DECEMBER 1, 1950
In all his years as a Marine, Sergeant Clyde Pitts had never seen anything like it. Eleven minutes earlier, at precisely 1 a.m., Captain Barber had gotten through to Hagaru-ri and requested a shelling of the four new enemy machine guns that were stitching Fox Hill from the rocky knoll. The moon had long since disappeared behind the snow clouds; the Chinese had wised up and removed their tracers; and though the Americans could vaguely make out the emplacements, no one could get a clear shot at them. Barber instructed Lieutenant Campbell to maintain radio contact with How Company's artillery battery in order to synchronize their howitzer salvo with a brace of star shells from his own 81-mm mortars. He had then ordered Sergeant Pitts to carry a field phone to the crest of the hill and register the barrage.
When Pitts reached the hilltop he waved to Barber at the command post, who in turn nodded to Campbell. Captain Benjamin Read's scratchy voice came over the radio from Hagaru-ri. "Four guns at your command."
"Fire," Campbell said.
"Four rounds on the way." The distant crack of the field guns echoing off the mountains was sharp enough to cut falling silk.
Barber turned to the mortarman Private First Class O'Leary. "Fire."
Two illumination rounds lit up the knoll. Seconds later Pitts watched, with awe verging on disbelief, as four 105-mm shells landed directly on the machine-gun nests. Bodies and gun barrelsincluding one that appeared to be from a British-made Lewis gun, with its drum mounted horizontally above the breech-soared through the night sky. Pitts was nearly speechless when he phoned the information to Lieutenant Campbell. Campbell also had doubts about the pinpoint accuracy of the artillery gunners.
Barber grabbed the phone. "Are you positive?"
"I'm watchin' it with my own eyes, Cap'n." For once Barber understood Pitts's syrupy drawl. "Wonderful, lovely, beautiful."
"All four of them?"
"I swear to God. All four. Bam. Gone."
Barber passed the receiver back to Campbell, who rather breathlessly congratulated Read on a fine piece of shooting. "Cease fire," he said. "Target destroyed. Mission accomplished."
But even Read seemed stunned. He asked for a reconfirmation. "Say again after 'Cease fire."' Lobbing four shells directly on target from seven miles away on the first volley didn't happen often.
"You got them all," Campbell said. "Thanks again."
An hour later, near the southeast corner of the hill, Phil Bavaro and John Bledsoe heard scratching in the thick new snow piling up below their foxhole. Bledsoe peered over the lip. He could barely make out a white-clad figure ten yards down the slope. The man was fidgeting with something on the ground. Before Bledsoe could reach his M1, the soldier glanced up at him, dashed back across the road, and dived behind a snowbank strewn with Chinese corpses. Bledsoe pulled Bavaro to the bottom of the hole seconds before the satchel charge detonated. No one was injured.
The explosion, however, appeared to be a signal. Now the Chinese who were hiding in the trees skirting the South Hill began walking rifle and submachine-gun fire up and down the east slope. The Americans guessed it was another attempt to flush out their heavy machine-gun emplacements. No one took the bait-until Bavaro and Bledsoe saw Captain Barber stumping on his tree branch through the screen of blowing snow and bullets. He stopped at their hole.
"Fire off a couple of rounds," he said, motioning toward the trees about two hundred yards away. "Let's see where their machine guns are."
The two cooks were not happy with the order. An MI's orange muzzle flash, particularly against the background of a heavy snowfall, would be like a bull's-eye hoisted over their position. Barber must have realized this, for to assuage their fear he remained upright behind their hole. They opened up. Nothing. The Chinese, Bavaro thought, must have swallowed smart pills. Not only did the enemy machine guns remain silent; all fire from the woods ceased.
Barber limped away. The cooks couldn't tell if he was satisfied or angry. As Barber's figure receded into the trees, they went about setting up grenade booby traps below their hole. This was as close as Fox Company came to a firefight in the early morning hours of the fourth night on the hill.
"Incidents," however, occurred-as incidents have a tendency to do on a battlefield. In the thinning darkness moments before dawn the bazooka section squad leader Sergeant Scully observed a sniper burrowing among the frozen enemy corpses one hundred yards across the road. Scully aimed and squeezed his trigger but his M I jammed. He yelled to Bavaro in the next foxhole, pointing out the skulking figure. Bavaro fired and killed the man.
"Nice shot for a cook," said Scully.
"Got my expert marksman's patch long before I knew what a ladle was," Bavaro said. Remarks like Scully's really pissed him off.
Phil Bavaro considered himself as much of a warrior as any other Marine in Fox Company. He was from Newark, New Jersey, and he had enlisted in 1946 and completed the cooks and bakers course at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina that year. But then he had injured his back in-of all things-a kitchen accident; he received an honorable medical discharge in 1947. Still, he was determined to fight in the next war-any war-with the Corps. His older brother Frank had landed in Normandy on D-Day, and Phil was damned well not going to let Frank hog all the family glory. So he had reenlisted after his injury healed and had been assigned to a Marine rifle company.
His battalion had been completing training maneuvers at Camp Lejeune when the North Koreans crossed the 38th Parallel, and he was disappointed upon his debarkation in San Diego to be issued a tropical uniform, mosquito netting, and antimalaria pills. The landings at Inchon were just taking place, but according to scuttlebutt his outfit was heading for French Indochina, where the French were getting their asses handed to them by the Vietminh. So when the coast of Japan hove into view from the deck of the USS General Walker, a 20,000-ton troop transport, Bavaro and his rifle company whooped with delight. They were going to Korea.
Since arriving at Wonsan nineteen days earlier, Bavaro had been miserable. There were not enough experienced cooks in-country, and some pencil pusher had obviously gone through his personnel file because he'd immediately been handed a skillet and a coffee grinder to tote with his rifle and grenades. Also, he learned that he was replacing a Fox Company cook who had been killed by a land mine -a bad omen. It was not long before Bavaro learned that cooks and bakers operated differently out in the field. They were expected not only to prepare meals for the company but to fill in as stretcher bearers, runners, foxhole diggers, ammunition carriers, and riflemen. Bavaro could live with that, even if he was rusty.
At Sudong, he had stood watch with a light machine gun for four consecutive nights, anxious every moment about figures he could barely see moving in the shadows. Were they civilian refugees? Most likely. But the thought never left his mind that they could be an enemy force about to overrun the outfit. One starless night at Koto-ri, when the first severe, icy cold had struck Fox, he had forgone the trench latrine to defecate in what he thought was a spare helmetonly to discover the next morning that the helmet was his platoon sergeant's steel pot. And in Hagaru-ri he had nearly burned down the field kitchen with a stove fire.
OK, so maybe he wasn't the Marine on the recruiting posters. And maybe he wasn't even very handy in the kitchen. But he could sure as hell handle an MI. Nice shot for a cook? Fuck that!
At 6 a.m., the machine gunner Jack Page again saw two Chinese officers ambling up the MSR as if they were looking for a picnic spot. What is with these Chinamen? They stopped at the shot-up hulk that had once been Private First Class French's mail Jeep, climbed in, and stood on the backseat.
Page and his assistant gunner grabbed their M 1 s, counted silently to three, and blasted the Chinese off the vehicle with a single shot apiece. They then crawled down to the road and appropriated the sacks of grenades the two men had carried, as well as several maps and other papers from inside their uniforms. On the way back Page detoured past the frozen bodies of yesterday's two sightseers to grab a red fedora as a souvenir. His assistant gunner was disappointed to find the other red hat pocked with bullet holes.
An hour later, at 7 a.m., Captain Barber was informed of yet another battalion of Chinese marching down the rocky ridge from behind Toktong-san, headed for the rocky knoll. This was, by Barber's reckoning, the third enemy battalion-fifteen companies--committed to sweeping him off Fox Hill. It struck him that Litzenberg and Murray must be on the move from the Chosin-the Reds seemed to want Toktong Pass in the worst way. Four days earlier enemy scouts, and no doubt their officers, had surely watched Fox Company climb this hill. They must have assumed the undermanned American outfit could be swatted away in a night.
Now Barber wondered. Hadn't they read the military manual, specifically the chapter explaining that even the best-laid battle plans never survive the first contact with the enemy?
Bill Barber may have been in the dark about the precarious state of the American outposts stranded at the Chosin Reservoir, but the world was not. The Marines at Yudam-ni, Hagaru-ri, and Fox Hill had already taken nearly 1,200 casualties-and another five hundred were reported from the Army task force east of the reservoir. Headlines around the world used words like "Trapped" and "Surrounded." The headline in the New York Times was typical-"U.S. Marines Encircled Near Reservoir in Northeast Beat Off Attacks by Chinese."
Switchboards at Marine bases across the United States lit up with calls from anxious wives and parents. The head of the Central Intelligence Agency, General Walter Bedell Smith, who had been Dwight D. Eisenhower's chief of staff during World War II, declared that only international diplomacy could now prevent MacArthur's right pincer column from being swallowed by the Chinese.
Moreover, in just twenty-four hours the questions from the press had become, uncharacteristically, more pointed. The "gung ho" image and the comparison to Dunkirk were not being accepted. In Washington a Marine spokesman, thronged by reporters, was forced to admit for the first time that X Corps' situation was "serious, but not hopeless." In Korea, however, the Marine First Division was conceding nothing. The pugnacious Colonel "Chesty" Puller, commanding two battalions twenty-six miles south of the Chosin at Koto-ri, asserted, "We've been looking for the enemy for some time now. We finally found him. We're surrounded. That simplifies things."
When President Truman refused to rule out the use of atomic bombs against China, other nations were appalled, as was the United Nations General Assembly. The British prime minister, Clement Attlee, promised to fly to Washington to dissuade Truman from starting another world war. It would be the first of four such trips by a rattled Attlee.
On the ground near the Chosin, the possible onset of World War III was not the most pressing problem. General Almond had abandoned the irrational plan to use the Marines to relieve the Eighth Army in the west, and colonels Litzenberg and Murray had received General Smith's Joint Operation Order No. I to evacuate Yudam-ni. Both officers realized that fighting their way down to Hagaru-ri was the key to the survival of the entire First Division.
Gone were the days of Tootsie Rolls and shoe polish at the Hagaru-ri PX. The village was now an island in a sea of Chinese. Yet though the enemy might have entrapped American positions as far south as Puller's bivouac in Koto-ri, at Hagaru-ri there were supply and ammunition dumps as well as the integral airstrip, now close enough to completion to receive cargo planes. Inside the Hagaru-ri perimeter, the Fifth and Seventh regiments could regroup and reequip. Inside Hagaru-ri, the Marines could fly their wounded to safety and take under their wing the beaten Army "doggies" ensnared on the other side of the reservoir. Inside Hagaru-ri, they could reestablish contact with the outside world, catch their breath, and continue the long breakout to the waiting Navy evacuation ships seventy-eight miles to the south off the port of Hungnam.
According to Colonel Alpha Bowser at Hagaru-ri, two prayers were appropriate on this day: "First, that the Fifth and Seventh Marines would reach Hagaru-ri quickly with their fighting ability intact. Second, that we would hold on to Hagaru-ri as they fought their way toward us."
He might have added a third: that Barber's company would still exist when Litzenberg and Murray reached Fox Hill.
At just past 7 a.m., Lieutenant Campbell stood on the west slope watching the latest Chinese battalion file down the ridge. He was struck by what could be considered a crazy idea. He turned his gaze down the hill and saw the company's two heavy machine-gun emplacements dug in forty yards below him. Campbell's training as a forward artillery spotter had included studies of all long-firing weapons, and he knew well the range of a Browning thirty-caliber watercooled machine gun. Perhaps, just maybe ...
He yelled to the gunners Page and Holt-and did a double take when a red fedora worn on top of a parka popped up from one of their holes. He pointed to the enemy column five hundred to six hundred yards away. "You think you can elevate your barrels, fire up through the treetops, and over the crest of that ridge?"
The machine gunners grabbed spare belts of ammunition still laced with red tracers, positioned their guns, and lit off a couple of short bursts. The tracers arced to the top of the rocky ridge and over it. The gunners went through several belts as the Chinese on the ridge fell dead or wounded or dived for cover.
Near the command post Captain Barber reached for his field phone and called Campbell: "Good job, son."
Son? To the lieutenant this seemed odd. Barber was only a few years older than he was.
Meanwhile, the blasts from the machine guns had awakened Warren McClure from another morphine dream. He sat up and then stood, tentatively. His legs felt wobbly, but he forced himself to walk to the entrance of the med tent. Someone offered him a dented tin mug filled with steaming coffee. This seemed to fortify him-enough, he thought, to let him traverse the one hundred yards to the west slope and get back to his old foxhole to fetch his gear. If he ran across a weapon on the trip, all the better. His left hand was still strong enough to hold a grenade or a sidearm, maybe even a carbine.
