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Wonsan to the Reservoir:
Red China Enters the Fight

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Wonsan to the Reservoir

By Lynn Montross
Historical Division Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps
Reprinted from the October 1951 issue of The Marine Corps Gazette
Reprinted with permission to The Korean War Educator.

At Wonsan the Leathernecks did not find it necessary to storm ashore and fight for the beaches. Not a shot was fired to oppose the landing of the 1st Mar Div from 25 to 27 October at the leading seaport of Northeast Korea. It was, in short, simply an administrative landing which grew out of the amphibious assault planned by X Corps before the end of the Inchon-Seoul operation. The troopships, after rounding the southern tip of Korea on their way from Inchon, were kept waiting for a week while the Navy cleared the mines left in the harbor by retreating North Korean forces. But the town itself had already been occupied without a struggle by ROK troops advancing up the east coast from southern Korea.

Among the 280 landings recorded in the 175-year history of the Marine Corps, there was never a tamer one. On 14 October the first elements of VMF-312 were flown to Wonsan from Japan to provide the rare spectacle of Marine airmen making themselves at home in the objective area before the appearance of the landing force. As the final anticlimax, the assault troops learned upon arrival that Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell had preceded them to put on a USO show.

Why had the amphibious operation been changed to an administrative landing after a series of seemingly confused plans and orders? This was the question which perplexed the men of the 1st Mar Div at the end of their tedious voyage. Yet the answers might have been found in the very extent of the victory which the Leathernecks themselves had recently helped to win. For the coordinated offensive launched on 15-16 September by all United Nations forces in the peninsula had nearly achieved its purpose of destroying the North Korean Army as a fighting force. While X Corps, with the 1st Mar Div as landing force, cut the main enemy line of communications at Inchon and Seoul, the Eighth U.S. Army drove westward and northward to rout the NK forces holding the initiative along the Pusan Perimeter. By the second week of October the enemy was too shattered to put up any organized resistance at Wonsan other than sowing the harbor with mines.

Before this result could be fully anticipated, X Corps alerted its units on 29 September—the date of the official liberation of Seoul—as to the possibility of an amphibious assault at Wonsan. Five days later a X Corps operational order directed the 1st Mar Div, then actively engaged north of Seoul, to serve as the landing force. Ships from the 7th Fleet, which had remained off Inchon after taking part in that amphibious assault, had previously been designated as Task Force 90 under the command of RAdm James H. Doyle.

The 1st Mar Div was withdrawn from the operation on 7 October and returned in convoy from blocking positions north of Seoul to the Inchon area. This was also the date of Corps and Division embarkation orders directing the loading of about 28,000 men and their equipment on 71 ships. Next day the Marines began the complicated task of combat-loading in the Inchon tidal basin. The great tidal range meant that ships entering at high water must be beached until the next favorable tide before departing. Troops were embarked with a view to expediency, and an ordeal of monotony awaited the men crowded into the LSTs. Time dragged especially for the 1st and 3d Bns of the 1st Marines, who boarded their LSTs on 10 October and spent five days at anchor off Inchon. The voyage around the peninsula took 11 more days, counting the interval of Navy mine-sweeping and Wonsan harbor while the troopships cruised back and forth offshore.

The original plan had called for an amphibious assault on 20 October by RCTs 1 and 7, with RCT 5 in reserve. After seizing a beachhead, the 1st Mar Div was to cover the landing of the 7th Inf Div of the U.S. Army. Meanwhile the two divisions of the I ROK Corps, recently attached to the Eighth Army, were to advance up the east coast toward the objective area.

Circumstances caused this plan to be abandoned before many elements of Task Force 90 left Inchon. North Korean resistance had folded so suddenly that Wonsan fell like a ripe plum to the fast-moving 3d Div of the I ROK Corps on 10 October. An amphibious assault being no longer necessary, X Corps planners decided upon the administrative landing. Afterwards the 1st Mar Div was to slice westward across the waistline of the peninsula—125 miles over difficult mountain roads—and link up with Eighth Army units for an attack on Pyongyang, the Red Korean capital.

Again the completeness of the UN victory confounded high-level planners when Eighth Army units took Pyongyang on 19 October during their sweep northward against scattered resistance. On the assumption that organized opposition had been crushed, the westward movement was cancelled on 22 October and X Corps assigned a zone of operations in Northeast Korea. The new overall plan of the supreme command called for UN forces to drive to the border of Manchuria. A three-pronged advance was envisioned by X Corps planners in their zone—the 1st Mar Div on the left, the 7th Inf Div in the center, I ROK Corps (3d and Capital Divs) on the right, and the 3d Inf Div in reserve.

