Frozen Chosin, the View from Quantico – “Make Peace or Die” Excerpt

An excerpt from my father’s memoir —Make Peace or Die: A Life of Service, Leadership, and Nightmares —in which he asks to be sent to war.

In November, 1951, Charles U. Daly was at Quantico training to lead a Marine rifle platoon and thinking the Korean War would be over before he got a chance to fight in it. Then “Frozen Chosin” happened…

The Boat Leaves Wednesday

June 1950–February 1951

“In war, as in prostitution, amateurs are often better than professionals.”

—Napoleon Bonaparte

 

On June 25, 1950, we got our national emergency.

At dawn that morning, the (North) Korean People’s Army surged over the 38th parallel into the South. This action was immediately condemned by an emergency session of the UN Security Council, a vote from which the Soviets abstained.

The Korean peninsula had been divided since the end of World War II under an agreement between the US and USSR with no consideration of the will of the Korean people. Before that, from 1910–1945, Korea was a colony of the Japanese Empire and suffered unimaginable atrocities ranging from forced labor and sex slavery to medical experimentation on human subjects. After World War II, North Korea was run by Kim Il Sung, who had been a charismatic resistance fighter during Japanese occupation. He used Soviet and Chinese subsidies to model a state on Stalin’s Russia, labor camps and all. The South, no bastion of democracy, was run by a corrupt and brutal puppet government that took America’s backing as license to pillage and deprive its people and massacre political opponents. The United States had adopted an official noninterference policy that gave the North reason to believe their invasion would be uncontested by South Korea’s mightiest ally.[i]

On June 30, five days after the North’s invasion of the South began, Truman sent American troops to support the South Koreans. On July 7, the UN passed Resolution 84, requesting member nations to join a “police action” on the Korean peninsula. Sixteen nations joined in, including ones with modest armies like Ethiopia and Turkey. General MacArthur, who had been serving as de facto emperor of Japan since the war’s end, was given command of UN forces. Unfortunately for the South Koreans, MacArthur’s army of the occupation were not the same men who won the Second World War. Many were drunk and fat from half a decade of soft living as occupiers. In Korea, they were beaten back, almost off the peninsula, by Kim Il-Sung’s peasant fighters, making their last stand outside the port of Pusan. The outcome looked bleak.

On September 15, MacArthur ordered the Marines under his command to make an amphibious landing at the port of Incheon, near Seoul. The plan was to retake the capital and cut across the middle of the peninsula, thus trapping all North Korean troops in the south and taking the pressure off Pusan. It worked. The Communist invaders were killed, captured, or pushed back over the original border.

Roughly two weeks after the Incheon landing, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai had warned that China would intervene if American and other UN troops moved north of the 38th parallel. On October 7, MacArthur ordered his forces to do just that. China soon began secretly sending “volunteers” into North Korea and strengthening their own border defenses along the Yalu River. Around the same time, MacArthur met with President Truman and assured him that the Chinese would not intervene.

Mary and I knew little of Korea’s history. Neither of us knew or cared about America’s blundered diplomacy and intelligence failures that had left Korea in a national security blind spot. Our interest increased sharply when North Korea invaded the South. Mary’s attention skyrocketed when I reminded her of my standby orders and speculated that this skirmish qualified as a national emergency. My call to duty came shortly after Truman committed troops to the UN’s response to North Korea’s assault. I went to our local post office where a Navy corpsman was giving the Marine physicals. I’ve always had low blood pressure. When the doc double-checked it, he wanted to turn me away. I had already taken leave from work and had gotten excited about going to war. I told him I’d be right back, went and ran up and down a few flights of stairs, and returned somewhat breathless for a re-exam. The corpsman said something to the effect of, “Hey pal, if you’re dumb enough to go, I’m dumb enough to send you.”