His spirit willing but his flesh weak, McClure had to give up after ten yards. He could walk a little, downhill, and even a bit on level ground. But trudging up the high ground in the direction of his old hole proved too much. He could hear the blood sloshing around in his right lung cavity when he moved, and the bullet hole in his chest began to seep a watery pink substance-a putrid combination of blood and pus. He sat, out of breath, among several wounded Marines who were smoking cigarettes around a campfire near the med tent.
These men, though too badly wounded to fight, had been out gathering firewood. One was his old friend Private First Class Amos Fixico, with whom McClure had landed at Inchon. A bloody ban dage covered both of Fixico's eyes, and he complained of a searing headache. Despite this obvious disadvantage, he was still able to carry wood in one hand and hold onto the flap of a fellow Marine's parka with the other.
The sight of the wounded Fixico stirred up memories in McClure. One was Fixico's almost comical intolerance for alcohol. As the butt of hillbilly jokes, McClure had never put much stock in stereotypes, so he rejected the notion about Indians and firewater. But it was true that Fixico, a Ute, needed no more than a sniff of whiskey to make him want to kill every white man he'd ever met. Once, in Japan, McClure had actually needed to tie the drunken Fixico to his bunk. Now, he was glad Fixico had not been carried to the same tent as Lieutenant Brady, who had the bottle of White Horse scotch.
As he and Fixico talked, McClure said that he had at first believed one of his own squadmates had shot him in the back during the first night's firefight, and Fixico told him about Sergeant Keirn's light machine-gun nest being overrun, and his own adventures in the woods with Dick Bonelli and the wounded Corporal Koone.
The more Warren McClure discussed their circumstances the more frustrated and angry he became-at himself, at his useless right arm, at his shot-up lung, at the Chinese, at MacArthur, at the goddamn Korean War. He stood up and wheezed his way back to his stretcher in the med tent. His fury dissipated at the sight of the paralyzed Marine. He opened another can of peaches and began spoon-feeding the wounded boy.
Harry Burke crouched behind the smaller hut among a dozen exhausted, thirsty Marines. It was 8:15 a.m. The spring at the bottom of the hill was exactly thirty-five paces away-across open terrain. A couple of the men had already made the dash to fill their canteens cups, drawing the attention of a sniper in the woods at the base of the South Hill. To call this enemy soldier a sharpshooter would be to overstate the case. In fact, he was a lousy shot, and as more Marines took their turn at the spring he had barely nicked a couple in the legs. Still.
Now it was Burke's turn, and he ran for all he was worth. When he reached the spring he danced from side to side, a moving target, as the fresh water splashed into his canteen. A few rifle slugs cracked the ice around him, but that was as close as they came. His canteen full, Burke took off. But instead of heading back for the cover of the small hut, he made a beeline to the larger hut, which was closer to the spring and closer to the road. He doubted that anyone had ventured very near this shack since he had returned for his sleeping bag the first morning and taken a souvenir whistle and some pamphlets from a dead Chinese officer.
With the sniper's bullets at his feet, Burke dived behind the hut and nearly banged heads with a wounded Red sitting with his back to the wall. The kid, another conscript barely into his teens, was conscious, if evidently dying. His head was encrusted with a thin layer of ice, and blood-red icicles hung from his bullet-pocked uniform. The only signs of life were small white puffs of condensation escaping his mouth. Burke couldn't believe the boy wasn't dead yet.
During basic training, before shipping out to Korea, Burke had made friends with a couple of old China hands, and he'd picked up a little of the lingo. Now he tried to communicate, but the boy was unresponsive. Too far gone, Burke thought. He unholstered his sidearm, paused, and slid the pistol back into its leather harness. What's the point?
Picking his way back up to his foxhole, Burke passed Sergeant Kipp and Corporal Gaines coming down the hill. They asked if he had seen anything, or anybody, inside the large hut. Burke said he hadn't looked in. Kipp and Gaines continued on down, and a moment later Burke heard rifle reports from inside. Kipp and Gaines had run across several wounded Chinese. Burke didn't wait around to ask if they had shot the dying kid.
About forty-five minutes later, at just past 9 a.m., Staff Sergeant John Henry saw two North Korean officers in full field uniforms walking up the MSR from the east. This was a rare occurrence. Henry couldn't remember the last time he'd seen hostile North Koreans. Even more unusual was the fact that the machine gunner Jack Page wasn't around to shoot them; the aroma of brewing coffee had lured him up to the med tents. When the North Koreans turned the corner of the road near the southeast base of the hill, Henry and one of his ammunition carriers were waiting for them behind a growth of tall brush.
Henry had no compunction about shooting oblivious enemy combatants, even two soldiers bughouse enough to mistakenly wander into an active battlefield. But these officers might be of value. At the very least, unlike the Chinese prisoners, they would be able to communicate with the civilian Korean interpreter, Mr. Chung. Perhaps they could serve as intermediaries, linguistic bridges, between Mr. Chung and the Chinese captives. Might know where all the rest of the gooks are. Might help us figure out a way to get off this goddamn hill.
These notions raced through John Henry's mind as the ammunition carrier, his face unclouded by thought, shot one man dead. Henry was so startled by the rifle report next to his ear that he instinctively squeezed the trigger on his Thompson. The second officer fell to the ground, his chest caved in.
Seven miles to the north, not far from the western bank of the Chosin Reservoir, a collection of some 350 Marines-the tattered remnants of the First Battalion's Abel, Baker, and Charlie rifle companiesshuffled into uneven rows. As they tried to keep warm, Lieutenant Colonel Ray Davis emerged from his command post tent with his officers and strode to and fro before them.
Davis was freshly shaved, but his face was creased with deep lines of strain and exhaustion. Most of his men were baffled. All around them fellow leathernecks from the Fifth, Seventh, and Eleventh regiments were making frantic final preparations to quit the Chosin -in General Oliver Smith's euphemistic words, to "attack in another direction." But Davis's men, the survivors of his First Rifle Battalion, did not seem to be a part of this evacuation plan. They wondered why.
The "breakout" strategy was not complicated. Units from Colonel Murray's Fifth Regiment would lead the attack out of Yudam-ni, fighting for and seizing the high ground on both sides of the MSR, while Colonel Litzenberg's Seventh Regiment disengaged the main column from the village-a thorny undertaking. It wasn't just a matter of marching south. There were scores of vehicles, wounded, and dead involved. The three Chinese divisions surrounding them would not simply sit back and wave good-bye. Therefore, a rear guard from the Fifth Regiment, with assistance from several guns of the Eleventh Regiment, would be asked to hold off the enemy troops who were sure to flow into the abandoned hamlet. But with luck-a lot of luck-most of the Marines in the rear guard would be at Hagaru-ri for chow by the following day.
Davis's men knew nothing of this as their commander paced in front of them. Finally he halted, swiveled toward them, and stood still. Enlisted men in battle usually receive small-bore intelligence, faulty or incomplete. But on this occasion Davis believed his Marines had the right to know what they would be soon up against. After several uncomfortable minutes he swept his arm to encompass the controlled chaos of more than two Marine regiments breaking camp and turning themselves around to head the fourteen miles south.
"They are going down the road," he said. "We are not. Fellow Marines are in trouble, and we are going to rescue them. Nothing is going to stand in our way."
The First Battalion, he continued, would march southeast down the MSR, leading Litzenberg's main column for just a little over two miles to Hill 1419-Turkey Hill. This information drew a sardonic laugh. Davis allowed it to die down. At Turkey Hill, he said, they would jump off the road under cover of darkness to begin an overland trek to Toktong Pass while Litzenberg's main column continued down the MSR.
"Surprise will be our essential weapon," Davis told the men. "Marines don't usually attack at night, so the Chinese won't be expecting us."
He had already explained to his officers that their tiny detachment would break off the road in single file, traverse the hill, and set off cross-country in a northeast direction for the back door to the pass. The distance was four and a half miles as the crow flies, and their slog would take them over three mountain ridges before they reached the fourth, final, and highest one-the rocky ridgeline snaking down from Toktong-san. On the other side of it lay Fox Hill. Davis knew that, taking ascents and descents into consideration, the march would be more than nine miles-if they managed to stay on course.
He did not mention this to his enlisted men. He did tell them that elements of the howitzer battery at Yudam-ni had agreed to guide at least the early leg of their night march with intermittent star shells. "They're staying here so we can get there," he said.
He reemphasized that once they punched through the Chinese line at Turkey Hill, which was about a hundred yards off the east side of the road, the success of their mission would depend on stealth and speed. No cook fires would be lit to heat meals, and each man was to carry only one full canteen. He also suggested that his men discard everything in their C-rations except the canned fruit, crackers, and chocolate. The entire battalion, he said, was to jettison all superfluous equipment and lug only essential weapons, extra ammunition, and sleeping bags (for all the good the sleeping bags would do; most men still carried summer-weight bags issued months ago). Crews for the heavy and light machine guns were doubled, and each rifleman was handed an 81-mm mortar shell to lug in his mummy bag. A squad had already been assigned to haul two 81-mm mortar tubes, six heavy machine guns, and spare ammo on litters and stretchers.
As Davis went among his Marines for a final culling of the sick and wounded, Baker Company's mortar officer Lieutenant Joe Owen sidled up to his company commander, First Lieutenant Joseph Kurcaba. Kurcaba was the son of Polish immigrants who had settled in Brooklyn, New York; Owen's wife, in upstate New York, was also of Polish descent. The two officers had been together under Davis since Pendleton, when he had stood up the First Battalion, and over the next months they had bonded, trading friendly banter in the few Polish words and phrases Owen had picked up from his in-laws. Though at six-foot-five Owen towered over the stocky Kurcaba, he had come to consider Kurcaba his big brother, and some Marines referred to them as the Warsaw version of Mutt and Jeff. This morning, however, their conversation included no jokes about kielbasa or potato wodka.
Owen was not worried so much about finding and reaching Fox Hill as he was about getting past Turkey Hill. He and Kurcaba had both been there, under precarious circumstances, and they remembered the tangle of deep gullies and thick woods on its steep, slippery slopes. If the Chinese still maintained a stronghold on Turkey Hill, as Owen was certain they did, this little side trip would be getting off to a dodgy start.
Kurcaba shrugged. He had fought through World War II and had seen worse. There was nothing to be done, he told Owen, except to put one foot in front of the other.
When Davis finished his inspection, he formed up the Marines he had tapped for the march. As if he had read Owen's mind, he knew they felt this was a suicide mission. He needed to give them some little hope. "With any luck," he said, "by the time we relieve Fox Company and get the hill squared away, we should be in a position to meet up with the main column on the MSR."
If Davis felt any apprehension about relying on outdated topographic maps to guide him around sheer slopes and unexpected cliffs-or about leading hungry, spent men miles across uncharted enemy-held terrain, or about further splitting the undermanned Marine breakout forces abandoning the Chosin Reservoir-he did not betray it.
After the assembly broke up, Kurcaba sought out his Second Platoon leader, First Lieutenant Chew-Een Lee. "Battalion wants you as the lead platoon," he said.
Kurcaba had enlisted in 1935, and he figured that in his fifteen years as a Marine he'd seen everything the Corps had to throw at him. But he was taken aback when Lee-a slight Chinese-American officer-smiled. This was rare. Lee had a chip on his shoulder and was known throughout the Seventh Regiment as a blister of a man. His arrogance, however, was matched by his competence as a leader and fighter.
For his part, Lee knew that by battalion, Kurcaba meant Davis. He thought, Well, of course he does. Who else would he want? Still, the directive rankled-not in itself but because of how it had been delivered. It should have been Lieutenant Kurcaba, not "battalion," who ordered him to take the point. That was the Marine Corps way; orders were passed down through the hierarchy, by the book. And if Chew-Een Lee went by anything, he went by the book.
On their fourth day on Fox Hill the Marines watched as the Corsairs returned, eight fighter-bombers riding the air currents above the mountains like great green metallic hawks. The Marines could make out the letters L and D on the tails, for the Love Dog Squadron. There was a competition brewing, a game of one-upmanship. The Love Dogs were trying to top yesterday's performance by the Checkerboards.
They flew in so low that men near the crest ducked. They strafed both sides of the same ridge that the machine gunners Page and Holt had blasted two hours before. They regrouped and swooped again, scraping off bombs, rockets, and napalm canisters in a perfectly straight line from the rocky knoll and up the rocky ridges to the base of Toktong-san.
They were re-forming for a third run when Captain Barber called them off by way of their air controller. Two Flying Boxcars had appeared over the southern horizon, and Barber requested that the Corsair squadron flight leader keep his pilots in the area as the cargo planes made their drop. While the fighter-bombers flew low in the sky, no Chinese sniper would dare show his face. The Boxcars vectored leisurely over the "X" in the center of the parachute circle and delivered nearly all their bundles on target. A few overshot the mark, landing in the east valley just beyond the First Platoon's perimeter.