On 26 October, while the Marines were landing, Maj Gen Edward M. Almond, CG X Corps, directed elements of the division to proceed from Wonsan by way of Hamhung to the Chosin and Fusen Reservoirs for an advance to the border. Other Marine elements were meanwhile to protect the Wonsan-Kojo-Majon-ni corridor until the 3d Inf Div landed.

The fulfillment of these missions would make it necessary for MajGen Oliver P. Smith, CG 1st Mar Div, to disperse his units over a vast area stretching 300 miles from Kojo in the south to the border. Even the immediate objectives, Kojo and Hamhung, were 118 miles apart. The equation was complicated not only by time and space factor, but also by the few supply routes available in rugged mountain country. Finally, the integrity of units was also to be considered, since a Marine division functioned at its best as a single integrated instrument.

Altogether, it was a difficult problem in dispersal and concentration, and the solution was perhaps the most interesting feature of forthcoming operations. Broad in scope as Marine assignments were, it was expected by X Corps intelligence that much organized resistance would be encountered. A G-2 report of 21 October concluded that routed NK remnants planned to withdraw from the Wonsan area to Manchuria, or attempt a last stand in the mountains of northern Korea. It was admitted that the Chinese or Russians might intervene on behalf of beaten Korean Reds, but the report added that no evidence of any such development had been encountered.

Naturally the Marines landing at Wonsan found themselves plunged into an atmosphere of soaring optimism. "Home by Christmas!" was the wishful slogan of serving troops after the recent news of the successful descent of Eighth Army paratroops north of Pyongyang to cut enemy routes of escape. "The war is very definitely coming to an end shortly," declared Gen Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander, who watched the operation from the air. "With the closing of that trap there should be an end to organized resistance."

It could hardly have been imagined by the Leathernecks on their first day ashore that some of them would be hard pressed in a hot fire fight within 36 hours. The 1st Marines lost no time at beginning its mission of protecting the Wonsan-Kojo-Majon-ni area. As the initial step, the 1st Bn, reinforced by 4.2 mortar and engineer platoons, landed at Wonsan about 0900 on 26 October and entrained at 1400 for Kojo, some 35 miles southward along the coast. These troops were assigned the duty of guarding a ROK supply dump after relieving a battalion of the 23d ROK Regt.


As a departure from the usual autumnal drizzle, it was a bright blue and gold October day when the 1st Bn (less one platoon) crowded into gondola cars drawn by an asthmatic little engine: The war seemed far away, especially when the men noted that the enemy had neglected an obvious opportunity to blow up tunnels. In keeping with the holiday mood, Kojo proved to be the most attractive town the Marines had seen in Korea—an almost undamaged small seaport flanked by the white beaches and sparkling blue waters of the bay.

Upon arrival at 1600, it was learned that the supply dump no longer existed, having been moved by ROK forces. But there remained the tasks of relieving the ROK battalion and protecting the Kojo area. This coastal plain, consisting of wet rice paddies, was about 5,000 yards in diameter, surrounded by a semi-circle of hills forming a natural perimeter. High ground northwest of town was taken over from the ROK troops and occupied as the main battalion position by Charlie Co and two platoons of Able Co. The other Able platoon held Hill 117, just north of the town, while the two platoons of Baker Co moved out to two hills southwest of the seaport.

This gave the battalion a thinly-held perimeter, but ROK officers reported only minor contacts with retreating Red Korean bands raiding the villages for rice and young women. The train which brought the Marines was to make a return trip next day, guarded by a platoon of Baker Co with more ammunition and supplies. A motor convoy was also scheduled to arrive from Wonsan on the 27th to provide vehicles and added equipment.

Despite the tranquil situation, the Marines neglected no precautions, even to a withdrawal plan. Korean telephone communication linked the battalion to the regiment at Wonsan until radio contact was established next day, and a battery of artillery was scheduled to arrive at Kojo that night.

