Hypothermia and Frostbite
Thomas Calabrese — On June 25, 1950, eight divisions of the North Korean People’s Army, equipped with Soviet tanks, mobile artillery and supporting aircraft, crossed the 38th parallel and invaded the Republic of Korea. They swept in quickly and took control of Seoul the capital, and most of the country except a small corner in the southeast called Pusan.
On July 7, 1950 the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade was activated at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif. The core of the ground element was the 5th Marines, while Marine Aircraft Group 33 made up the air element of the brigade.
Luke Benson had told the Marines that he was 18 when he enlisted at age 15 and fought in the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. In 1950, he was a happy young civilian working as a ski instructor at Park City, Utah and eternally grateful to have survived the vicious fighting on the Pacific islands while so many of his fellow veterans were not so lucky. He was behind his small stone and log cabin chopping firewood when Sheriff George Maddox drove up.
“Hey George, what’s going on?”
“I’ve got good news and bad news,” Sheriff Maddox said with a sly grin.
“I’ll take the bad news,” Luke said.
“You got recalled to the Marines.”
“And what’s the good news?” Luke asked.
“I got the same notice so you won’t have to go alone,” Sheriff Maddox smiled.
Luke and George reported as ordered and in less than a week, they were in Oakland, California on Treasure Island. Luke was told by some Captain whose name he didn’t know and would never find out, “I’m giving you 27 guys, you’re responsible for them!”
Luke had gone through a lifetime of drastic transitions in his twenty-one years, more than most people ever go through in their entire lifetime so he knew how to go with the flow. He got separated from George Maddox who was assigned to a motor transport company while Luke went with the infantry and left San Francisco for Hawaii in a China Clipper aircraft crowded with Marines. After a few days in the islands and a refueling stop at Wake Island, Luke arrived in Japan. After waiting two weeks for other Marines to arrive, he boarded a Korean grain freighter to Pusan. It was 105 degrees when he came ashore with the first elements of the brigade on August 2, 1950.
Luke’s unit was in the first amphibious vehicles to land in Inchon, North Korean-occupied territory on September 15, 1950. He had not done any urban fighting while he was in the South Pacific so he had to accelerate his learning curve to keep himself and his men alive as they engaged in brutal house-to-house fighting with the North Koreans. He was a quick learner.
By September 27, 1950, the Marines took control from its communist captors and October 7, 1950, with North Korean forces in full retreat, the Inchon-Seoul campaign was declared formally closed. Just like when Luke was a baby-faced Marine and he learned how to fight the Japanese, he did the same with the North Koreans.
After the successful landing at Inchon and the subsequent destruction of the North Korean People’s Army, the Korean War appeared to be all but over. United Nations forces advanced rapidly into North Korea with the intention of reuniting North and South Korea before the end of 1950. North Korea is divided through the center by the impassable Taebaek Mountains. The US Eighth Army advanced north along the western coast of the Korean Pennisula while the Republic of Korea soldiers and Marine units proceeded up the eastern coast.
Things changed dramatically when North Korean units dispersed and began a series of attacks against the Pusan perimeter with the intention of regaining control of Taegu and Pusan. Something else was changing as well; Luke was sitting next to a campfire with Staff Sergeant Lee Dunning and Sergeant Matthew Henny, two Marines who had also been recalled after serving in World War II.
“I hate cold weather,” Staff Sergeant Dunning grumbled, “That’s why I stayed in Oceanside after I got out of the Corps, rather than going back home to Omaha. Now instead of shoveling snow off the driveway and the sidewalk, I can now sit on the beach and look off into the distance and see the white stuff on the mountaintops and that’s close enough for me.”
“I ain’t never been in cold weather. I’m from Daytona Beach, Florida and when I left there I came to California, then I got shipped out to the islands. When the war was over, they sent me back to Pendleton and then home again. I’m a warm blooded animal, born and bred for sunshine and beaches,” Sergeant Henny pulled the collar of his field jacket around his neck, but it did nothing to relieve the chill in his bones.
“I hate to tell you this, but it is going to get a damn lot colder around here before it gets warmer,” Luke warned as he looked up at the dark gray clouds.
On November 1, 1950, twelve divisions of the Chinese Communist Forces moved into the southern sector and began attacking the Eighth Army and Republic of South Korea forces. This was also the first time that speedy Russian MIG-15 jets appeared in combat against United Nations pilots.
Sergeant Benson and his fellow Marines were ordered to the Chosin Reservoir to take up defensive positions. While a full scaled Chinese invasion was not expected, it happened anyway and the three pronged attacked hit the unprepared Americans like a gigantic sledgehammer. Chairman Mao’s orders were clear; ‘Destroy the U.N. forces at all costs.’