Barber asked the Corsairs to machine-gun the East Hill and South Hill while a small detail moved to recover the wayward pallets. The pilots complied, and after every crate had been dragged behind the lines the aircraft took one more run at the rocky knoll and the rocky ridges, discharging their last bullets and bombs. Then they waggled their wings and were gone, accompanied by another exuberant cheer from the Americans on the hill.
Listening to the roar from his men, Barber sensed a change in their mood. It was 12:30 p.m. and the blizzard had lightened to a few scattered flakes, but the temperature was dropping about one degree every hour. He called together his officers and platoon leaders; it was time, he said, to take the fight to the enemy. "Let's see how many the Love Dogs left standing," he said.
Barber knew that-more than by the miserable weather, more than by their hunger, more than by their untenable tactical situation -his men had been sapped by four straight days of defensive fighting. They were Marines, and they had been trained to attack. If he could get them out of their foxholes and on their feet, if he could make them see they were taking the fight to the Chinese, their morale would return.
He was not wrong. When his officers returned from spreading the word, they reported that this was the best news Fox Company had heard in five days.
The captain organized a patrol in force-a four-man fire team from the First Platoon headed by the squad leader Sergeant Daniel Slapinskas, augmented by eight mortarmen from one of the 81-mm crews. The thirteen-man recon detail would cross the saddle and poke around in the nooks and crannies at the base of the rocky knoll in search of any surviving, or regrouping, Chinese. Dick Kline's second 81-mm unit would cover them with suppressing fire from the hilltop. As word of this "offensive" spread, Fox Hill throbbed with energy.
It took Kline and his men ten minutes to lug their 81-mm tubes up to a slight depression near the crest of the hill. They began laying down covering fire soon after, walking shells at twenty-yard intervals the three hundred yards across the saddle to the bottom of the rocky knoll. Gouts of dark earth flecked with chunks of hardpacked white snow erupted like geysers. Into this maelstrom raced Slapinskas's patrol, the Marines leapfrogging over each other in a classic advance-and-cover maneuver.
The point fire team-corporals Charles North and Dan Montville and privates first class John Scott and Lee D. Wilson-met no resistance as they moved out fifty yards in front of the main body. Scott and Montville assumed covering positions just short of the rocky knoll while North and Wilson skirted the huge ledge. The four Marines were somewhat shocked. From Fox Hill you couldn't really tell how high this stone outcropping rose. Up close it looked about the size of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. North and Wilson cautiously worked their way around to its back.
The ground on either side and behind the knoll was crisscrossed with trenches, most leading back up to the rocky ridge. North and Wilson crept into one of these dugouts on their hands and knees. They had nearly circumvented the outcropping when they saw numerous dead soldiers in a half-dug ditch, most likely a work detail that had been deepening the trough. Then they heard snoring. Wilson nearly jumped out of his skin. These men weren't dead; they were asleep. How the hell had they slept through that Corsair bombardment?
The Marines leveled their M 1 s and emptied the clips, killing many of the Chinese and scattering the rest. As the survivors fled haphazardly, Scott and Montville picked them off. A Chinese officer jumped from behind a rock and tried to rally the panicked troops. Scott noticed, just before shooting him, that he was wearing a blue baseball cap.
The knoll was large, and its south side sloped gently to the saddle. Wilson and North climbed to the top, reloaded, and fired into another enemy platoon that was rushing down the ridgeline. With North and Wilson still on the knoll, Scott approached the half-dug trench. Someone threw a potato masher. Scott leaped backward, and as he fell his rifle clanked on a rock. He was uninjured, but when he aimed his M 1 it would not fire on automatic. He settled for one round at a time. Then he saw a squad break off from the platoon engaged by North and Wilson and begin moving toward him. Individual rifle rounds were not going to stop them.
He looked around. When the enemy work crew fled, they had abandoned their gear. Scott picked up a sack of hand grenades. He reached in-there were nearly a dozen-and started heaving them at the twenty or so Chinese soldiers closing on his position.
In a moment Scott was out of grenades and armed with only a rifle firing one bullet at a time. He turned to Montville, about twenty yards behind him. He was about to yell when a concussion grenade landed at Montville's feet, knocked him backward to the ground, and shattered his MI.
Now Scott did holler, "Fall back-I'll cover you." But Montville, still cradling his broken rifle in his arms, appeared stunned.
"Fall back!" Scott shouted again, this time with heat in his voice. Montville snapped to. He lurched off the saddle and into the west valley, ran a few yards, and instinctively took up a covering position, despite his useless rifle. Scott leaped past him down into the valley, eyeing Montville's smashed MI as he raced by. The two retreated in this manner until they neared the Second Platoon's lines on the west slope.
Montville, still somewhat in shock, had to be tackled by Gray Davis as he stumbled back through the perimeter. He had nearly walked into the field of booby-trap grenades that Davis and Luke Johnson had strung through the low tree branches. Scott stuck closer to the edge of the saddle. He had almost made the tree line when a bullet tore through his shoulder. He crawled the rest of the way.
Across the saddle, North and Wilson were pinned down on the rocky knoll. Sergeant Slapinskas led the rest of his detail to cover their escape. Chinese soldiers streamed out of foxholes, caves, and rock crevices behind the knoll. More were surging down the rocky ridge. North and Wilson backed their way down the knoll, jumped the final fifteen feet, and landed amid Slapinskas's men. The entire patrol began zigzagging back across the saddle, counting on covering fire from Kline's 81-mms and the forward foxholes of the Third Platoon. Again plumes of dirt, snow, and smoke erupted across the land bridge, this time behind the retreating patrol.
A mortarman was shot in the gut and went down. Two Marines running past grabbed him under each arm and dragged him away. A Navy corpsman raced to meet them. He, too, was hit. Two Marines from the Third Platoon ran out to retrieve him. Directing covering fire, the XO, Clark Wright, stood up in his hole and was shot twice in the side.
When Slapinskas's detail finally reached the safety of the perimeter, two Marines carried Captain Barber up the hill on a stretcher. His wound had worsened, and his improvised crutch would no longer suffice. The bullet he'd taken had glanced off his thighbone and lodged in his hip. The shattered bone was causing an infection to creep down his entire leg, and there was no penicillin for it. Even crawling in and out of his sleeping bag had become torturous, and after forty-eight hours of bearing the pain he had relented and allowed a corpsman to dose him with a morphine syrette. Before he'd taken it, however, he summoned his XO and first sergeant to his tent and told them to keep an eye on him.
"I want you to analyze every decision I make, everything I say. If you find me befuddled or irrational, I want you to tell me. And if you think I can't understand . . ." Barber paused to let his instructions sink in. "Do whatever you think is necessary."
But the captain showed no signs of incoherence as Sergeant Slapinskas delivered his recon report. One Marine was dead, four more were wounded, and at least a company of Chinese were still holding the rocky knoll. Slapinskas thought about the plastering the rocky knoll had taken from the Marine fighter-bombers. "The Corsair jockeys will not be happy," he said.
Barber gazed across the saddle. No Chinese were following. He could already sense that the adrenaline was ebbing in his tired troops. He decided that if his men were not going to have to fight, he was not going to let their minds go slack. "OK, let's get this hill cleaned up," he said. He wanted trash buried, the remaining C-rations counted, and every spare weapon stacked near the command post. The rest of the afternoon passed uneventfully.
On the banks of the Chosin it was late morning by the time Lieutenant Colonel Davis ordered his relief column to mount up. Factoring in the wind chill, he estimated that the temperature was close to minus-twenty-five and falling. When the Marines reached the hills the gale would make it feel more like minus-fifty. Each of his weary men carried nearly fifty pounds of equipment; the battalion groaned under all this weight.
Davis tramped in among the men, reminding them that although they were surrounded by the enemy, this was not a retreat. He pointed toward the barren heights. "Fox Company is just over those ridges," he said. "They're surrounded and need our help. They held the road open for us, and now it's our turn to return the favor."
As the column inched forward, Lieutenant Peter Arioli of the Navy appeared out of the snowy mist and introduced himself to Davis. Arioli, a regimental surgeon, had heard that Davis's medic had been wounded and volunteered to join the rescue mission. The battalion commander extended a hand. "Glad to have you with us," he said.
Lieutenant Chew-Een Lee looked at the new doc with a jaundiced eye. Arioli was too thin and seemed soft, as if he had never raised a callus in his life. Lee thought, Good intentions, but he'll never make it.
Although no Marine was daft enough to mention it, much less josh him about it, Chew-Een Lee realized he looked like a court jester: he was wearing bright pink supply-drop air panels, which he had draped over his shoulders like a cape. He didn't care how he looked. The idea was that his men would be able to find him in a tight spot. As usual, he would be out front. This was typical of Chew-Een Lee's military career. He didn't like following, and he didn't like followers.
Lee, who was twenty-four, had joined the Marine Corps six years earlier. One reason was to obliterate the stereotype of ChineseAmericans as just laundrymen and waiters. His height had been recorded (perhaps overgenerously) as five feet six, and he weighed only about 130 pounds, so he was one of the smallest men in the First Division. But he was also a hard man, and a hard taskmaster.
During the fourteen-day voyage from San Diego to Japan, other platoon leaders had scoffed when Lee "held school" for his enlisted men day and night on the deck of the troopship. Even Lee had suspected he was drilling his men so hard that half would have gone over the hill had they been on land. But he had a point to make, and he believed he had made it. If Red China entered the war, as Lee privately believed it would, he would be leading men with no experience and virtually no training against a numerically superior and ideologically committed force. The result of his harsh regimen on the troopship, Lee was certain, was that his raw Marines were now more terrified of him than they ever could be of the enemy.
A month earlier Baker Company had caught the brunt of the first fight against the Chinese in the Sudong Gorge. An enemy squad, perhaps twenty men, had held one of the smaller hills overlooking the gorge, and Lee single-handedly charged them and wiped them out, an act for which he was awarded the Navy Cross. As he was on his way down to the road, a sniper's bullet had shattered his right elbow, and he was evacuated against his wishes to a temporary Army hospital in Hamhung.
He was about to be flown to Japan when he and another wounded Marine went AWOL, stole a Jeep from the motor pool, and began making their way north, back to their units. When the Jeep ran out of gas, Lee-who was surely wanted by the MPs for stealing a vehicle, and whose arm was still bound in a cast and sling-walked the final ten miles back to the First Battalion. As he passed through American positions he was aware that even though he didn't carry a weapon, he might be shot for looking so "gooky."
Lieutenant Kurcaba had nearly fallen over when he saw Lee limp into Baker Company's bivouac to resume his command. (Lee did not tell Kurcaba or anyone else that in escaping from the hospital he had also been fleeing probable charges for assaulting a soldier. In sick bay, Lee had encountered a man suffering from battle fatigue. When Lee demanded to see a physical wound, the soldier merely shrank away. Enraged at what he considered cowardice, Lee slapped him.)
Lee had worn the sling and the cast on his arm ever sincethrough Hagaru-ri and up the MSR to the Chosin-always taking the point on patrols, never once complaining as he hefted his carbine in his good left hand and used his hip to balance the rifle when he fired. His knee was also badly injured-it wouldn't lock and kept buckling-and he had a cold that was getting worse by the day. He told no one. But now, as the First Battalion began its overland march, he discarded the sling, which was reduced to a bloody rag. He thought that the sling could be seen as a sign of weakness, and he could not abide that. Inside the cast his elbow still felt as if a sledgehammer had smashed it, but he would will himself to overcome the pain. His father would have been proud of him.
In California members of the Lee family were known throughout the Sacramento Valley's Chinese-American community as the "golden ones." Sometime after World War I-no one was sure of the exact year-Lee's father had emigrated from Guangzhou (Canton), the provincial capital of Guangdon Province. The elder Lee, whose Chinese name meant "Brilliant Scholar," had a knack for languages and picked up English quickly. He fast rose from farmworker to owner of a small farm to labor contractor, allocating fruit and vegetable pickers to the valley's white farmers.
After establishing himself in his adoptive country, Lee's father returned to Guangdon for an arranged marriage with a beautiful woman named Gold Jade. The two returned to the United States, and in the first five years of their marriage they had five of their seven children-four boys and three girls. Chew-Een was the eldest son.
The Lee farmstead failed early in the Great Depression, and the senior Lee moved his family to Sacramento itself, where he started a grocery business that evolved into a wholesale produce company supplying local restaurants and hotels. A point of pride for the Lees was that they came from the same Central Mountain district of Guangdon as the Chinese revolutionary and political leader Dr. Sun Yat-sen, often regarded as the father of modern China. Although not wealthy, the Lees considered themselves a sort of local aristocracy ruling over the Chinese migrant version of Okies. Throughout the 1930s, during the Sino-Japanese War, Lee's father was an influential political activist and fund-raiser for Sun Yat-sen's government.