The informal relief of the ROK battalion took place after a quiet night, and these allies departed with their women and children in the train which had brought the Marines. Later in the afternoon the vehicle convoy arrived safely from Wonsan with added equipment and ammunition. Not until sunset was the brief illusion of peace shattered by long-range enemy automatic fire on a wire-laying jeep from the vicinity of Hill 185. Soon the outposts on Hills 185 and 109 were receiving automatic fire which increased in intensity after dark. Next came probing attacks in platoon strength, executed with a boldness and precision which indicated an organized enemy rather than guerilla bands.

Just before midnight the CO of Baker Co asked permission to withdraw, after reporting his 3d Plat under attack from front and flank on Hill 185. Permission being granted by the battalion commander, all elements were gradually pulled in along the railroad track. This movement was aided by the timely arrival of Fox Btry, 11th Marines. The gunners immediately set up their howitzers along the beach opposite the battalion CP and laid down interdicting fire in the zone of Baker Co which had been stopped near the village of Chonchon-ni by heavy small arms and automatic fire from all sides. The battalion commander soon arranged for radio contact, so that CO Baker Co could direct 4.2 mortar as well as artillery fires.

At dawn, after a defensive halt of several hours, the company was ordered to continue its withdrawal toward the battalion position. A platoon of Able Co., sent out from the battalion position, helped to carry the wounded through muddy rice paddies. During this movement an estimated 200 enemy moved westward from Kojo with a view to interception. These NK troops did not suspect that they were approaching the battalion position until Able and Charlie Cos opened up at long range with mortar and automatic fire. The enemy column was dispersed, about 75 being killed, and Baker Co completed its withdrawal.

Both Marine flanks had also been under heavy attack during the night. On the left the enemy infiltrated through Kojo in company strength to envelop the Able Co platoon on Hill 117, but the Leathernecks held their ground in a fire fight lasting an hour. On the right, a series of probing attacks by enemy squads led up to a coordinated assault by two companies on Charlie Co. Although some confusion resulted in the darkness, all positions were restored at daybreak with the aid of supporting mortar and artillery fires.

Since Kojo no longer contained military supplies, the CO of the battalion decided on a withdrawal to a tighter perimeter for all-around protection against superior enemy numbers. Hill 117 offered the best defensive position, and movement commenced about noon on 28 October under cover of air and artillery. Enemy forces immediately occupied the high ground of the former battalion position but were evicted by air strikes.

The three squadrons of MAG-12, one flown in from Kimpo and the other two from Japan, had begun operations from Wonsan airfield before the landing of the division. They were followed early in November by the arrival from Japan of the three squadrons of MAG-33, two of which operated from CVE carriers and one from Wonsan until the 12th, when they established their CP at Yonpo airfield.

Excellent air support helped to keep the casualties of the 1st Bn down to 22 killed, 38 wounded, and eight missing in the Kojo fight as compared to an estimated 500 enemy casualties. PW interrogations revealed that the Marines had been attacked by three battalions of the 10th Regt of the 5th Div—one of the best units of the North Korean army at the outset of war. Total NK forces in the Kojo area, counting remnants of other units, were estimated at 4,000 to 7,000.

On a basis of radio reports, the CO of the 1st Marines decided to send the 2d Bn from Wonsan as reinforcements. The 3d Bn, in accordance with Division orders, was assigned to blocking positions at Majon-ni, an important road junction about 28 miles west of Wonsan. Two trains brought the 2d Bn to Kojo at 2230 on the 28th, and these troops shared a 2,000-yard perimeter with the 1st Bn on Hill 117. Continuous mortar and artillery fires were placed on all known enemy positions throughout a night which passed uneventfully. Patrols sent out the next morning reported no signs of enemy activity, and it was concluded that large enemy forces had by-passed the Kojo area and continued their retreat along secondary routes into the hills to the northwest.

Helicopter reconnaisance on 29 October not only added confirmation but resulted in the picking up of four Marines, cut off from their units in the confusion of night fighting, who had been reported missing in action. The word "help," spelled out in rice straw on the ground, led to the rescue of a Baker Co survivor who had hidden for 40 hours in a straw-stack. On the 30th an LST reached Kojo Bay with two platoons of tanks from Co C, 1st Tank Bn. They were not landed, being no longer needed, and the LST returned to Wonsan the following day.