Luke would have liked nothing better than to be wrong about the weather, but unfortunately his instincts were right on target and on November 20, 1950, the harsh winter arrived several weeks early and in full unrelenting force, freezing over the mountainous landscape and creating many problems for the troops in the field. The arctic winds blew in from Siberia and turned the country into a frozen wasteland. Frostbite was the worst malady, but not the only problem brought on by the frigid temperatures, Marines also suffered from frozen rations, slippery terrain and jammed weapons. The piercing cold was so unbearable that one Marine at the reservoir said, “It burrowed right through your flesh and into your soul. You felt like your bones were going snap like dried twigs inside your body.”
The Park City, Utah resident was much more prepared than his fellow Marines when it came to dealing with the bitter conditions and besides living in the Wasatch Mountains and working for the ski patrol, Luke was also on the mountain search and rescue team. There were times that he would be out for hours in sub-zero temperatures looking for lost skiers. Many of the old timers had their personal techniques of staying warm in frigid temperatures and Luke would need every one of them if he was going to keep his men alive in this hostile environment. The other problem was that the Marines were not outfitted with the proper winter gear, so besides ordering his Marines to layer up with extra clothing, Luke gave them small packages of iron powder, activated charcoal, sodium chloride and vermiculite that created massive amounts of intense heat that they could keep inside their pockets, socks or under their helmets. This chemical reaction is still used in pocket warmers. In the evenings when the temperatures were at their coldest, the chemical concoction was placed in empty105mm shells and wiring was connected from the shells and to a truck battery and the electrical current tripled the heat output. The Marines would set up tents over the makeshift heaters and actually stay reasonably warm inside their flimsy shelters.
Luke also created blowers that could be mounted on the back of trucks and jeeps that used calcium oxide, calcium carbide and calcium hydroxide as heat producing chemicals so that the Marines could walk beside or behind the vehicles and warm air would engulf them. He retrofitted flamethrowers to shoot high heat instead of flames which helped keep weapons and ammunition thawed and functional.
The situation got so desperate that Luke ordered his men to strip the clothing off dead Marines and reuse them. Luke told his men, “We are here for one reason now…to survive. Our brothers will forgive us.”
One hundred and twenty thousand Chinese troops under the command of Song Shilun encircled the beleaguered Marines of Major General Oliver P. Smith. The situation had quickly descended from horrible to almost hopeless in a matter of hours. There was only one chance now for Luke and the other Americans, and that was to fight their way out of this deadly vice of death.
Corporal Duffy questioned, “Are we retreating?”
“Hell no! We’re just fighting in a different direction,” Luke replied.
The Marines connected up with a group of South Koreans and developed a plan to breech the Chinese lines. While making their way to the port city of Hungnam, the Marines and South Koreans fought tenaciously to survive. When they set up foe the night, Luke used his techniques to help keep everyone warm, which allowed them to prepare an ambush of their own for the advancing Chinese troops. As night fell, Luke moved down the line, encouraging his men stay alert, “Anything moving…send it to hell.”
Sergeant Kiley quipped, “I’m tempted to go there myself, just to get warm.”
By nightfall, Chinese troops had moved within 20 yards of the Marines and South Koreans. Trying to rattle the Americans the Chinese started making noise with bugles, whistles and anything else they could find. Wave after wave came at the Marines and each one was repelled as the Americans fought with their rifles, knives and hands. When daylight came, dead Chinese troops were piled on top of each other… some as close as five yards away.
The Marines searched the dead Chinese for anything they could use and found that many of them were carrying cans of kimchi (a traditional side dish made from salted and fermented vegetables, most commonly napa cabbage and Korean radishes, with a variety of seasonings, including gochugaru, scallions, garlic, ginger, and jeotgal)
“Move out!” Luke ordered and the Marines continued on their epic trek to freedom. Three clicks (one click equals one thousand meters) down the road, an American truck had stopped, its battery was dead and the supplies it was carrying were frozen solid.
After examining the contents, one of the Marines exclaimed, “This is Thanksgiving food, turkey mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie.”
“That’s right! Today is November 23rd. Happy Thanksgiving everybody!” Corporal Shaw let out a festive greeting that was totally out of context with the dire situation.
“Thaw everything out,” Luke ordered then tossed out a little gallows humor, “If I’m going to die then I’d rather it be from food poisoning than a bullet.”
It took about two hours to get everything to the temperature where it could be eaten, but it was worth the wait. When they found a space of dirt to park their weary bodies, they laughed and joked about their past Thanksgivings as their minds took them back to a more tranquil place and time. The Marines and South Koreans savored every moment of their well-deserved break from the business of war as they ate turkey and kimchi with equal enthusiasm.