Chew-Een Lee attended an elementary school in Sacramento consisting primarily of immigrant children-predominantly Chinese- and Japanese-Americans, with a few Mexicans, blacks, and whites. He was aware of Americans' attitudes toward the Chinese-these attitudes had led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1886, then still in effect-but he rarely encountered overt racial prejudice. He did have some fights with Japanese boys whose girlfriends swooned over his strong, handsome facial features, particularly his high cheekbones. And once, during a family outing, the Lees' car overheated in a white suburb of Sacramento, and young Lee watched as a white man humiliated his father by spraying him with a garden hose after being asked for water to refill the car's radiator. From that day on, Lee recalled, his father had drilled into the four boys a determination never to wash anybody's shirts.
Lee was a good student and an avid reader of history. His dream was to become a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, so he joined his high school's ROTC program. But when he was drafted in 1944, Army doctors told him that he lacked the depth perception necessary to fly a plane. Although he put himself through a rigorous program of eye exercises, he still could not pass the flight test by the time he was shipped to an Army depot in San Francisco later that year. He had never heard of the Marines Corps, but while he was in the depot awaiting an assignment, a recruiting officer wearing a uniform with red-bordered chevrons asked for volunteers. Lee liked the uniform, and he also heard the Army draftees saying that the leathernecks were "the first in combat and the first to die." This suited Lee fine and he immediately signed up for the Marines. He thought the highest honor he could achieve was to be killed in a just war.
At first the Marine recruiting officer eyed Lee's scrawny frame with skepticism. "Are you sure you can carry a pack?" he said.
Lee may have been small but he was all sinew, and to prove it he hefted two rucksacks off the floor, threw them over his shoulders, and marched back and forth across the depot. He became a Marine that day.
At boot camp he listed his three service goals in order of preference: the Para-Marines, the Tank Corps, and scout-sniper school. To his dismay he was instead assigned to a six-month Japaneselanguage school. He was the only regular Marine of Asian descent among the mostly reservist Caucasian scholars in his class, and when he was promoted to buck sergeant-the first regular AsianAmerican NCO in the Corps' history-he took his three stripes seriously. He prided himself on being the most ornery NCO the Marines had ever produced, and his attitude offended subordinates as well as fellow officers. Lee had no friends.
At the language academy he realized, to his chagrin, that he would miss the fighting in World War II. But he was cheered to recall from his studies of history that, on average, the United States had engaged in combat somewhere in the world, in declared or undeclared wars, every five years. He enrolled in officer candidate school and, as the youngest in his class, began smoking a pipe in the hope that this habit might compensate for his youth, and for his small physical stature.
His fellow Marines continued to be leery of him. Superior officers often tried to counsel him about the chip on his shoulder. He ignored them. Openly and vociferously, he challenged even captains and colonels whose lax standards did not rise to what he considered the right level for the Marine Corps.
Following his postwar deployments to China and Guam to debrief Japanese prisoners, he had been summoned back to Camp Pendleton, where in early 1950 Colonel Homer Litzenberg had been ordered to reconstitute the Seventh Regiment. Lee, now a lieutenant -this rank was another milestone for a regular Asian-American in the Corps-was the first platoon leader selected for the First Battalion's Baker Company. Lee had reservations about Litzenberg and was offended when Litzenberg's eyes teared up during his briefing to the assembled regiment prior to shipping out for Japan: such emotion seemed more appropriate for a grandfather than for a soldier. But Lee's wary respect for the battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Davis grew as he studied Davis in action. Davis's ability in battle was like his bearing, Lee thought; it radiated confidence.
After the landings at Inchon Lee ran into a younger brother, Chew-Mon "Buck" Lee, in Seoul, the South Korean capital. ChewMon Lee was a lieutenant in the Army's Second Infantry Division and had just returned to the front lines from Japan, having been wounded during the North Korean invasion two and a half months earlier. (Another brother, Chew-Fan Lee, the second oldest, was a pacifist, but he served with the Army Medical Service as a pharmacist and would be awarded the Bronze Star after the Chosin campaign.) Lee complained to Chew-Mon that in Japan, before Inchon, Division authorities had tried to make him a staff officer, a move he resisted bitterly.
"They are fools; they see slanted eyes and immediately want to make you an interpreter or some other such nonsense," he told Chew-Mon. "I'm no language officer, and I'm nobody's interpreter. I'm a regular Marine rifle platoon leader. I will lead troops in battle, and if I have to fight American staff officers in order to fight communists, you know I will do it."
During their brief reunion Chew-Mon gave his brother two new Army-issue banana clips that held thirty carbine rounds, twice as many as the Marines' clips carried. Chew-Een then noticed his brother's Army-issue web suspenders. It dawned on him that they would be superb for carrying hand grenades. He asked Chew-Mon for them. He was the dai-go, the respected older brother. ChewMon complied.
At heart Lee was a fatalist, and his primary goal in life was to honor his family by dying in combat-and give them the added benefit of his $10,000 National Service Life Insurance policy. When he'd enlisted he had not expected to survive World War II, and he considered not being given a chance to fight a blot on his honor. Now the Korean War had given him a second opportunity to fulfill his destiny-to die for his family, his country, his principles. He fully, and happily, expected precisely that to occur on the march to Toktong Pass.
When the time came for Lieutenant Colonel Davis's First Battalion to jump off the road south of Yudam-ni, their route was immediately stymied by the Chinese occupying Turkey Hill.
Since Davis's rescue of Charlie Company four nights earlier, numerous enemy machine-gun nests, flanked by mini-mortar emplacements and infantrymen in force, had dug in deep along the hill's four finger ridges. Even repeated air strikes had not been able to root them out. The Third Battalion's How Company (a Seventh Regiment rifle company, not to be confused with the artillery company of the same designation in Hagaru-ri) had been ordered by Colonel Litzenberg to clear the hill prior to Davis's advance. But How's numbers had been seriously depleted by three days of nearly continuous battle west of Yudam-ni. How was outnumbered two to one, and the men were in no shape to take on an enemy in such strength. This became evident when their initial thrust into the Chinese machine guns was repulsed. Twelve more Marines of How Company were killed and another twenty-seven wounded.
Marine Corps officers prided themselves on their synchronized maneuvers. The Seventh Regiment's disengagement from Yudam-ni while elements from the Fifth Regiment covered them from the surrounding heights was a striking example of a well-conceived battle plan. But Turkey Hill was different. There, Davis's First Battalion was now placed in the position of reinforcing How Company -in essence, Davis led his men into a firefight in order to secure their own line of departure. But there was no way to avoid this. A bloody struggle ensued across the flanks of Turkey Hill, with Able Company joining the few remaining Marines of How Company and slithering into the worst of the enemy fire.
The fight lasted throughout the afternoon; it was dusk before the Americans cleared the Chinese from the summit in hand-to-hand fighting. Davis fretted as he surveyed the battlefield. Too many men had been wounded, and there had been a dreadful loss of ammunition that the column would surely need later. As he reorganized his rifle companies he called for his radioman. He had to speak to Litzenberg. He needed more ammo, and he needed more men.
At 6:30 p.m. on Fox Hill, Captain Barber conducted his perimeter inspection from a stretcher. It was his one concession to his pain. He was amused to find the company cooks Bavaro and Bledsoeafter five days-still scratching their foxhole out of the frozen earth. The foxhole was now chest-high, the deepest by far on the hill, although not quite as wide as Bavaro and Bledsoe would have liked. They flashed the captain a thumbs-up sign as he was carried past, and then flipped a coin for the first watch. Bledsoe won and settled uncomfortably into the bottom of the pit, his body nearly crushing Bavaro's legs and feet. He hadn't slept for two days and he went out like a light.
By 7:30 p.m., Bavaro's frozen feet were excruciatingly painful. He decided he couldn't take it anymore. He tried to wake Bledsoe, first with whispered words, then by shaking him, and finally by yelling into his ear-a dangerous act with the snipers so close around the South Hill. Bledsoe did not stir.
Following the second battle for Turkey Hill, Lieutenant Colonel Davis helped carry his wounded Marines down to the MSR, where they were loaded onto six-by-sixes. He radioed to Colonel Litzenberg and asked to press on immediately. The plan had always been to travel by night, and he knew that if he didn't start his column moving now, the tired, sweaty men might freeze to death where they stood.
Litzenberg agreed, and added that in order to make up for his losses on Turkey Hill, Davis was free to augment his battalion with the approximately fifty-five Marines remaining from How Company. This gave Davis just over four hundred men. At one-sixth its original size, How was, in effect and in fact, no longer a Marine rifle company. When the news of Litzenberg's decision spread through the dilapidated outfit, one of the enlisted men-noting that the company had been more than halved in just the past weekmused that How's "fire-and-maneuver tactics now lacked the maneuver part."
Davis instructed his platoon leaders to light as many cooking fires as possible all over Turkey Hill, in the hope of fooling the Chinese watching from the heights. Maybe they'll think we're bedding down for the night. Then he ordered his battalion to their feet.
Baker Company, with Chew-Een Lee's platoon on point, took the lead. Able and Charlie followed, with How as the rear guard. The column stretched half a mile, and Davis stationed two sergeants on the shoulder of the road at the jump-off mark. The Marines were ordered to secure their gear against any clinking or rattling, and as each man climbed over the snowbank, the NCOs made him jog in place to test for sound.
A blizzard whipped through the mountains above him as Davis radioed to Yudam-ni for the final time. On his prearranged signal, the artillery units remaining in the village to cover the main column's movement south opened up on the surrounding heights. Davis hoped that this would keep the enemy's heads down as his column sneaked off. Lee's point squad began breaking trail at 9 p.m. Davis went up to the lieutenant and pointed to a particularly bright star just rising on the horizon. It appeared to be blinking on and off amid the swirling clouds. "That's our guide for as long as we can see it," he said.
The BAR man Richard Gilling, a nineteen-year-old private first class from How Company, was one of the last men to peel off the MSR. If there was a Marine in his depleted unit who felt cheered by the order to march on Toktong Pass, it was Dick Gilling. Gilling, who came from northern New Jersey, had enlisted in 1949 and had been at reservist summer camps and weekend meetings with Kenny Benson and Hector Cafferata. Unlike Cafferata, Gilling liked drinking and playing cards. Now, he missed that camaraderie.
When Gilling was posted to How, it was already a company of experienced regulars: it had been formed at Pendleton before the war broke out. As a greenhorn, he had felt ostracized ever since reaching Wonsan. Even his assistant BAR man resented being subordinate to a reservist who hadn't been through boot camp. This bothered Gilling.
When he and Hector had been split up a month earlier, they had vowed that if something should happen to either of them, the survivor would look after the other's family. That pledge was on Gilling's mind as he reached the shoulder of the MSR, climbed over the snowbank, and jogged in place for the sergeants. He paused for a moment to say good-bye to a buddy, another reservist, who had been wounded on Turkey Hill. As he bent over the stretcher to shake his friend's hand, he also handed the man his own last two boxes of C-rations. When Gilling left with the others, the wounded Marine turned to a man on an adjacent litter.
"There go the Ridgerunners," he said. "Wonder if we'll ever see them again." The name stuck-and it would earn a permanent place in Marine Corps lore.
Within moments there was no trace of Davis's battalion. The Ridgerunners were alone, in the dark, marching deep into enemy territory.
The moment Lieutenant Chew-Een Lee and his three-man scout team started down the reverse slope of Turkey Hill, their guiding star vanished behind a mountain. "Clouds would have covered it soon anyway," Lee said to a scout.
The climb to the first ridgeline was brutal. Lee's point detail formed up as a small arrowhead with Lee on the point-his scouts were so close he could touch them. As they trudged through kneedeep, and sometimes waist-deep, snow, Lee sometimes had to jab his drowsy scouts with the butt of his carbine in order to keep them alert. The remainder of Baker Company, led by Lieutenant Kurcaba, followed in single file; behind them, a path as slick and icy as a toboggan run developed.
A number of Marines-drained from nearly twenty-four hours with no sleep, and coming off the firefight at Turkey Hill-faltered and fell. The wind whipped their faces as they crawled up the slope on their hands and knees, grunting, grumbling, and moaning softly. The occasional report from a Chinese sniper carried like the sound of a howitzer shell through the brittle night air. After the snow clouds moved in, blotting out the moon and stars, it became so dark each Marine had to grab hold of the parka of the one in front of him. There were deep defiles and crevasses in several places so that the column had to take a detour, and twice Lee had to dogleg around insurmountable granite walls rising from the snow.
He sensed he was drifting off course. He checked his maps, but that was a waste of time. The scale on the old Japanese charts was 1 to 50,000-a real world of mountains, ridges, valleys, and steep gorges ludicrously compressed to the size of a pinkie nail. The contour lines would have been barely legible in the bright sunlight, much less in the pitch blackness on a snowy night. It's like shadow boxing in a black box, Lee thought.
He plodded forward, but he hadn't moved more than a mile before he concluded that he was lost. He pulled out his compass but it spun wildly. Was that because of the cold? Belatedly he realized that the men in the battalion trailing him were carrying enough metal to throw the compass off.