Thus, the action at Kojo ended as unexpectedly as it began. On 1 November the 2d Bn assumed responsibility for security, and the 1st Bn returned to Wonsan on an LST which had brought a Korean Marine Corps company. Two days later the 2d Bn was relieved and moved back to Wonsan by convoy in accordance with Corps orders, leaving the quiet Kojo area to KMC troops. The two battalions of the 1st Marines were immediately assigned to blocking positions—the 1st in the Wonsan area, and the 2d along the Togwan-Majon-ni road.

The 3d Bn, reinforced by an artillery battery, had reached Majon-ni in convoy on 28 October to find the road junction a lucrative post for the bagging of prisoners. Retreating North Korean forces, denied the coastal route through Kojo and Wonsan, were now attempting to escape through the hills. Some of these fugitives, in fact, consisted of troops whose units were identified in the recent fight at Kojo.

About 600 captives were rounded up by patrols during the first week at Majon-ni. No enemy resistance developed until 2 November, but during the following week the main supply route to Wonsan was continually cut. Convoys were turned back on several occasions, and once an air drop of supplies was necessary. Most of the enemy attempts consisted of road-blocks, either undefended or manned by concealed forces lying in wait for convoys. And though the resulting fire fights were on a small scale, a succession of NK efforts testified to the vulnerability of a single MSR in a mountain area of few and poor roads.

On 7 November the enemy became emboldened to the extent of attacking Majon-ni itself. The 3d Bn, warned by PW interrogations, was loaded for bear when a force of undetermined size assaulted the perimeter with grenades and burp guns. So one-sided was the ensuing contest that the enemy withdrew after losses of 53 killed and about 130 wounded at a cost to the Marines of three men wounded.

Nevertheless, the problem of supplying the 3d Bn became so serious that X Corps ordered the 1st Marines to patrol the MSR. A company from each of the other two battalions, plus tanks and elements of the 1st Engineer Bn., managed to keep the road clear thereafter. At the finish a bag of 1,300 prisoners left no doubt as to the value of the occupation of Majon-ni. But Marine staff officers must have speculated as to what might happen if an entire division went out on a limb, as represented by a single MSR in mountain country.

On 14-16 November the 1st Marines was relieved in the southern sector by units of the 3d Inf Div, the leading elements of which had landed at Wonsan on 7 November. Owing to lack of transportation, delays resulted after these troops and KMC reinforcements took over the positions of the 1st Marines at Majon-ni and the Wonsan area. Not until 19 November did the last elements of the regiment clear Wonsan by rail and motor for an assembly area in the vicinity of Chigyong, about six miles southwest of Hamhung.

This was the first step in pulling together Marine units which at times had been proceeding in opposite directions to carry out their missions. Besides the widely separated northern and southern zones, the CG 1st Mar Div also had the responsibility for protecting intervening strategic points. Actually it was a task beyond the numerical strength of a division, and the solution might not have been possible except for Marine basic training. Along the MSR between Munchon and Wonsan, for instance, artillery not attached to regiments served very creditably as improvised infantry. Tankmen guarded the airfield at Yonpo, while shore party and amphtrac elements took on infantry duties in protecting the Wonsan airfield.

Up to the middle of November, indeed, it might almost have been said that Gen Smith had two separate wars on his hands—a defensive war in the south against escaping NK remnants, and an offensive war in the north against Chinese Communist forces. Before the division finished unloading at Wonsan, the first CCF troops in the X Corps zone had already been encountered on 30 October northwest of Hamhung. Sixteen prisoners taken on that date by the 26th Regt of I ROK Corps were identified as belonging to the 124th CCF Div, and PW interrogations revealed that Chinese troops had crossed the Yalu as early as 18 October.

In order to carry out its mission to the border, the 1st Mar Div planned to advance the 7th and 5th RCTs in column along the Koto-ri—Hagaru-ri axis, to be followed by the 1st RCT after being relieved in the south. The problems of command were increased by the multiplicity of X Corps plans and orders, some of which were cancelled and superseded before they could be put into effect. In extenuation, high-level planners might have pleaded that the situation was so fluid as to create the necessity for frequent amendments.

The motives and purposes of Red China remained a mystery when the Marine advance northward began on 31 October with RCT 7 completing its lift by rail from Wonsan to Hamhung. As spearhead, the regiment had orders to relieve the 26th ROK Regt on 2 November in the vicinity of Majon-dong.

