Last night, I finished the book titled ON DESPERATE GROUND, written by Hampton Sides. The book was a gift sent to me by my brother, the Sergeant Major in Germany. In a nutshell, the book is about the First Marine Division and its battle for survival at the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War. It also documents the unfortunate and reckless decision (I believe) to send it, and the Army’s 7th Infantry Division, plus many supporting units, hurtling towards the Yalu River, and thus to the border of China. This act is what caused Communist China to enter that war, and, as a result, extended this bloody conflict for two more years, despite the UN having, for all intents and purposes, having won the war at that point. The First Marine Division was sent to the east side of the Chosin, while the Army units were sent to the west side.
The book concentrates on the Marines to the east, although some of the stories of various Army units and their destruction are told as well. The book is easy to read, and one that, as soon as I started, I was hooked. The author did however, like to use and sprinkle several words throughout the book, that I was not familiar with. I guess this would be more a knock on me than the author. However, having been spoiled by reading books on my kindle where I can immediately obtain a definition of any word, since this was a hard cover book, so I didn’t have that luxury.
The book tells many stories of the heroism and perseverance of the Marines and their leaders who fought under excruciating sub zero weather, in perhaps some of the most extreme conditions that any American Unit has ever been sent to operate in. There were a few things that stood out and I think are worth mentioning.
One was the story of the Marine Combat Engineers and the Army Bridging Company that rebuilt a bombed out bridge, while under fire, with support from Marine and Naval Aviation, using unorthodox methods and equipment, without which, the Marines along with a few surviving Army remnants that fought their way out, would never had made it. All would have been destroyed by the Chinese troops.
Another was a story about Army Private Ed Reeves, who, survived several days of almost indescribable horrors, and the Martines who saved him. This description vividly demonstrates what happened to America troops that fell into the hands of this brutal enemy, which showed no mercy or gave any quarter to American Troops that had managed to survived their own defeat on this desolate battleground. Some of the Marines and Soldiers who fought in this battle were taken prisoner, and endured years of captivity in Chinese POW camps.
Also, a moving photo for me (one of many) was a photo of Reeves during his wedding, in uniform, sitting in a wheelchair. He had lost most of both hands and also both feet as a result of his injures. He sits in his chair, with the remains of his bandaged hands, the empty cuffs of his trousers where is feet should have been. Despite all this, he has a smile on his face. He is also wearing the Combat Infantry Badge which he earned at the Reservoir.
I guess one of the many lessons I took from this book was that the reason the Marines survived and were able to fight their way out of that trap was due to the high quality of their leaders at all levels, and probably just as important, the Marines themselves who were self confident, had confidence in their units and each other. They never gave up, despite appalling conditions and losses, and certainly the CAN DO attitude and esprit d’ corps they displayed carried the day. The First Marine Division came out intact, when many other units disintegrated.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I did not mention the General who commanded the Division and the role he played in orchestrating and leading his division out of this trap in the face of overwhelming odds. He displayed a love and affinity for his troops that is not always found at that high level. The Marine I am speaking of would be Marine General (then Major General) Oliver Prince Smith, also affectionately known as “The Professor”. I hope all the Marines out there will forgive me, being a Dogface Soldier, for shouting out SEMPER FI! I highly recommend this book to anyone who has any interest in military history.