With the column stalled, Davis ran up to the point. Lee explained the problem. Davis decided to risk asking for white phosphorous shells to guide them-the element of surprise meant nothing if they didn't know where they were going. He radioed to the artillery command in Yudam-ni and asked for several rounds of Willie Peter; then he returned to the center of the line. But the shells were blown off course by mountain winds so fierce that they made breathing difficult. Lee began drifting farther to the right, down the slope, the path of least resistance.
A moment later he picked up a whiff of garlic, followed by the sound of Chinese voices not twenty-five yards away. Lee spoke some pidgin Mandarin that he had picked up as a boy but was not at all familiar with China's ten other major dialects, or with its hundreds of regional accents. Still, he understood this:
"Ching du ma?" Do you hear something?
"Tara da?" We attack?
He had come dangerously close to an enemy mortar emplacement overlooking the MSR. He realized that the Chinese could not see him in the snow and darkness, and he sensed that they were as cold and miserable as he was. From his postwar deployment in China, Lee knew that CCF regulars, especially the NCOs and officers, had little respect for the American Army. The Marines, on the other hand, they considered "highly competent criminals." Lee instinctively felt that these Chinese mortarmen wanted no part of a firelight tonight and would be content to pretend that the column of soldiers passing so close by were actually their own. The way their fur caps popped up and down from their gun pits suggested that the men were searching but not wanting to see-they reminded Lee of prairie dogs. He took a hard left and passed them by.
Near the center of the line, Lieutenant Colonel Davis grew increasingly frustrated with the sluggish pace. Each of Lee's halts had an accordion effect on the column. Davis also worried that Lee's scouts were swerving too far off course, heading back toward the road and toward the known enemy positions that had been targeted for an artillery barrage from Yudam-ni during the breakout.
He tried and failed to contact Lieutenant Kurcaba, who was following close behind Chew-Een Lee. The batteries in Kurcaba's radio had died. Davis tried to pass word along the column up to Baker's point. That did not work, either. The Marines were muffled up to the ears with ragged towels and tightly wrapped parka hoods, so they could scarcely hear an order and repeated it as nonsense.
When these voice commands did not work, Davis again stepped out of the long file, grabbed his radioman and his runner, and sprinted toward the front. Where the trail bent left he ran into one of Lee's scouts. He held a finger to his mouth and with his other hand pointed to enemy mortar emplacements. Davis was tempted to order a platoon to take these emplacements out. But who knew what other Chinese units lurked nearby? A full-scale gunfight would mean the end of his mission to relieve Fox.
Davis sent his swift runner Private First Class Bob "Red" Watson, a Minnesotan, back with a nine-word warning for the bulk of the column: "No noise. Gooks ahead. No firing unless fired upon." He made Watson repeat the message back to him twice. Thereafter a procession of dark shadows whispered past the enemy emplacements.
Nearly simultaneously, two hundred yards up the line, ChewEen Lee halted and turned back to Joe Owen. "Joe, better get back to Lieutenant Kurcaba," he said. "Tell him that without a Willie Peter starburst I can't go any farther unless they want me to lead everyone over a cliff."
Lee did not like many men, but he respected "Long" Joe Owen. When they had first met at Pendleton, Lee considered Owen just another wiseacre slacker. Owen's men had no discipline: they failed to stand at attention properly, they rarely saluted him, and several even had the audacity to call Owen by his first name. Lee, as a first lieutenant, outranked Owen. One day Owen had addressed him as merely "Lee," a common practice among junior officers in the Marines. Lee had shot back, "It's Lieutenant Lee to you, Second Lieutenant."
Lee thought that Owen's priorities were skewed. Lee himself hewed more to iron rule than to the Golden Rule, and according to Lee's Marine Corps sensibility the amiable Owen cared too much about the physical comfort of his men and too little about the bigger picture of war. In war, soldiers died. These deaths were honorable and were to be expected-but Lee felt that Owen did not respect this truth. Lee had also been disgusted in Hamhung, when Owen nonchalantly allowed his right-hand man in the mortar unit to commandeer a captured North Korean steam locomotive for a joyride. Owen had actually cheered the man on as he chuffed around the sooty industrial port town. Lee would have thrown him into the brig.
But Lee's opinion of Owen had changed in the hospital after the battle for Sudong Gorge. Lee had been wounded early in the fighting, and as more casualties from the Seventh Regiment poured into the temporary medical center, he had pulled up a chair and interrogated each Marine about the ongoing firefight. He heard the same story over and again: after his old Second Platoon had encountered its first Soviet tank of the war, the men had broken and fled in panic. Most disgracefully, to Lee, the retreat had been led by the officer, a veteran of World War II, who replaced him as platoon commander. But then the stories became interesting. As the Americans had taken flight, Lee was told over and again, Owen appeared in the middle of the road and stopped them.
"Stand and fight like Marines!" Owen had roared, physically lifting some men off their feet and throwing them back toward the enemy lines. Owen then led the counterattack that disabled the tank. From that moment on Chew-Een Lee had felt differently toward Joe Owen. There was probably not another Marine in the outfit to whom Lee could admit that he was human, that he needed assistance, that he was lost.
Now, no sooner had Owen turned back down the trail to find Lieutenant Kurcaba than he collided with a smaller man rushing up the path. It took him a moment to realize that he had knocked over Lieutenant Colonel Davis. The CO was exhausted, and even with Owen's aid he had to struggle to regain his footing. Nearby was a small depression, an abandoned Chinese dugout, and Davis dropped into it. Owen went back to get Lee, and then the two lieutenants squeezed in on either side of Davis.
They pulled their parkas over the hole, lit flashlights, and checked their compasses and maps. Through a process of comparison and synchronization, with occasional peeks at the stars appearing between snow clouds, they managed to reorient the column. But their minds were so benumbed that by the time they got up, they had forgotten which direction they'd decided on. They dropped down again, and this time Davis kept his finger pointed toward a second ridgeline several hundred yards to the northeast. They doused their lights. Incredibly, as they stood for the second time a word from Owen again made Davis forget exactly why he was pointing in that direction. The three Marines had to confer one more time.
Davis returned to the center of the column as Lee and his scouts, squinting in the churning snowflakes, broke trail up the slope toward the ridge. Even the hardy Lee was so weak he was certain that an enemy soldier could topple him with a gentle stab of a finger. He felt like an old man, as if his legs were stone, as if time had no meaning. Still, he pressed on. He had not gone far when he again stopped and sent a scout back to find Davis. When Davis arrived, Lee was standing with a semicircle of Marines, staring down at a lump in the snow.
Before Davis could say a word a brawny sergeant punched his fist through the crust and lifted an ice-covered figure by the neck of his quilted uniform. "Gook's still alive, Captain," he said. The soldier was wearing tennis shoes but no socks.
Davis peered at the man's eyes. They were indeed moving, albeit very slowly. Davis looked to either side of the trail. The white terrain showed half a dozen similar bulges. The big sergeant moved from one mound to another, pulling a frozen Chinese body from each one. All but the first man were dead.
Davis thought of Fox Hill. Would he find the same scene there, but with dead Marines buried in snowy graves? He passed up and down the line, reminding his men that the fate of Fox Company depended on them. Then he ran back to the point and urged Lee to move faster.
Following Lee, the relief column crested the next ridge and came on a small mountain meadow-level ground that stretched several hundred yards. It was pocked with huge boulders. Davis held the men back as Lee's point team picked its way through the rocks. The men on the team were halfway across the snowfield when the eastern and western slopes above them erupted in muzzle flashes. The Americans were shocked out of their frozen lethargy. At the first rifle report, Lee formed the Second Platoon into a skirmish line and charged. Davis and his main body followed.
Davis estimated that he was under siege from at least two enemy platoons, and he ordered his heavy machine gunners and mortar unit deployed between two attack columns. As the riflemen passed the mortar crews, they reached into their mummy bags and threw off 81-mm shells. Owen's tubes hit the Chinese hard. The attack columns following Lee-with Davis in the fore, firing his carbinefinished the job.
Lee's initial assault was so rapid that many Chinese were caught in their sleeping bags. Some fought back by throwing rocks. Lee shot two of them with his carbine, but neither went down. Much of the fighting was hand-to-hand, and several of Owen's ammunition carriers used entrenching tools to club enemy soldiers to death.
After the fight Davis called a ten-minute rest and re-formed his platoons. Lieutenant Kurcaba's men were so numbed from the wind and cold that he made them jog in place. Davis, meanwhile, met with his officers. Fox Hill was no more than two miles over the next ridgeline-a ridgeline occupied by at least one Chinese battalion and probably two. The Marines needed a plan of attack.
Davis was worried. His subordinates could barely stand, and their numbed minds were drifting. When he spoke, he made his officers repeat the words back to him three times to ensure they understood. But he himself was no better off-his saliva began to harden every time he opened his mouth, and he had a hard time forming words. For the first time in his life he wished he had been born and bred in a colder environment. Perhaps, he thought, if he had grown up sledding, skiing, and skating in Minnesota like Watson, he would have adapted better to this debilitating cold. There weren't many ski runs or frozen ponds in Georgia. He had everyone take a knee as he pondered assignments for the assault.
At 10 p.m. the Marines of Fox Company heard gunfire and mortar rounds echo off the heights behind the rocky ridge. Weary men looked at each other and shrugged. This was somebody else's problem.
They had no idea that the shots emanated from the guns of Lieutenant Colonel Ray Davis's First Rifle Battalion, which was trying to open the back door to Fox Hill.
DECEMBER 2, 1950
By 3 a.m., following another small gunfight, Lieutenant Colonel Ray Davis's Ridgerunners had been slogging overland for more than six hours, and had gone without sleep for nearly thirty. They were cold, hungry, and spent-nearly oblivious of the sporadic sniping from the surrounding peaks. How Company, the rear guard, had been given the responsibility of carrying the wounded from the meadow engagement, and its men had reached the limits of their endurance. They lagged several hundred yards behind the main force.
Davis called a halt. He established a temporary perimeter, to allow How to catch up. Every fourth man was instructed to stand alert while the rest crawled into mummy bags-which, by Davis's order, were to remain unzipped. The men could rest but not sleep. The NCOs and fire team leaders circulated among the Marines who were lying down, urging them to stay awake. To Lieutenant Joe Owen, the men curled up in the snow looked like Eskimo sled dogs. Fourteen hundred yards to the southeast, less than a mile over the final rocky ridge, rose Fox Hill.
No sooner had the men of Baker, Able, and Charlie dropped where they had stopped than How radioed Davis for help. Its own rear guard had collided in the dark with two companies of Chinese, and it was taking heavy casualties. Davis sent two platoons-one each from Baker and Charlie-to bail out How, but by the time they arrived How's commanding officer had maneuvered his few men to the high ground above the interlopers and scattered them.
The Marines of Baker and Charlie escorted How back to the makeshift bivouac. Lieutenant Chew-Een Lee circled the encampment, yelling toward the hills in pidgin Chinese, urging all enemy combatants to surrender.
About an hour before daybreak Davis was patrolling the perimeter when he noticed a young Marine kneeling on an elevated knoll, silhouetted against the skyline. Jesus Christ. "Hey, Marine," he hollered. "Get down. Don't you ..."
A sniper's bullet dented Davis's helmet, knocking him flat on his back into the snow. Corpsmen rushed over. He waved them off and summoned his platoon leaders. It was time to implement the plan of attack they had discussed earlier, in the mountain meadow.
As a gray dawn arrived Lieutenant Kurcaba led what was left of Baker Company, a few more than one hundred Marines, up the back slope of the rocky ridge of Toktong-san. Davis had ordered him to make contact with Fox Company on the other side. On their approach Kurcaba's men ran into the remnants of the same Chinese battalions that had pinned Fox down for five days, and the resistance was heavy. Chew-Een Lee-an inviting target in his bright marker panels-took another bullet, again in his wounded right arm, this time closer to the shoulder. Joe Owen rushed to his side and emptied two clips from his own MI. Lee, on his knees, began screaming in Chinese. So many enemy riflemen jumped from their hiding places to get a better bead on Lee that Owen guessed he was taunting them. Some even charged toward Lee. As fast as they came, the rest of Baker Company took them out; still, they kept coming.
When Baker faltered, Davis led Able and Charlie into the breach. The battalion commander felt as if he were running in slow motion. Cold and exhaustion had taken a worse toll than the sniper's slug. As the firefight grew more intense, his brain started to form orders that he simply could not get out of his mouth. In the middle of a sentence he would lose his train of thought. He hollered to his lieutenants, asking if the commands he was issuing made any sense. They were not sure, either, but they continued to fight.
Now-as Kurcaba had predicted to Owen-their Marine training seemed to kick in. Simply out of habit, the men in the four rifle companies did indeed put one foot in front of the other, and gradually they cleared a path up to the rocky ridge.