Owing to the lack of troops for so many diversified tasks, the participation of RCT 5 had to be postponed. This regiment was sent late in October on patrol assignments—the 1st Bn at Yonghung, and the 2d and 3d Bns in the Munchon area. Not until 2 November did the latter two units move up to Hamhung, while the other battalion proceeded from Yonghung to Chigyong for new patrol duties lasting until the 11th. Meanwhile the 7th Marines, youngest regiment of the division, with the largest percentage of reservists, had won the distinction of being the first American unit to engage with CCF troops in all-out combat.

The men had been issued winter clothing at Wonsan which was appreciated during the 20-mile motor lift from Hamhung to the Majon-dong area on 1 November. Relief of the 26th ROK Regt, which had been pushed back by CCF troops, was effected at 1030 next morning with 1/7 and 2/7 assaulting in column and 3/7 in reserve. Only light and scattered resistance was encountered in a 1,300-yard advance, and at 1630 positions were consolidated for the night while the ROK regiment pulled out to the rear. Front line observation indicated that Chinese forces were concentrating in the Sudong area, which was assigned as the regimental objective for the following day. Shortly after midnight, however, the enemy took matters in his own hands by launching a surprise assault.

The Marines occupied an oblong perimeter about 6,000 yards in length and 2,000 in width. In the advance was 1/7, with one company in the defile and the other two dug in along the high ground on each side of the road. Farther back were two companies of 2/7 at distances of 700 to 1,000 yards from the road, one on the right and one on the left. The three companies of 3/7 closed up the rear, giving added protection to the service units, motor transport company, and 3d Bn of the Marines on the inside of the perimeter.

The weird sound of bugles and whistles was the sign for CCF attacks shortly after midnight on both flanks of 1/7. Soon 2/7 was receiving small arms, automatic, and mortar fire from front and flank on each side of the road. At 0430 two tanks approaching the 1st Bn CP were driven off by 75mm recoilless and 3.5-inch rocket fire, one of them being destroyed. Some confusion ensued during the night fighting, but the only temporary enemy penetration was into the 4.2-inch mortar position. At daybreak the attacks continued with decreasing intensity in the 1st zone, though infiltrating enemy set up a road-block at the bridge south of Sudong. Covering fire cut the MSR behind the 1st and 2nd Bns, so that air drops of supplies had to be made. Meanwhile the Div Recon Co moved on the flank of this position in combination with air strikes, forcing and abandonment of the roadblock late that afternoon.

Chinese losses were estimated at 662 killed in the 1st Bn zone alone. Firing ceased at dusk and the regiment spent a quiet night in its perimeter. At 1000 on 4 November, after patrols reported the enemy withdrawing north of Sudong, the advance began with the 1st and 2d in reserve. Moderate resistance occurred as the regiment passed through Sudong and pushed on toward the Chinhung-ni area, where five enemy tanks were surprised by infantry and air. Only one escaped with a whole skin, the others being destroyed by 3.5-inch rockets, airplane rockets, and 75mm recoilless fire. After an advance of 6,000 yards the regiment dug in for the night on high ground in the vicinity of Chinhung-ni.

The Marine attack was continued on the morning of the 5th against Chinese resistance which stiffened to such an extent that the regiment forged ahead only 300 yards. Heavy automatic, mortar, and even artillery fire hit the Marines at the jump-off, and the best efforts of supporting arms could not dislodge the enemy from prepared positions on the high ground on both sides of the road. The next day’s attack was a repetition, and twice the 3d Bn had to repel counterattacks in company strength after passing through the 1st Bn to lead an advance of about 1,000 yards.

In 48 hours of hard fighting the Leathernecks had gained less than a mile. Yet it was this period of hard slugging which broke the back of Chinese resistance as Marine air and artillery hammered away at well-concealed positions along reverse slopes. For on 7 November the 3d Bn moved out to find the enemy withdrawn from the high ground commanding Chinhung-ni. Patrols reported no contacts and OY observation spotted CCF remnants retreating toward the Yudam-ni area, which was thoroughly worked over by Marine air.

This was the finish of the four-day fight representing the first large-scale clash of American troops with the forces of Red China. PW interrogations revealed that the 7th Marines had collided with three regiments of the 124th CCF Div. The Leathernecks had not won an easy victory, what with losses of 46 killed and 264 wounded. But estimates of enemy casualties ran as high as 9,000, and G-2 reports established that the Chinese division had been so severely mauled that it virtually ceased to exist as an effective unit.

