Wednesday, November 07, 2018

On Desperate Ground by Hampton Sides

On Desperate Ground by Hampton Sides was an excellent book about U.S. Marines in the Korean War being surrounded in the mountains by a much larger force of Chinese troops and fighting their way back to safety.

Sides details how in 1950, General Douglas MacArthur, Commander of all U.S. and U.N. troops in the Far East, had the Marines make a push across the 38th parallel separating North and South Korea, with the goal of going all the way to the Yalu River separating North Korea from China. MacArthur's belief was that Chinese wouldn't enter into the war and the hubris on the part of he and his Chief of Staff, Major General Ned Almond, resulted in a force led by some twenty-thousand men of the First Marine Division commanded by General Oliver Prince North being flanked by what was likely several hundred thousand Chinese soldiers.

Much of the fighting in the mountains took place in sub-zero temperatures around the Chosin Reservoir, with a single 100 mile road there from the coast, and the Chinese trapping the Marines in the mountains, letting them progress up the road and then blowing bridges behind them. It was a remarkable escape, aided heavily by the Marines building an airstrip in the mountains at Hagaru, replacing a blown-out bridge to safety by flying in and dropping multi-thousand pound bridge pieces, the rescuing of men from the frozen-over reservoir, and by a battalion of 450 Marines who went overland to come to the aid of a company of Marines, Fox Company, who would have otherwise almost certainly have been all killed or captured. The tales of individual heroism was compelling reading, with those featured in the book along with General North including Sergeant Robert Kennemore, Lieutenant John Yancey, Private Hector Cafferata, Private Jack Chapman, Lieutenant Chew-Een Lee, Navy pilots Ensign Jesse Brown and Lieutenant Thomas Hudner, Private Ed Reeves, and Lieutenant Colonel John Partridge, who oversaw the building of both the bridge and airstrip.

The book in the beginning makes mention of Sun Tzu's notion that there are nine different kinds of battle, and that "the final and most distressing type is a situation in which one's army can be saved from destruction only by fighting without delay, a situation that Sun Tzu calls 'on desperate ground,'" and after the war, causality numbers stated by the Pentagon had the battle at and around the reservoir pegged at some 750 Marines killed, with 3,000 wounded and 200 missing, and the Chinese forces having an estimated 30,000 killed and 12,500 wounded. Overall, it was noted that 33,000 Americans died fighting in the Korean War, 180,000 Chinese troops, and 2.5M Korean citizens, and Sides in the book tells the story of this particular battle via a combination of deep reporting and narrative tales of individual heroism in the face of close to insurmountable odds.