At 7 a.m., while the fight on Toktong-san raged about him, Davis's radio operator shouted to his battalion commander, "Sir, I've got Fox on the radio'."
A pallid sun had just risen over the southeast corner of Fox Hill when John Bledsoe woke up. His hole mate Phil Bavaro was pounding his fists on Bledsoe's back and shoulders. Bledsoe was blanketed in six inches of fresh snow. Bavaro was too spent to show anger. He calmly informed Bledsoe that after his feet had gone totally numb he had decided to let his friend sleep through the night. He had taken the entire twelve-hour watch. But Bavaro was already hatching schemes to make Bledsoe pay back the favor.
Bledsoe was dumbfounded. How do you thank a man for such an act? His guilt increased as he watched Bavaro rip off his shoepacs and wool shoe pads. Bavaro's sweaty wool socks had frozen to his feet. He gingerly removed them and shook out the ice crystals. Candle-white splotches of frostbitten flesh ran from his toes to his ankles. He stuffed his shoe pads and socks under his armpits, and jammed his bare feet into his sleeping bag. He remembered the goddamn Reds who had stolen his pack with his spare socks from the hut on the first night. Even when he was wrapped in the mummy bag, his feet began to feel as if they had been thrust into a campfire. He inspected them again. Now they were blue and beginning to swell. He knew enough about frostbite-trench foot some Marines mistakenly called it, dredging up institutional memories of the flooded, muddy trench warfare of World War I-to realize that as long as his feet were in pain he still had a chance, that the tissue was not yet completely dead.
He cursed softly as he put his feet into his damp socks, shoe pads, and shoepacs. Even to stand up now was torture, but Bavaro had heard that spare socks might have been dropped by one of the cargo planes. Steeling himself, he began the long limp up the hill toward the aid station.
Before reaching the med tents he came upon the stack of American corpses. He saw a pair of dry shoepacs sticking out from beneath a poncho. He banished the thought of taking them-it was too morbid, too disrespectful. At the aid station a corpsman told him that the airdropped socks were only for the wounded, and at any rate they had all been distributed. Bavaro, slump-shouldered and miserable, trudged back down the hill.
Down near the spring the bazooka man Harry Burke crouched low, but there was no sniping from the woods near the South Hill this morning. He filled his canteen and edged over to the back of the large hut. He found the young Chinese soldier he had seen the day before, still leaning against the shack. The boy was frozen to death. A cursory check of the body revealed no new gunshot wounds.
At 8 a.m., Captain Barber, having spoken to Lieutenant Colonel Davis and anticipating the arrival of the relief column, continued to oversee the general cleanup in preparation for the evacuation of the hill. At one point, however, he took a moment to stand by himself and gaze over the slopes, which were clean with new-fallen snow. His company had climbed this hunk of granite with 246 Marines and Navy corpsmen. Slightly more than eighty "effectives" remained, most of them wounded and frostbitten. Only one of his officers, Lieutenant Dunne of the First Platoon, remained unscathed.
Barber thought of an old saying that applied to his outfit: uncommon valor had become a common virtue. For a moment, both pride and sadness overwhelmed him. He took a final look at the hill and got to work.
He ordered empty C-ration tins, excrement, and sundry trash buried and all surplus equipment belonging to the wounded stacked near the med tents. A detail was formed to lug captured gear to the level terrain just off the road near the huts. There it would be set afire. Another squad was directed to be ready to strike the med tents and warming stoves on his signal. Finally, eight Marines were sent to move the stack of American corpses farther down the hill so that these could be more easily loaded onto the trucks that would arrive with Litzenberg's main column. This was a job no one wanted.
Barber also asked Sergeant Audas to take a squad to the hilltop for one final enemy body count. Audas returned with his best estimate: more than one thousand Chinese bodies lay on the ground from the saddle to the eastern crest and down the east slope. This number did not include the dead of the nearly four Chinese companies across the MSR and farther on toward the South Hill. How many of the enemy had been killed during the recon patrol's firelight at the rocky knoll, or by the machine gunners on the rocky ridge? How many more had been retrieved by their comrades, particularly during the confusion of the first night's battle, and lay in caves or shallow graves on the West Hill or the higher ridges of Toktongsan? Neither Barber nor Audas could hazard a guess.
What was certain was that Barber's company, outnumbered by at least ten to one, not only had survived five days and nights of frozen firefights but had dispatched more than three-quarters of the enemy it had faced.
The noisy bustle around the aid station woke Warren McClure at 9:10 a.m. He stumbled out of the med tent and into one of the last flurries of what had been a heavy snowstorm. Someone had just started a fire, and McClure poured himself a cup of coffee and scrounged another can of peaches. He went back in and again shared the fruit with the paralyzed Marine.
Then he made another effort to retrieve his kit from the west slope. He had made it halfway across the hill, about fifty yards, when he realized that although he might indeed reach his old hole, he would never get back. He returned to the aid station and again plopped down next to Amos Fixico. Cigarette smoke curled around the bloody bandage encasing Fixico's head. But his buddy, as well as all the other Marines basking in the morning sunlight, seemed in high spirits. They knew by now that relief was just over the rocky ridge.
McClure caught his breath and returned to the med tent. He found a rag to wipe the brow of the paralyzed Marine and fell asleep again.
At 10 a.m., Lieutenant Colonel Davis again made radio contact with Captain Barber. His column, Davis said, had fought its way nearly to the crest of the far side of the rocky ridge. He wanted to come in. The two officers spoke in a vague, unofficial code, but Barber recognized the unspoken message: Hold your fire!
Barber warned Davis about the Chinese still holed up in the caves and crevasses around the rocky knoll and-somewhat mischievously -volunteered to send a patrol out to escort the Ridgerunners across the saddle. Davis was not even sure if he would find any Marines of Fox Company able to walk, much less fight, when he reached Fox Hill. And here was their commander offering to take Davis's men in hand. Davis recognized the gentle barb as a Marine officer's dark humor leavened by esprit de corps-and respectfully declined the offer. He did, however, say that he carried no radios with a frequency to call in air support. He asked if Fox Company might contact the Corsairs to soften up the route. Barber said yes and warned Davis to get his point platoon back off the ridgeline and to keep the men's heads down.
The squad of Corsairs appeared at 10:20 a.m. Once again they did their best to incinerate the rocky knoll and the rocky ridge. As they flew off, Barber ordered all of Fox Company's 81-mm mortar units to begin a second barrage against the same positions. Then, as a feint, he sent a squad across the saddle as a patrol to harass any surviving Chinese troops.
At 10:30 a.m., Walt Klein shook the snow from his helmet and inched out of his hole on the eastern crest of Fox Hill. He spotted the hazy outlines of several dozen men etched against the skyline, marching down the rocky ridge about four hundred yards north of the rocky knoll. He hollered for the platoon sergeant, Audas.
"Chinamen walking that skyline."
Audas lifted his binoculars. "Those are Marines," he said.
Klein, Audas, and Frank Valtierra leaped from their holes and waved their arms over their head.
"Now, ain't that the greatest sight you ever saw," Klein said.
The climb down the ridge was slow going, and Lieutenant Kurcaba's point company took forty minutes to pick their way to the rocky knoll, where they dropped out of sight behind the huge outcropping. The Marines of Fox Company heard gunfire, and suddenly scores of Chinese soldiers streamed from behind the big rock mound and down into the western valley. They made for the ravine and the woods skirting the West Hill. Some Fox Marines took potshots at the fleeing figures, but most were more interested in seeing who would emerge from behind the big rock.
At 11:25 a.m., the bedraggled Baker Company of the First Battalion, Seventh Marines, climbed down from the rocky knoll and began crossing the saddle. Sergeant Audas led a detail out to guide them through the trip wires attached to flares and hand grenades.
When Kurcaba and his exhausted men reached the crest of Fox Hill, their first request was for food. Guffaws exploded across the hilltop. Finally, a couple of boxes of C-rations were produced and handed out to the new arrivals. The Marines of Baker Company wolfed down the frozen chow without bothering to heat it.
Lieutenant Joe Owen dropped to his knees. His mind could not immediately comprehend the scene on the saddle. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of Chinese corpses littered the approach to Fox Hill. Many of the bodies seemed to be merely asleep, half buried under what looked like drifting white wool blankets. There was a straight line of snow-filled craters, hollowed out by Richard Kline's 81-mm mortars, along the land bridge, looking like stones just below the surface of a stream.
Owen looked around him. Some Ridgerunners stared in wonder. Others bowed their heads, as if praying. On the far side of the saddle brightly colored strips of parachute silk and air panels began popping up from foxholes like flags at a parade.
Standing beside Owen was a radio operator, Private First Class Howard Mason. He was stunned. From the ridges, the little squares he had seen pocking Fox Hill appeared to be rice paddies. He had wondered how the hell the Koreans could plant rice on the side of a mountain. Now, as he neared the crest, he understood. The rectangular constructions were American foxholes, with Chinese dead piled about them like sandbags.
Mason, however, did not have much time to be astounded. He was on a personal mission. Like Dick Gilling, Mason had been in a reservist unit with one of the Marines of Fox Company, Bob Ezell, with whom he'd attended high school. As he crossed the hill and took in the countless empty foxholes he grew anxious. He asked the first couple of Marines he encountered about Ezell. They must have been mortarmen, or enlisted men from the heavy machine gun units, because they had never heard of "Zeke" Ezell.
Joe Owen rose from his knees and began walking the one hundred yards toward the crest of Fox Hill. At first-possibly out of respect-he tried to avoid stepping on the enemy corpses. That proved impossible. He strode the last fifty yards across their backs, his feet hardly ever touching the ground.
Nearly as soon as they'd arrived, Baker Company was gone. On Lieutenant Colonel Davis's instructions, Lieutenant Kurcaba led them down the hill and across the MSR to set up overwatch posi tions on the high ground of the South Hill. The Chinese had abandoned their positions there during the night. With them went Howard Mason, who never did find Ezell.
It was close to 1 p.m.-with Able Company forming a rear guard high above on the ridges of Toktong-san-when Davis led the rest of his relief force through the American perimeter and onto Fox Hill. He walked directly behind the foxhole Fidel Gomez had held by himself for four nights. Forty-eight hours earlier a potato masher had landed in Gomez's hole, and it had exploded near his face when he tossed it back. Coagulated blood from the shrapnel still encased the left side of his head-Lieutenant Peterson had congratulated him on being hit in the thickest part of his body-and he looked like a chewed sausage. Now Gomez recognized a Marine trailing Davis, a Greek-American kid with whom he had played high school football in San Antonio.
He yelled to the Greek, "What the hell took you so long?"
At first the Marine did not recognize the figure with the gruesome face hollering at him as Fidel Gomez. But then he yelled back. "We stopped at a tavern, over the other side of the ridge. If I'd known you were here I woulda brought you a beer."
All over the hill Marines from the various companies greeted each other as old friends. Men wearing blood-soaked compresses and slings, limping on crutches made of tree limbs, joshed about who, exactly, was relieving whom. Others commiserated over the loss of comrades. Most poignant was the arrival of the few survivors of "Hard Luck Charlie." The Marines from Fox and Charlie had taken the brunt of the Chinese attack south of the Chosin in two battles on the first night, which now seemed years ago. Men from these companies embraced despite the grit and stink of combat, with the identical remark: You look like shit.
Captain Barber was carried out of the CP tent on his stretcher. But with the help of his tree branch, he insisted on standing up to clasp hands with Lieutenant Colonel Davis. According to one account, the two exhausted officers "were too overcome with emotion to speak."
Finally, Davis asked where he could settle his twenty-two wounded men. Barber pointed out the aid station and Davis's medical officer, Lieutenant Arioli, introduced himself to Barber before hurrying off to the med tents.
At one point Barber leveled his gaze at the wounded Lieutenant Chew-Een Lee.
He must think I look like the guy who shot him, Lee thought.
In his little "fort" on the far right corner of the hilltop Dick Bonelli was praying. He had never been very religious, despite what the nuns had taught him, but he believed in God now. Not long after the campaign at Uijongbu he had received a letter from one of his mother's friends in the Bronx, an elderly Czech immigrant who lived in the same apartment building. When he'd ripped open the envelope he'd found a religious medal depicting the Infant of Prague. Prague? Bonelli was an Italian by descent. But what the hell? He'd worn the medal around his neck ever since, and he knew that it had brought him good luck. He'd also become accustomed to saying a short prayer to the Infant a couple of times a day, especially before and after gunfights. He was hunched over his light machine gun doing just this when a scarecrow of a Marine climbed over a large boulder behind him and startled him.
"Who the hell are you?" he said.
"Baker Company. Here to rescue you."
"Rescue? Do I look like I need rescuing? Who else is with you?"
"Abel, Charlie, and How."
At this Bonelli jumped from his hole. One of his best friends from the Bronx, a kid he had enlisted with named Randall Farmer, was with How Company.