These material results were no more important than the moral gains. Chinese guerrilla techniques had won a formidable reputation not only in WWII but also during the ensuing civil struggle between Communists and Nationalists. This tactical system, in fact, had been adopted in large part by the North Korean army, so that the Marines encountered no radically new methods or weapons except the bugles or whistles used for signaling. CCF units appeared to be better trained and led, however, than a majority of the NK troops. They pushed home their night attacks with more skill and persistence, and their command functioned much better above the company level. Tactical maneuvers were executed with precise timing and direction, though little initiative appeared to be exercised at the platoon and company level.

Barring such lapses, the new enemy had shown himself to be a stubborn and dangerous adversary in mountain country made to order for his tactics. Nevertheless, the fight from Sudong to Chinhung-ni had demonstrated the all-around soundness of Marine command and basic training at a ruinous cost to the Chinese. The precept, as an example set for all other American units in Korea, was one of the most worthwhile results of the victory won by the 7th Marines.

On 10 November, after two days devoted to patrolling, the regiment moved unopposed by motor lift from positions 1,000 yards north of Chinhung-ni to Koto-ri. Patrols sent out from this point reported only a minor enemy contact in 48 hours. And on the 13th the advance was continued toward Hagaru-ri, where all three battalions were assembled during the next two days.

The middle of November dates a second stage in the concentration of 1st Mar Div elements as RCT-5 moved up behind RCT-7. On 4 November, after two days in Hamhung, 2/5 and 3/5 had been sent by X Corps orders on reconnaissance into the Sinhung Valley stretching northward to the Fusen Reservoir. No large enemy forces being met in extensive patrolling, the two battalions were recalled on the 10th to Hamhung. During the next three days RCT-5 was assigned to protective positions along the Hamhung-Hagaru-ri MSR—3/5 at Chinhung-ni, 2/5 at Koto-ri, and 1/5 at Majon-dong after being relieved at Chigyong. Meanwhile, RCT-1 was being relieved in the south to advance to an assembly area at Chigyong.

From 15 to 19 November the positions of Marine units remained little changed. No enemy were contacted except a CCF force of 200, dispersed west of Hagaru-ri by an attack of the 1st Bn, RCT-7. At this time the 1st Mar Div appeared to be making a tortoise’s progress as compared to the gains of other X Corps units in the north. Elements of I ROK Corps, driving along the coast, had already advanced to the important Nanam-Chongji industrial area only a few miles south of the Manchurian border. And though the 7th Inf Div had landed three days later than the Marines, Gen Smith sent his congratulations on 22 November to MajGen David G. Barr, commanding the Army troops who reached the Yalu River near Hyesanjin. Neither the ROK forces nor the 7th Div had met any serious opposition, despite the persistent reports to Corps and Division G-2 of large CCF forces infiltrating down from the border.

Many of these reports were based on information given by terrified Korean refugees from mountain villages. If such rumors were to be taken seriously, there was reason for alarm as to enemy strength. On 19 November, for instance, a civilian reported 50,000 enemy soldiers to be approaching Hagaru-ri. Refugees declared the next day at 13,000 CCF troops were in the vicinity of Sinhung-ni.


Such vague estimates had to be taken with a grain of salt, for a different story was told by actual observation and contacts. If these sources were to be credited, no enemy force larger than a few hundred had been seen since the retreat of the defeated and decimated 124th CCF Div. Thus it was that 1st Mar Div G-2 concluded on 24 November that "aerial observation…together with lack of aggressiveness on part of enemy in 5th and 7th Marines’ area indicate a generally defensive attitude." But the same analysis warned that "increased activity along MSR and against our left flank is likely and is not to be considered lightly."

Such was the confidence of high-level planners that X Corps sent instructions to the 1st Mar Div on 20 November concerning the occupation of the Yalu line. Political rather than military aspects were emphasized, and it was stated that only units of minimum size would be sent to the immediate vicinity of the border. The integrity of Manchurian territory, in short, was to be meticulously respected.

The 1st Mar Div was still about 125 road miles from the border on this date. But the lesson of the Majon-ni MSR had not been wasted, and Gen Smith neglected no measures for the protection of a larger force at the end of a longer route. Relying on personal observation as well as G-2 reports, he made helicopter flights over the tortuous length of Korean mountain road that was soon to become world-famous.

