we'll be home for Christmas?
At 9 p.m. Captain Barber's three rifle platoon leaders informed him by field phone that they had secured their positions for the night. Fox Company was strung over the hill like a pearl necklace. Barber ordered all fires extinguished, and the men were given passwords. They were placed on two-hour, fifty-fifty watches: one man would sleep while the other stood sentry. Ten minutes later several Marines near the road heard the last convoy of trucks from Yudam-ni coughing soot as they rolled south on the MSR en route to Hagaru-ri.
A four-day-old moon, nearly full and glowing as white as a spotlight, rose at 9:30 p.m. from behind the South Hill across the MSR. Thousands of stars lit up the sky. The temperature hovered near minus-thirty degrees Fahrenheit.
Just before midnight, Captain Barber radioed Lieutenant Colonel Randolph Lockwood in Hagaru-ri. He informed his superior officer that the 234 Marines, twelve corpsmen, and one civilian interpreter of Fox Company, Second Battalion, Seventh Marines, were ready, able, and effective.