"Where's How?" he said.
The scarecrow Marine jerked his chin toward an area down the draw near the command post. Bonelli looked past him and saw a line of green parkas shimmying down the slope. He had stashed two tins of C-rations for a special occasion and he reached into his pack, grabbed one, and tossed it to the Marine. He stuffed the other into his parka. It was for Randall Farmer.
Bonelli started down the hill and the Ridgerunner hunched beside the light machine gun and ripped into the frozen food. A few paces out, three bullets-chit-chit-chit-tore into the snow at Bonelli's feet. He hit the ground and lay still for at least ten minutes, trying to pick out the sniper's position. He could not find it.
Eventually he raised himself to his knees and cautiously climbed to his feet. Still nothing. He took a step. A bullet tore into his chest, knocking him ass over teakettle.
Before Captain Barber led Lieutenant Colonel Davis to his CP tent to plot an exit strategy, he ordered all of Fox Company's remaining C-rations turned over to the starving First Battalion. The rearguard Marines of Able Company were the last to stagger into the Fox perimeter.
After a quick rest and some cold chow, Davis directed Able to move off the hill and across the road to join Baker Company digging in on the South Hill. Davis also ordered Charlie and most of How to move out before dark. He sent them three hundred yards down the MSR to secure the heights on the East Hill-but not before taking a small detail from How. These men were to remain on the hill to help Barber's men expedite the cleanup. As the bulk of the Ridgerunners moved off into the dark, what had been a festive afternoon for Fox Company became lonely again.
At the aid station Dr. Arioli busied himself securing the First Battalion's twenty-two wounded Marines. Two of them, he discovered, had died during the march; they were added to the stack of Fox Company's dead. Arioli also tended to the wounded of Fox Company, some of whom had only Scotch tape covering bullet wounds. Arioli was a skilled surgeon-a bone specialist-as well as a gifted general practitioner. He spent an exhausting night striding between the two med tents by candlelight, diagnosing injuries, changing bandages, administering morphine, pitching in wherever he could with what little medical supplies he carried.
Arioli lingered over Private First Class Dick Bernard, who had been shot in both legs manning the two tall rocks with Bob Ezell four days earlier. Bernard desperately needed to be in a hospital. Even morphine wasn't helping. Arioli decided that if, by some miracle, a helicopter evac showed up, Bernard would be the first man on it. But realistically he knew this wasn't going to happen.
As Arioli went between the litters he passed Warren McClure's stretcher. McClure had no idea what the presence of this new doctor meant, and he didn't give it much thought. He was now intent on a single mission: retrieving his gear. He got up and tried again. It was another futile attempt. But this time, when he settled in at the campfire outside the med tents, he noticed more strange facesAmerican faces-passing by. He turned to Amos Fixico.
"Our relief," Fixico said. "We're getting off the hill."
How Fixico knew this with bandages covering both eyes was a mystery to McClure. But there was nonetheless a little extra lift to McClure's step as he wobbled back to the med tent. Inside he passed Hector Cafferata. Ken Benson was squatting beside him.
"Don't let them leave me behind, Bense. Don't let them leave me behind."
"Nobody's leaving you behind, Hector. You know I wouldn't go without you."
As the two spoke, Dick Gilling entered the med tent. When he spotted Benson and Cafferata his eyes lit up. But as the three embraced and clapped one another's backs, Gilling noticed the extent of Hector's wounds.
"Remember our deal, Dickie?" Cafferata said.
"Don't worry about that, Hec. You're getting out and going home." It dawned on Gilling that if he was the one stuck in Korea, Cafferata would have to remember his end of the bargain. Now, exhaustion finally got the better of Gilling. "Say, guys," he said, "I've got to bed down somewhere. Know a good hole?"
A sly smile creased Hector Cafferata's haggard face. "We've got just the one for you," he said. "Kenny, why don't you show him."
On the west slope Freddy Gonzales approached Bob Kirchner's foxhole. He had seen his cousin Roger's name on the list of KIA posted at the aid station. He had also spoken to the wounded Walt Hiskett, who had watched Roger die. But he had been unable to locate Roger's body. He wanted to return Roger's dog tags to his family.
"Roger?" he said to Kirchner.
"There." Kirchner hooked a thumb over his shoulder, pointing toward the stack of bodies that ringed his hole. Roger Gonzales's body was near the bottom. There were at least two hundred bullet holes in it.
Kirchner braced for-he didn't know what. A fistfight? A shootout? Freddy Gonzales gazed at his cousin for a moment, and then looked back to Kirchner. "I would have done the same, I guess."
Together they extracted Roger's body and carried it over to the pile of dead Americans. When they had lowered it onto the stack, Freddy Gonzales gazed down at Kirchner's legs. His trousers had been shredded by shrapnel and streaks of frozen blood ran down each shin.
"What happened?" he said.
Kirchner was astonished. "Tell you the truth," he said, "I never even noticed it before now."
By 7 p.m., small and large cooking fires ringed Fox Hill. The flames attracted some long-distance sniping from Chinese riflemen, but all of it was ineffective.
This sniping did, however, provide Davis with a direction for his attack in the morning. He picked up his field phone and ordered the COs of his four companies to hit these pockets to the south and east at daybreak.
Dick Bonelli awoke in a med tent. His entire left side burned. Two figures were standing over him: a corpsman he did not recognize and his buddy Randall Farmer. He did not like the look on their faces.
The corpsman said, "Sorry, Marine, morphine's all gone." Farmer remained silent but lit a cigarette and stuck it between Bonelli's lips. Then he removed Bonelli's gloves and began rubbing his hands.
"Tell my mother I love her and I was thinking of her," Bonelli said. It hurt to speak.
DECEMBER 3, 1950
Except for the small cleanup detail from How Company, the last elements of Ray Davis's Ridgerunners cleared off Fox Hill by I a.m. They left their dead and wounded with Barber's corpsmen.
Ninety minutes later the distinctive clank of a tank grinding to a halt was carried across the hill by the wind funneling through the Toktong Pass. The heavy M-26 Pershing tank, leading the breakout from the Chosin, had paused in the hamlet of Sinhungni, three-quarters of a mile up the MSR from Fox Hill. Litzenberg and Murray were in a pickle. They'd successfully fought their way out of Yudam-ni and could not allow themselves to be encircled again. But their momentum was halting. The breakout columntrucks, Jeeps, tractors towing artillery, ambulances, and humping Marines-was three miles long and unwieldy. There were too many stragglers. They called a halt to tighten it up.
Farther down the MSR, at 6:30 a.m. Lieutenant Colonel Davis's four outlying companies sent out reinforced details to sweep the surrounding hills of any Chinese blocking the road south. Fifteen minutes later the main column of Americans at Sinhung-ni moved out. Hot on its trail were at least twelve enemy divisions-more than 100,000 Chinese troops.
Davis's patrols flushed the last remaining battalion of the CCF's Fifty-ninth Division. The enemy retreated northwest, pulling heavy machine guns on two-wheeled carts-directly into Litzenberg's and Murray's main column coming down the road. The Chinese were sandwiched in the southern valley almost directly below Fox Hill, and the haggard Marines of Fox Company were content to sit back and watch the ensuing bloodbath.
When the Chinese realized their predicament, they halted and turned confusedly in all directions. But they were trapped. Finally their officers formed them up to stand and fight. Captain Barber decided that fighting would not be necessary-at least for the Marines-and ordered Lieutenant Campbell to call in an artillery barrage from Hagaru-ri. The Chinese were cut down by the howitzers.
When the artillery bombardment ceased, the Corsairs appeared overhead. Any enemy soldiers still standing were annihilated. Between six days of fighting on Fox Hill and this final engagement, the CCF's Fifty-ninth Division had been wiped out. It would not effectively re-form for the remainder of the Korean War.
Warren McClure stood beside Ernest Gonzalez and watched the bombardment from a high, rocky fold near the med tents. The two Marines, like the rest of the company, had been ordered to gear up for what would prove to be a daylong evacuation. When the slaughter was over neither said a word. After so much deprivation, neither felt a need to gloat. Vae victis-woe to the conquered. It was 8 a.m.
Fox Company's Headquarters Unit would be the first to leave, folding into the forward companies of Davis's First Battalion as it led the breakout column south to Hagaru-ri. As the Marines of the Headquarters Unit began to assemble on the MSR, McClure briefly considered trying to get back to his old foxhole for his kit. But he just could not find the strength to go up that slope.
Ernest Gonzalez, who had come down from his position on the hilltop, already had his rucksack slung over his shoulders-he had abandoned all his souvenirs except the bayonet and the camera. He couldn't find his foxhole buddy Freddy Gonzales: he had lost Freddy in the excitement when the Ridgerunners entered camp. As Ernest was checking the med tents-he knew Freddy's feet had been frostbitten badly, but he did not know that Freddy's cousin Roger had died-he was handed a field phone by Sergeant Audas and was told he was the Third Platoon's new communications specialist. Audas reminded him to remain within eyesight of Captain Barber for the entire evacuation of the hill. "Or else," the sergeant said.
Barber, his stretcher propped up against a rock between the med tents, was only a few yards away, talking with Lieutenant Colonel Davis and several other officers and corpsmen. McClure and Gonzalez saw the new doc, Lieutenant Arioli, appear from under one of the tent flaps and walk toward the little group. Just as Arioli opened his mouth to say something, he was shot through the head by a sniper. He fell, dead, at their feet.
For the first time on the hill, Bill Barber felt like weeping. He turned his head for a moment and pretended to blow his nose. Then he stiffened, swiveled, and directed a corpsman to add Dr. Peter Arioli's body to the frozen heap of American dead. The sniper was never located.
McClure and Gonzalez watched Arioli's body being carried off. They were struck by foreboding. No one wanted to be the last Marine to die on Fox Hill.
At 12:30 p.m., a helicopter from Hagaru-ri, piloted by a single Marine officer, landed on the hilltop and began unloading medical supplies. The chopper, peppered by small-arms fire from the enemy's last enclave on the West Hill, rose away the moment it had emptied its hold. It hovered for a moment, then spasmed and sputtered. To some Marines it appeared as if the pilot were doing aerobatics. They started to laugh: Showoff.
Then the helicopter spun out of control, flipped upside down, and crashed on the east slope, narrowly missing one of the First Platoon's light machine-gun emplacements. No one on the machine-gun crew was injured, but the chopper pilot, Lieutenant Robert Longstaff, was crushed to death on impact. Walt Klein and the mortarman Richard Kline helped carry his body back into the perimeter. They laid him next to Dr. Arioli.
As the rejuvenated Marines of Fox Company hustled to secure the hill Private First Class McClure's quest for his gear had become almost tragicomic. At 2:40 p.m., fortified once again by a strong cup of joe, he began his trek up and across the slope. Midway there he saw the barrel of a Pershing tank emerging from behind the West Hill as it rounded the bend on the MSR. The tank was followed by a motley column of American vehicles filled with the wounded and dead.
McClure turned and stumbled down the hill as fast as his whistling lung would allow. Midway to the road he paused to catch his breath, not realizing he was standing next to the stack of American dead. One of the green ponchos laid over the bodies had blown away, and he saw a frozen arm sticking straight up out of the pile. The dead American's hand was open, as if waving for help. McClure shuddered and moved on.
After another fifty yards he had reached the road-or at least the ten-foot sheer cut bank. He took a chance and jumped. He landed with a thud and rolled; it felt as if a glass bottle had broken inside his chest. He crossed the MSR behind the tank and in front of a train of slow-moving bulldozers, trucks, and Jeeps. He dropped to his knees and made a feeble hitchhiking gesture with his good left hand. A Jeep carrying four Marines pulled to the side. A sergeant in the front passenger seat helped McClure climb in and wedged him between two wounded NCOs in the backseat.
The position was painful; McClure didn't care. He was off the hill. He wanted to turn to take one last look. Instead, he passed out.
Wayne Pickett had never been to Yudam-ni, but even in the pale moonlight he recognized the black ice of the "Frozen Chosin." Pickett was part of a small band of American prisoners who picked their way through the scattered detritus of battle, including the bodies of hundreds of Chinese who had frozen where they had fallen. It had taken three days for Pickett's group of POWs to walk to this site from the corral where he and Troy Williford had been held. He had no idea whether Daniel Yesko, the wounded Marine who had been carted away in the North Korean ambulance, was still alive.
The Americans in Pickett's group, perhaps three dozen by now, were marched to a hut near the shore of the reservoir and herded into a lean-to behind it. They were handed a ball of rice-the same food their captors ate, they noticed-and were only loosely guarded. The Chinese, intent on starting a warming fire, did not fear any escape into this frozen wilderness.