The first 33 miles beyond Hamhung were served by a narrow-gauge railway ending at Chinhung-ni. Up to this point the parallel road climbed gradually, but from the railhead "over the hump" to Koto-ri and Hagaru-ri an ascent of 2,400 feet was made in one stretch of 10,000 yards.

This was the MSR—a total of 56 road miles from Hamhung to the foot of Chosin Reservoir, nearly half of them consisting of a winding, dirt trail clinging precariously to the side of bleak mountains. A skid might send a supply truck over the edge to the rocks a hundred feet below, or an ailing carburetor might halt an entire convoy. Yet the welfare of thousands of Marines depended on keeping the wheels rolling along the MSR from Hamhung to Hagaru-ri!

Seldom in Marine Corps history has every decision of command been fraught with as much significance. And it is noteworthy that at a time of general optimism, both in top-level military and state circles, Gen Smith felt grave concern as early as 15 November over the situation of the 1st Mar Div. Not only was its left flank wide open, but a gap of 80 miles invited enemy penetration between the Marines and the nearest units of the Eighth Army to the west. Not only were large CCF forces rumored to be in northern Korea, but another formidable enemy had already invaded the mountains—the first zero nights, indicating the approach of General Winter. On 14 November, while inspecting installations at Koto-ri, the CG 1st Mar Div found the small streams frozen and the MSR glazed in places with ice. Cases of frostbite had been reported by the 7th Marines, though the men were equipped with parkas and sleeping bags.

Corps orders left a good deal of latitude to units in the mission to the border, and during the period from 13 to 20 November Gen Smith made haste slowly and methodically. Supplies and ammunition were sent by rail from Hamhung to Chinhung-ni, then trucked to dumps at Koto-ri and Hagaru-ri. Engineers worked tirelessly on the MSR, installing culverts and making ready for icy going. As added logistical insurance, plans were approved to build a 5,000-foot strip for C-47s and C-119s at Hagaru-ri, though air alone could not solve the supply problem.


From 20 to 22 November, moreover, Gen Smith put into effect the third step of his concentration. New X Corps orders sent RCT-7 forward on the west side of the Chosin Reservoir and RCT-5 on the east side. RCT-1 was to be relieved at Chigyong by 3d Inf Div elements and ROKS, thus making it possible for the CG 1st Mar Div to carry out his preconceived plan of moving up that regiment to guard the MSR. Thus, in effect, the division would have two RCTs in assault and one in reserve, with the 11th Marines and other support units being disposed where could be most useful.

The Marine advance was ordered in preparation for the combined offensive of the Eighth Army and X Corps scheduled for the 24th. From the 21st until that date the 5th Marines patrolled vigorously east of the Reservoir, covering a wide area without flushing out any large enemy group. The same ominous lull prevailed west of the Reservoir along the steep 14-mile road from Hagaru-ri to Yudam-ni. Baker Co of the 7th Marines, plodding through snowdrifts, reached the halfway point at Sinhung-ni on the 22d, meeting only a retiring enemy force of about company strength. The entire 1st Bn continued to push toward Yudam-ni during the next two days, advancing 2,500 yards northwest of Sinhung-ni against negligible opposition consisting largely of undefended road-blocks.


On 24 November, D-Day of the combined offensive, Gen Douglas MacArthur’s message was read to X Corps troops. "The massive compression envelopment in North Korea against the new Red armies operating there is now approaching its decisive effort," declared the supreme commander. During the past three weeks, he added, our air forces had successfully interdicted CCF lines of support from the north so as to cut off reinforcements. Meanwhile the eastern or X Corps sector of the pincers had advanced to reach a commanding enveloping position. "This morning the western sector of the pincer moves forward in general assault to complete the compression and close the vise. If successful, this should for all practicable purposes end the war."

Despite the optimism of the message, there were disturbing indications at this date that at least four CCF divisions might be advancing into the zone of the 1st Mar Div. Air reconnaissance still reported no large enemy groups observed, though noting such clues as paths left by many footprints. It seemed incredible that large enemy forces were hiding by day in villages, for it was not then known that a battalion of Chinese could crowd into a hamlet of 20 houses. Nevertheless, Division G-2 could not discount PW identifications of these CCF units—the 60th, 59th, and 58th Divs of the 20th Army, and the attached 89th Div. The first three, in that order, were reported to be approaching the Yudam-ni area on 21 or 22 November.