Back in Washington, the vacuum of leadership was sucking the air out of the room, Army General Matthew B. Ridgeway was irate with the Joint Chiefs Of Staff, “Permission to speak, we have spent too much time on debate, it is time to take action. We owe it to the men that are in battle or we will be held in harsh judgement before God for every lost American life if we don’t do our duty!”
When no one spoke up, General Ridgeway took it upon himself to make some hard decisions so he bypassed the chain of command and contacted General Oliver Smith directly. Though General McArthur had originally denied the request earlier in the battle, Ridgeway authorized Smith to re-supply established airfields to support the retreating Marines. A young Marine Corps pilot who flew in World War II and who was also recalled to active duty was flying air support. His name was Ted Williams, nicknamed ‘The Kid’, ‘The Splendid Splinter’, ‘Teddy Ballgame’ and ‘The Thumper’. Williams was regarded as one of the greatest players in baseball history and the last man to have a batting average over 400. Captain Williams was currently assigned to VMF-311, Marine Aircraft Group 33(Mag-33) in Pohang, South Korea and flying an F9f Panther jet fighter when he had engine trouble. He parachuted out of the disabled aircraft and North Korean soldiers rushed to capture the American pilot. Luke and the other Marines also saw the canopy floating to earth and knew the danger of leaving their escape route, but they did not hesitate to go for their fellow American. They intercepted a large group of North Korean fighters and after a fierce firefight, they reached Captain Williams who was hiding in the brush.
“It sure is good to see you guys,” Captain Williams smiled up at his rescuers.
“We were in the neighborhood,” Luke replied, “I know you Airedales don’t like walking, but we’re kind of limited on our transportation options.”
“Considering the alternative, I’m not complaining,” Captain Williams answered.
Just as they started to move out, Luke saw a Chinese soldier rise up with his rifle, he pushed Captain Williams out of the way and shot the enemy.
“No problem, we need to get moving,” Luke strongly suggested.
There was still a lot of fighting to do before the Marines could reach Hungnam. Luke encouraged his fellow Marines to stay strong and vigilant, “We will die where we stand or lay, but we will never surrender. Make your peace with the Almighty, because we will be seeing him soon.”
“Damn right, the only thing that I ask when I get to the ever-after is that God sends my soul somewhere warm,” Corporal Prescott added.
“We’re already in hell, only one way to go but up from here,” Pfc Faris chimed in.
As the Marines fought along their route, they heard noises in the distance. Luke took out his binoculars and scanned the distance terrain and what he saw left him speechless.
“What is it?” Captain Williams asked.
Luke handed the binoculars to the Marine Corps pilot who took a look for himself. Five minutes later a small convoy of two and one half tons trucks stopped next to the beleaguered Marines. The driver rolled down his window, “You guys want a ride?” then took a closer look, “Is that you Luke?”
“George, what the hell! Damn good to see you,” Luke replied when he realized it was George Maddox, his friend from Park City, Utah.
“Want a ride?”
The Marines did not asked have to be asked twice and quickly climbed into the back of the truck. One hour later they were at an airfield where dozens of tents had been constructed to house the Marines and each one was filled to five times its normal capacity. Medical personnel began working on the men with most severe cases of frostbite and battle wounds while Luke set up makeshift heaters inside the canvas structures to help keep the tents warm. Later on, Luke volunteered to stay behind to provide rear security for his fellow Marines.
The fighting at Chosin Reservoir lasted 17 days and Marines used their teeth, rifle butts, and anything else they could get their hands on to fight the Chinese onslaught. By the end of the battle, U.S. Marines suffered 836 dead and around 10,000 wounded. The Army had 2,000 dead and 1,000 wounded. The Chinese had the most catastrophic losses. Intelligence reported that six Chinese divisions were completely wiped out. Of the ten that attacked, only one would ever see action again. Though the exact numbers are not clear, historians estimate Chinese losses at anywhere from 30,000 to 80,000 killed. The numbers of Chinese wounded may never be known.
The Battle of Chosin Reservoir was technically a loss for the Americans, but only if you looked at giving up land to the enemy as the sole criteria, but there were other aspects to consider. The Marines inflicted heavy losses on the Chinese while facing overwhelming odds and distinguished themselves with honor and courage in brutal combat in one of the most harsh and unforgiving environments in the world.
Luke stayed around for one more (a much milder one) winter in Korea and used everything that he learned at Chosin to help keep his fellow Marines alive before returning home. There were a few things that he brought back to Park City, Utah besides a head full of memories and that was certain traditions that were followed religiously every year to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
It was 2018 and Thanksgiving would fall on November 22nd and Luke would be visiting former Staff Sergeant Lee Dunning, one of the Chosin Few survivors over the holidays at his home in Oceanside. He knew one thing for certain; turkey and kimchi would be on the menu and the only thing frozen would be a scoop or two of ice cream on his pecan pie, but he would take a pass on the hypothermia and frostbite.