While I checked into Quantico, Mary found a cabin with a wood-burning stove in the pines near Lake Jackson, an elongated puddle at the western edge of the vast Marine base. By day and night, our new nest was often rocked by explosions from the artillery range. The sounds of freedom disturbed Mary, but we enjoyed the seclusion. On chilly autumn nights, when training didn’t have me fumbling around land navigation courses in the dark woods, I would sit by the fire or lie in bed with Mary and talk dreams about the arrival of our baby. Unspoken was the consolation that she was pregnant and would at least have our child in the event that my absence became permanent.

Up until that point, my military training had consisted of PLC, that summer camp at Quantico in 1948. Before deploying to Korea, I would receive additional training in the first-ever class of the Special Basic School. Those eleven weeks were consumed by seasoned Marines vainly trying to teach Second Lieutenant Daly to read maps and lead riflemen. Not that I was going to need any of the skills I was learning; it looked as though the war would be over before we got our platoons.

In early November 1950, MacArthur ordered a drive all the way up to the Chinese border. He made the infamous promise that his victorious troops would be home for Christmas. All the Dalys were happy to hear this news. At this point, I was still at Quantico, and it looked as though the war would end before my classmates and I deployed. Then, on November 26, the Chinese launched an immense surprise attack, routing all UN forces from coast to coast and trapping the US Marines at the Chosin Reservoir, outnumbering them by upwards of four-to-one. The action that followed became known as “Frozen Chosin.” The Marines held their positions with little support, totally cut off from the unprotected supply lines that MacArthur had stretched thin behind them. They fought in near-arctic conditions. Their canned rations froze. Their weapons froze. Their limbs froze. Men froze to death. In some instances, frozen enemy dead were stacked in front of Marine fighting positions and used as sandbags.

Needless to say, any Marine who survived Chosin became legend. It borders on absurd to think that I, a twenty-three-year-old lieutenant, would soon be giving orders to men who had fought their way out of that cold hell. One such man I would go on to command was Gunther Dohse, a German immigrant who was one of just sixteen men in a rifle company of 200-plus to walk out of Chosin, already a recipient of the Silver Star and Purple Heart when I met him.

***

After training, each Marine is assigned an MOS, or Military Occupational Specialty. The MOS for an infantry officer is 0301. After Chosin, we at the Basic School took to calling it 03-oh-shit! By year’s end, 1950, the situation in Korea was so grim that Truman was seriously considering removing all US forces from the peninsula. By New Year’s 1951, the second wave of the Chinese offensive had pushed the UN coalition south of the 38th parallel, forcing them to surrender Seoul for the second time. My Special Basic Class graduated around the time the Division broke out from their encirclement at Chosin. It was one of the Corps’ finest hours. But for us, it meant the war was just getting started. We had to fill out requests for next duty assignments. Most of us would be given orders to Korea, but most made their first choice something other than infantry. Only five lieutenants in my training company requested to lead a rifle platoon, and I was one of them. My orders were to report to Camp Pendleton, near San Diego, California, before shipping out across the Pacific.

I said goodbye to my parents in Bethesda. Dad gave me a .45 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver, saying that a personal weapon had been of comfort in the trenches.

He kissed me goodbye and hugged me. I can’t recall him doing either before. The family’s war history must have been on his mind as it was on mine. All through my deployment, my mother would garden nervously and dig holes in the yard.

Mary and I planned to drive west in our 1949 Ford, but Mary was having trouble riding with the pregnancy, so she followed by train.

Rents were high in California, but a Basic School classmate, Angus Deming, and I found a house near the beach in Carlsbad. After moving into what would have been a dream home in other circumstances, Angus and I drove north to Camp Pendleton. Checking in, I explained to the weathered sergeant on duty that we had just arrived and gave the young wives’ bit and asked for an added week’s leave.

“The boat leaves Diego on Wednesday.”

[i] David Douglas Duncan, This is War! A Photo-Narrative of the Korean War.


Make Peace or Die: A life of Service, Leadership, and Nightmares is available through Amazon and Indiebound, or you can ask your local bookstore to order it. 

An early draft was featured on Jocko Podcast episode 196