New X Corps orders of the 24th outlined the part of the 1st Mar Div in the general offensive. RCT-7 was to seize Yudam-ni at once. RCT-5, upon relief by 7th Inf Div elements, was to advance into the Yudam-ni area after shifting from the east to the west side of Chosin Reservoir. Before these moves could be made, the situation was changed by reports of heavy resistance encountered by the Eighth Army. Amended X Corps orders of the 25th, therefore, called for a 1st Mar Div drive westward to cut CCF communications at Mupyong-ni. The object of this attack on the enemy’s flank was to relieve pressure on the Eighth Army.

The Division plan of 26 November directed RCT-5 to pass through RCT-7 west of Yudam-ni and advance to the west. Relief of the former was effected by the 1st Bn, 32nd Inf, and that evening 2/5 entered the perimeter of RCT-7, which had occupied Yudam-ni the previous afternoon against light resistance.

Meanwhile, RCT-1 had completed its movement from the Chigyong area to defensive positions along the MSR—1/1 at Chinhung-ni, 2/1 at Koto-ri, and 3/1 at Hagaru-ri. Thus the entire division was pulled together into an area that could be traversed from front to rear in an hour by jeep.

At 0830 on the 27th the 2d Bn of RCT-5 passed through elements of RCT-7 and continued the attack west of Yudam-ni, while the latter regiment sent out patrols and seized two hills still held by by-passed enemy elements. At last, after five days of suspiciously light resistance in this zone, the Chinese put up a stiff fight against 2/5 with automatic and mortar fire from prepared positions. Air strikes and artillery fires had to be requested for the reduction of CCF pillboxes. The assault troops gained 1600 yards, then dug in for the night astride the road about 6500 yards west of Yudam-ni. The other two battalions of RCT-5 moved up to an assembly area in the rear, while RCT-7 occupied positions about 4900 yards southwest of the town.

By this time, unfortunately, the situation of the Eighth Army had deteriorated too far for the Marine advance to relieve the pressure. Large CCF forces, driving through the mountains into the gap between Eighth Army and X Corps units, struck the former on the 25th. The disintegration of the II ROK Corps on the right flank necessitated a general Eighth Army withdrawal on the 26th which reached serious proportions the following day. Meanwhile the Chinese were completing their infiltration into the X Corps zone.

In the Yudam-ni area the first few hours of darkness on the 27th were uneventful. Then, just before midnight, both the 5th and 7th Marines came under heavy attack. This was the beginning of the great CCF counterstroke in the X Corps zone that was to make 28 November a landmark of Maine Corps history. Air observation that morning revealed that the MSR had been severed by formidable CCF numbers between Koto-ri and Hagaru-ri as well as between the latter point and Yudam-ni. Thus the 5th and 7th Marines, cut off from the rest of the division, were forced to withdraw into a perimeter near Yudam-ni as heavy pressure was applied in their rear. The retreat of the Eighth Army added to the isolation of the two Marine regiments threatened with envelopment by crushing numbers.

CCF forces, marching by night and hiding in villages or caves by day, had contrived to move eight divisions within striking distance of the 1st Mar Div. As it later appeared, the CCF command had chosen between three courses of action. An attack might have been aimed southward through the 3d If Div, scattered over an area of 400 square miles, to seize the vital Hungham-Hamhung supply base. Or an attack might have been launched in the north with the object of cutting off the dispersed 7th Inf Div and I ROK Corps. But the Chinese generals elected to hurl their massed strength against the 1st Mar Div—the only relatively concentrated unit of X Corps.

This concentration, completed within the last 48 hours, had been the steadfast goal of Gen Smith, whose writings reveal a grim realistic view of the situation throughout the past two weeks. When the blow fell, he set up his CP at Hagaru-ri on the 28th to take personal charge of the defense after flying with his staff from Hungham.

If the 1st Mar Div had seemed to advance like a tortoise as compared to other X Corps units, it was now able to withdraw into a defensive shell made possible by concentration. Far from finding a dispersed force, the enemy was confronted by four bristling perimeters, held in battalion strength or greater, at Yudam-ni, Hagaru-ri, Koto-ri, and Chinhung-ni. Within these fortresses, Marine firepower was prepared to operate on a 360 degrees front, and Marine service troops were prepared to double as infantry. For the 1st Mar Div was up against a fight for survival, and every Leatherneck from Gen Smith to the newest private would be needed to beat off an overwhelming enemy.


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