CDG 43 – Marines at Chosin Reservoir, 1950
The March 2011 issue of Armchair General® presented the Combat Decision Game “Marines at Chosin Reservoir, 1950.” This CDG placed readers in the role of Captain William E. Barber, commander of Fox Company, 2d Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. Barber’s mission in November 1950 was to decide the best deployment for his unit to hold Toktong Pass, located in the frozen wastes of North Korea near Chosin (Changjin) Reservoir, against a possible attack by Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) forces. His decision, and his company’s subsequent desperate battle against daunting odds, determined the fate of 1st Marine Division.
On September 15, 1950, United Nations forces commander in chief General Douglas MacArthur’s brilliant Inchon landing liberated Seoul, capital of the Republic of Korea (ROK), and sent the invading North Korean army scurrying back north across the 38th parallel. U.S. President Harry S. Truman authorized MacArthur to pursue the beaten enemy and, it was assumed, soon end the Korean War with the entire peninsula unified under ROK control. However, as MacArthur’s forces closed on the Yalu River separating North Korea from China, Chinese leader Mao Zedong secretly sent more than 100,000 Chinese troops into North Korea to intervene in the war and prevent his ally’s defeat. On the night of November 27-28, PVA troops rose up from hiding places in the rugged terrain and launched a massive surprise offensive against the broadly scattered U.N. units.
One of the units hit hard by the PVA attack was 1st Marine Division, which was occupying widely dispersed positions west of North Korea’s remote Chosin Reservoir. Holding part of U.S. X Corps’ impossibly wide 400-mile front were 1st Marine Division’s greatly outnumbered 5th and 7th regiments at Yudam-ni. The overwhelming PVA offensive forced these 8,000 Marines to attempt a risky retreat along their only escape route – 78-mile-long highway NK72, which linked Yudam-ni with Hagaru-ri and, eventually, the port city of Hungnam, where the Marines could be safely evacuated. The key to keeping the highway open for the Marines’ escape was maintaining control of Toktong Pass – the mission given to Captain Barber’s Fox Company.
When Fox Company occupied Toktong Pass on November 27, Captain Barber decided to “circle the wagons,” keeping the company together as a single unit by placing all platoons in a perimeter defense on Fox Hill (CDG COURSE OF ACTION ONE: SINGLE POSITION). He positioned 2d Platoon on the west side of Fox Hill, 3d Platoon on the north, and 1st Platoon on the east. Barber placed Weapons Platoon in the center of the hill to provide all-around mortar fire support and put Headquarters and Service Platoon near the road on the perimeter’s south side. Machine guns anchored positions where the platoons’ boundaries met. (See Marines at Chosin Reservoir map.)
At 2:07 a.m. on November 28, in bitterly cold, 20 degrees below zero weather, waves of Chinese troops, supported by mortars and heavy machine guns, attacked Fox Company’s entire perimeter, beginning an ordeal that lasted until midday on December 1. During daylight hours, Barber directed U.S. Marine and Australian airstrikes on PVA positions. At night, when most Chinese attacks occurred, 11th Marines at Hagaru-ri provided artillery fire support that helped Barber’s company kill perhaps 1,000 enemy troops.
By the time a relief force from 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, arrived on December 1, only 82 of Barber’s original 220 Marines were fit to walk off Fox Hill – 26 were killed, three were missing in action, and the remainder, including Barber, were wounded. Fox Company’s survivors joined 1st Marine Division’s epic “attack in another direction” along highway NK72, arriving at Hungnam on December 11 for evacuation by sea. One awestruck observer, watching the battered Marines march past, called them those “magnificent bastards.”
Barber, for his heroic leadership at “Frozen Chosin,” received the Medal of Honor. (Click here to read his citation.)
ACG judges based their selections for winning Reader Solutions and those receiving honorable mention on submissions that chose COURSE OF ACTION ONE: SINGLE POSITION, or those whose explanations demonstrated a solid understanding of Korean War defensive actions. (See “After Action Report.”) This plan to “circle the wagons” in a single position on the key terrain of Fox Hill maximized the unit’s firepower, permitted Barber to shift Marines to threatened sectors and redistribute ammunition quickly, and greatly reduced the risk of “friendly fire” casualties from airstrikes and artillery fire. The close proximity of the Marines to their comrades also provided an important psychological boost to help keep up their morale in appalling weather and combat conditions.
Although COURSE OF ACTION TWO: TWO POSITIONS placed the crucial section of the road at Toktong Pass between the company’s two halves, this plan greatly increased the chance that the two forces would fire on each other. It also gave the Chinese a high-speed avenue of approach (the road) over which they, through infiltration or an overpowering “human wave” attack, could fatally split Barber’s defenses and defeat his forces in detail.
COURSE OF ACTION THREE: THREE POSITIONS gave the enemy an even greater opportunity to fragment Fox Company’s defenses and defeat each position in detail. This plan prevented Barber from being able to shift Marines to threatened sectors and redistribute ammunition in a timely manner. Furthermore, since company mortars had three perimeters to cover instead of only one, this choice impaired Barber’s ability to concentrate mortar fire on massed enemy attacks.
After Action Report
Key Points for a Korean War Defensive Battle
- Prepare troops mentally for the rigors of combat in harsh weather and terrain conditions and to resist enemy psychological warfare efforts.
- Maximize use of terrain to strengthen defensive positions.
- Maintain unit integrity to avoid isolated detachments being overrun and defeated piecemeal.
- Create all-around security to prevent Chinese infiltration.
- Establish interlocking fields of fire to cover likely enemy avenues of approach.
- Employ maximum firepower (machine guns, mortars, artillery, airstrikes) to defeat Chinese “human wave” attacks.
- Redistribute ammunition, reposition troops and reorganize position after each enemy assault.