CDG 43 – Marines at Chosin Reservoir, 1950
This Command Decision Game puts you in the role of Capt. William E. Barber, commanding a company of U.S. Marines in bitter cold near the Chosin (Changjin) Reservoir of North Korea, Nov. 27, 1950. Since crossing the 38th parallel last month, U.N. forces have driven back the North Korean troops who had invaded South Korea during the summer. Unknown to the U.N., Communist China has infiltrated over 100,000 of its soldiers, many of them veterans of the Chinese Civil War (1946–1950), into North Korea to shore up the faltering communist forces there.
Some sharp engagements with Red Chinese infantry have taken place, but not since early November. However, your HQ recognizes that if the Chinese should attack and seize the Toktong Pass, they could sever Highway NK72 between Yudam-ni and Hagaru-ri, isolating and potentially annihilating 8,000 Marines at Yudam-ni, the bulk of the 1st Marine Division.
Your Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, has been ordered to take up positions and hold that critical mountain pass against any potential Chinese attack.
The land is barren but cut through with ravines, valleys and hills that can provide concealment for approaching enemies. Recon reports say villagers are warning that something has scared off all the game in the area, news that reinforces the rumors a strong Chinese attack is imminent.
Intel says Mao Zedong’s Red Army is primarily armed with World War II Russian weapons and their Chinese copies, such as bolt-action rifles and carbines of the Russian Mosin-Nagant 91/30 design, and Russian PPsh41 and PPS 43 and Chinese Type 50 submachine guns. They are also equipped with light, medium and heavy MGs and 50mm to 120mm mortars, and some Japanese and German equipment from World War II. The army is very large but has no air support and little artillery or motor transport.
You 242 Marines include the standard three rifle platoons totaling 178 men, a 45-man Weapons Platoon, and a 19-man Headquarters and Supply (H&S) Platoon. Two-thirds of the men are, like yourself, veterans of the Second World War. So are their weapons: M1 rifles and carbines, M1911 .45-caliber pistols, Browning Automatic Rifles, .30-caliber machine guns, 60mm and 81mm mortars, and hand grenades. You can call for fire support from the 105mm howitzers of H Battery, 3rd Battalion, 11th Marines at Hagaru-ri and—Korea’s winter weather permitting—two Marine F4U Corsair squadrons and one Royal Australian Air Force P-51 squadron for close air support.
Your immediate task is determining the best way to deploy the men of Fox Company to guard the 5,000-foot-high pass. The enemy may hit you from any direction of the compass.
Your men have named the large rise north of the road Fox Hill, in honor of the company. It is topped by a "saddle" some 300 yards long by 100 yards wide, and off to each side are two small and narrow valleys. To the northwest lies a rocky knoll, and about a third of a mile beyond that point is Toktong Mountain, the area’s highest peak. To the east of Fox Hill lies another rise, soon named East Hill. South of the road, within the loop of the switchback, is South Hill. Digging foxholes and creating defensive positions in the frozen, rocky, snow-covered terrain will be extremely difficult and time consuming—and only a few hours of daylight remain. The winds are bone-chillingly cold.
You gather with your platoon commanders in an abandoned hut near the road to discuss three options you are considering.
Course of Action One:
"Circle the wagons" by deploying the entire company on Fox Hill, with the three rifle platoons each holding a section of the perimeter. The Weapons and H&S platoons will anchor the defensive line where it meets the road. Machine guns will be distributed among the rifle platoons and mortars will set up near the command post, the hut in which you now stand.
Lieutenant McCarthy, 3rd Platoon leader, likes this plan, noting, "It concentrates company firepower and increases our ability to reinforce any threatened part of the perimeter by shifting rifle squads or by using the Marines in the Weapons and H&S platoons."
Lieutenant Peterson, 2nd Platoon leader, disagrees. "It allows no room for maneuver and gives Chinese mortar gunners a single target on which to focus their fire. We’ll have to hunker down, take a pounding, and hope for the best."
Course of Action Two:
The next plan, you continue, would divide the company into two approximately equal defensive positions. Second Platoon and H&S, along with the 81mm mortars, will occupy Fox Hill. First and third platoons will take the 60mm mortars and defend from South Hill. As in the first plan, machine guns will be distributed among the rifle platoons. "This allows us to hold the road securely between our two forces," you add.
Lieutenant Peterson prefers this idea, which will allow crossfire on likely avenues of approach, but McCarthy disagrees.
"From what I’ve heard," he says, "the Chinese are masters of infiltration tactics, and dividing the company makes it easier for infiltrators to sneak in, especially in darkness. If they manage to get to the road, they can fire in both directions, and we’ll risk hitting our own men when we return fire."
Course of Action Three:
"The third option," you continue, "provides the most flexibility, allows the company to defend the greatest area, and offers the best configuration for creating crossfire. In this plan, 1st Platoon will occupy East Hill, and 2nd Platoon will take South Hill Third Platoon will defend from Fox Hill, along with the Weapons and H&S platoons and the company command post. We’ll link all the platoons with wire commo, and Weapon Platoon’s mortars will respond to calls for fire."
Lieutenant Dunne, 1st Platoon leader, speaks up, saying he thinks this is the best option. "In effect, we will be ‘surrounding’ the objective and expanding our fields of fire. Any enemy soldiers foolish enough to try infiltrating between our positions will be moving directly into a kill zone."
McCarthy, however, regards splitting the company into three parts as even worse than splitting it into two. "By dividing our force into bite-sized chunks, we will be dissipating our strength and giving the enemy a golden opportunity to chew us up one position at a time."
You thank them all for their input and send them back to their platoons with this reminder: "There are 8,000 fellow Marines at Yudam-ni counting on us to hold the pass and keep this road open if the Chinese we suspect are swarming this area decide to attack—which could happen as early as tonight."
Darkness isn’t far off. Which course of action do you choose, Captain Barber? Or has the discussion with your platoon leaders suggested yet another, potentially better possibility?
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This text is a abridged version of Command Decision Game #43 written by Andrew H. Hershey, which appears in the March 2011 edition of Armchair General magazine.