That morning a Corsair had machine-gunned their ragged little group as it descended from a ridge onto a spur path of the MSR, and Pickett had banged his knee hard on a rock when he dived for cover. His knee soon swelled to the size of a pumpkin, and as he lagged farther and farther behind the column of captives, his fear of being shot increased. Instead-to his surprise-his Chinese guards seemed to understand his predicament, and two of them slowed down and dawdled with him until he arrived at Yudam-ni three hours behind the rest. He was glad they were not North Koreans.
Inside the lean-to, a Chinese political commissar demanded that the Americans sign a prepared statement, written in English, attesting that they were being treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. Pickett hesitated until he saw two captured Marine officers put their names to the paper. He signed when his turn came.
Among the POWs were a few old China hands who spoke a little of the language, and news spread among the Americans that their final destination was a camp far to the northwest, near the border with China. The Marines had also come to understand that most of their guards were conscripts into the CCF who had fought against Mao during the Chinese civil war and were deemed too untrustworthy for the front lines. These soldiers appeared to hold no particular animus toward the United States and surreptitiously passed along snatches of intelligence when they could.
They told their prisoners that the other Americans were in disarray, running for the safety of Hagaru-ri. They did not seem to take any great joy in sharing this information-it was just another turn in the war. When Wayne Pickett asked after the fate of Fox Company on Toktong Pass, no one could answer him.
Sergeant Audas made the Chinese prisoners carry the Fox wounded down the hill. The Americans, swaddled in the blue, yellow, and red silk of the supply-drop parachutes, resembled bulky, oddly wrapped Christmas presents. A Marine from the Fifth Regiment slogged past Howard Koone's stretcher and recognized him from back home in Michigan. He stopped to light a cigarette for Koone and handed him a stick of gum.
Bob Ezell was laid on the road next to the semiconscious Lieutenant Lawrence Schmitt, the officer whose leg had been broken by sniper fire as he recovered supplies from the first airdrop. Ten days earlier, late on Thanksgiving night, Schmitt had written a letter to his wife: "We sang the 'Star-Spangled Banner,' 'America,' and 'My Country 'Tis of Thee.' The Chaplain said a prayer, and the Colonel gave a talk. Me, I have a lot to be thankful for: my wonderful wife and boy, our house, our health, and our faith. May the Good Lord continue to be generous to us. All my love, Larry."
Now Schmitt lay on a litter at the side of the road, his skin gray and his eyes yellow. A Marine from Yudam-ni passed by and saw Schmitt's Fox Company insignia. The man doubled back. "I hear you guys took out thirty-five hundred gooks," he said. "Great job. Saved our asses keeping the pass open."
Schmitt did not answer. The Marine looked at Ezell, who also said nothing.
Ezell watched as Eleazar Belmarez's stretcher was strapped to the hood of a Jeep and his wounded legs wrapped in dirty blankets. Next, Edward Gonzales-the Marine who was buried alive in the mysterious explosion during Fox's third day on the hill-was placed in a six-by-six. Gonzales had not yet regained consciousness (and wouldn't come to until the next day). Just as Ezell began to wonder when his turn would come, his litter was abruptly lifted from the road and tied onto the front passenger seat of a Jeep. He still could not move his legs. He asked for a weapon. Someone handed him a carbine. Damn carbine, he thought. Aim for the head.
Wounded men were still being loaded into every possible open space on every possible vehicle-some were even strapped to the barrels of howitzers. The bodies from Fox Hill, stiff as icicles, were piled in the lee of the larger hut. Toward the center of the Yudam-ni column were three heavy trucks packed with equipment. Captain Barber hailed them and ordered the dead piled on top of the gear. But there was not enough room. Eight bodies remained.
Barber, with Private First Class Bob Kirchner and Sergeant Kenneth Kipp supporting him under each arm, directed the eight corpses to be carried to a shallow gulley on the north side of the MSR, between the huts and the spring. He assembled what the official Marine Manual calls a "hasty burial detail." Spades and shovels chipped into the frozen ground. Someone found a chaplain from the Fifth Regiment and escorted him to the site. He opened his Bible and read a few words as a bonfire incinerating all of Fox Company's excess equipment and captured ordnance blazed not far away. In the shadows cast by the flames, several Marines of Fox Company vowed to return for their friends' bodies.
Phil Bavaro, the company cook, turned from the shallow graves and searched for a lift. Fox Company had been designated the main column's rear guard, and most of the vehicles were already well down the road. What Jeeps and trucks remained were crammed to overflowing with men wounded far worse than Bavaro. His feet swollen and painful, Bavaro grabbed hold of the tailgate of a truck inching down the MSR and resigned himself to the seven-mile hike to Hagaru-ri; he was afraid that he would fall asleep on his feet if he didn't hold on. Walt Hiskett, his arm in a sling, fell in next to Bavaro. Hiskett was guiding the blinded Amos Fixico.
It was 3:35 p.m. when Captain Barber, having ensured that every living man on his company roster left Fox Hill, was lifted into the passenger seat of a Jeep. Three dead Marines were strapped across its bumpers and hood. From the passenger seat, Barber turned over command of Fox Company to the most senior lieutenant on the scene, Lieutenant Ralph Abell of the Ridgerunners.
There was some emotion involved in this handover: Abell had commanded Fox Company's First Platoon before being transferred to Lieutenant Colonel Davis's staff, and now he was being given command of a battered company less than the size of that platoon. Of the seven officers who had formed Fox Company at Camp Pendleton in July, only he and Lieutenant Dunne still stood.
Barber's Jeep rolled down the road, and Ralph Abell noted that the captain did not look back.
Snow began falling again as the column of Marines moved south during the afternoon, through dusk and into the night. Occasional ten-minute breaks were passed up the line to allow stragglers to catch up. During one break a warming fire was lit, and word was passed to be on the lookout for lone Chinese soldiers attempting to infiltrate the American lines. This spooked some Marines. One approached his gunnery sergeant and said that "an armed gook" had indeed sneaked into the column.
"That's Lieutenant Lee," the gunny said. "Try not to shoot him."
Despite the rests, men still fell behind, slipping and falling on the icy road. Although the Marines did not come under attack, they could hear sniper fire ahead, at the front of the column, and they nervously eyed the hills overhanging either side of the MSR. Twice they saw long files of Chinese on the ridges, but neither side fired. The Americans' tension spiked when they passed a Pershing tank burning in a ditch on the side of the road, but nothing came of that, either. When Walt Hiskett described the scene for Amos Fixico, Fixico asked him not to say anything more until they reached Hagaru-ri.
Rollin Hutchinson-who had decided that the first thing he would do when he reached Hagaru-ri was find out if the Yankees had indeed swept the Phillies in the World Series-recognized a Marine from Chosin who was lagging behind. The man was a buddy from his reserve outfit in Toledo, Ohio. Hutchinson fell in next to him, urging him on. Soon they were both encouraging Ernest Gonzalez to keep up. Gonzalez's backpack and sleeping bag, as well as the company radio, were weighing him down. But he refused to jettison any gear, even when he slipped and fell into an icy drainage ditch. As he struggled to climb out, Hutchinson and the other Ohioan helped Gonzalez balance the equipment on his back, at least allowing him to walk in a little more comfort.
Lieutenant Bob McCarthy dozed fitfully in the cab of a six-by-six packed with the dead and wounded. About halfway to Hagaru-ri, amid much stopping and starting, gaps began to appear in the convoy. At a point in the road where there was a steep drop-off to both sides, McCarthy's young driver lost sight of the truck ahead and became too frightened to move.
Despite his leg wound, McCarthy climbed from the vehicle and hobbled several feet in front of the truck so the driver could see him. They finally caught up to the vehicle ahead, and thereafter McCarthy did not allow the forward six-by-six to leave his sight.
Several officers noticed that the Marines who were walking were having a hard go of it. During another short break Lieutenant Abell spread word that in Hagaru-ri the division cooks were already busy preparing hot coffee, flapjacks with real butter, and hot maple syrup for every man coming down the MSR. Abell said he had picked up this intel on his radio. In fact, Abell had heard no such thing; he didn't even have a radio. Anything to keep the men moving.
Somewhere on the road Lieutenant Elmo Peterson passed a corpsmen's Jeep that had tipped on its side. Someone had extracted its four injured passengers-two Navy corpsmen and two wounded Marines-and laid them on stretchers in the snow. Peterson bent over and spoke to the one conscious medic.
"We can't walk," the man said.
Peterson looked around. His own vision was blurred and his legs were quivering. There were no other vehicles in sight. His men were too spent to heft four loaded stretchers. He reached into a pocket of his field jacket and pulled out the pint of whiskey he had been carrying for seven days. There were only a few drops left. He handed the bottle to the corpsman and wished him luck. It was all he could do.
Dick Gilling awoke to silence. He was alone on Fox Hill. His exhaustion had finally overwhelmed him, and when Kenny Benson had led him to this slit trench the previous night, he'd dropped like a stone. He thought he'd awakened several times during the night to a horrific odor, but his mind was still awhirl from the ridgerunning. He decided that the odor was a part of bad dreams.
He saw now that it was not bad dreams. He stood up and brushed frozen excrement from his sleeping bag. His so-called pals had led him to a latrine. Fucking Cafferata and Benson. I'll kill 'em.
But Gilling had more immediate problems. A snowy fog was rolling up over the hill, obscuring any landmarks, including the ridges of Toktong-san. He had no idea in which direction the MSR lay. From somewhere far away he heard the basso reports of 105s. American? Chinese? He squinted, concentrated, trying to recall the difference in sounds. Ours, he finally decided.
He began walking overland toward the low rumbles. He had no idea that he was breaking a fresh trail, away from the road.
Phil Bavaro was daydreaming about the last time he had eatenand about the hotcakes with real butter awaiting him-when he realized that at some point he had let go his grip on the tailgate of the truck. His feet hurt so much that he took baby steps, trying first to walk on his heels, then on his toes. Nothing eased the pain, and the column was rapidly leaving him behind.
Well after dark, as he passed the smoldering Pershing tank, it dawned on him that there were no Americans within sight. He was alone. He was listening to the distant echoes of the Corsairs of the First Marine Air Wing group bomb, strafe, and rocket the pursu ing Chinese when he heard voices not far behind him. He racked the slide of his MI. A squad of Marines trotted into view. One of them said that they were the column's rear guard.
"Hey, buddy, you'd better shag ass," said another. "Nobody behind us but Chinamen." They vanished into the dark ahead of him.
It was hopeless. Bavaro could go no farther. He saw a large rock at the side of the road and sat down. He massaged his feet through his shoepacs. All that bullshit just to die here. More voices reached him from behind. He felt the sonic whine of a bullet pass near his head an instant before he heard the crack of a shot.
If Phil Bavaro had taken one lesson from boot camp to heart, it was that even when all seems lost a Marine always has one last burst of energy somewhere deep within him. He stood and began limping, then walking, then trotting, and finally running so hard he caught the rear guard. "Nobody behind me but Chinamen?" he shouted as he moved on.
DECEMBER 4, 1950
At 1:30 a.m. on December 4, six hours after Lieutenant Colonel Ray Davis had escorted the point of the breakout column into Hagaru-ri, the sixty or so Marines and Navy corpsmen of Fox Company-along with Mr. Chung, the interpreter-arrived at the roadblock demarcating the perimeter of the American lines.
Above them, what was left of the First Battalion's Baker Company staked out the heights. In the distance, beyond a small bridge, they could see pillars of smoke, evidence of the smoldering fires from the previous days' firefights around the village. Lieutenant Abell approached the guard station, and the platoon leaders Lieutenant Dunne and Lieutenant Peterson called the company to attention. Dunne and Peterson formed the company into ranks according to their units. Abell saluted and announced that Fox Company did not know the password but wished to enter Hagaru-ri.
It was at this moment that Elmo Peterson finally faltered. Gray Davis happened to be looking at Peterson when the lieutenant tottered and fell to his knees. He remained kneeling for a few seconds, fighting off unconsciousness. But for the first time in a week Peterson's will failed him. He fell face-first into a snowbank. Davis and another Marine rushed to him and lifted him off the ground, one under each arm. They were not sure if he was dead. They carried him toward the roadblock. But after only a few steps Peterson regained consciousness and straightened up. He motioned the two men away and shook the loose snow from his uniform. Peterson rejoined the ranks next to Walt Hiskett, who was still bracing Amos Fixico.
The road barriers were raised and the column was allowed to pass. The ragged remains of Fox Company, Second Battalion, Seventh Regiment parade-marched into Hagaru-ri four men abreast, to a drill sergeant's cadence count. Someone began humming, softly at first, the Marine Corps Hymn. One by one, though their throats were dry and raw, the entire company picked up the tune. Soon each man was singing.
From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli,
we will fight our country's battles, on the land as on the sea.
First to fight for right and freedom, and to keep our honor clean,
we are proud to claim the title of United States Marines.
As Fox Company crossed the checkpoint, a Navy corpsman stationed at the gate shook his head. He turned to a guard. "Will you look at those magnificent bastards," he said.