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Historian Hampton Sides Explores An Unforgettable Battle In An Often Forgotten War

Kurt Markus

Historian Hampton Sides has written a new book about the Battle at the Chosin Reservoir, an epic clash during the Korean conflict that he calls one of the greatest military survival stories of all time. On Desperate Ground explores the many adversaries facing the First Marine Division in November of 1950: hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers, an arrogant Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and extreme weather conditions.

Sides recently spoke with KMUW's Beth Golay about this unforgettable battle in an often forgotten war. He'll be in Wichita on Thursday, Oct. 25, for a 6:30 p.m. event at Grace Presbyterian Church.


Interview highlights

Beth Golay: The epigraph for this book nicely explains the title On Desperate Ground. Can you talk a little bit about Sun Tzu's definition of the 9th situation faced in battle?

Hampton Sides: Sun Tzu is this ancient Chinese military strategist and philosopher. His book's called The Art of War. And he talks about nine kinds of situations that you can encounter in war, nine kinds of ground, as he puts it, and the ninth kind and the most drastic kind of situation you find yourself in is something he calls "desperate ground," where there's no possibility for an easy retreat. Your only response is to fight immediately and to fight your way out of a trap.

And that's essentially what the Marines, the First Marine Division, had to do in this battle. They were trapped up there through a massive intelligence failure on the part of Douglas MacArthur. They were put in this very dangerous situation and they had no choice but to fight their way out of this encirclement, which they did in textbook fashion with great ferocity and great ingenuity. They knew they had to get out and live to fight another day. So that's exactly what they did.

You mentioned Douglas MacArthur, and I want to get a little bit to the how and why this battle happened. It wasn't just an intelligence failure, wasn't it? It was more of an egotistical failure, a bit.

General MacArthur was certainly one of our most arrogant and vainglorious commanders in our history. He did not seem to want to listen to the field commanders who were seeing early on that the Chinese were entering the war. They were on the ground — a number of them had been captured and interrogated — and these Chinese prisoners of war were saying, "Look, yeah, there's thousands of us, there's hundreds of thousands of us. We're here."

And so the intelligence was forwarded up the food chain to Douglas MacArthur's office in Tokyo. They dismissed it. They said, "These aren't real Chinese soldiers. They're rogue elements. They're volunteers. Mao wouldn't really send his army down here. And even if they are here they're not a threat because they're Chinese." You know, there's an element of racism in MacArthur's reaction to all this. He just said, "They're a peasant army. They're no match for our modern troops. It'll be a cakewalk, just keep marching on."


Now the other general I want to talk about is General Smith.

General Smith was the commander of the First Marine Division. He was the spearhead of the invasion and found himself up in these mountains. He began to realize that a huge battle was about to happen. He couldn't understand why MacArthur was pushing and pushing and pushing into what seemed like a trap, an ambush. So he began to take a lot of precautions, the main one being that he decided to build an airfield in the middle of the mountains on this frozen hillside, practically on the rooftop of North Korea because he knew that there was going to be a battle on the shores of this lake and that there was going to be huge numbers of casualties. He wanted to bring in transport planes, large planes, to bring the casualties out but also to bring in lots of supplies and ammunition and fuel. So he had to create an airfield and then a sort of a bastion around a stronghold.

And, you know, his superiors were saying, "Why are you doing this? There's not going to be any casualties. Just keep marching." But against their better judgment he prevailed and built this airfield, and in the end more than 4000 casualties were flown out of his headquarters there. So he seemed to see what all the other higher commanders didn't see. For this, the First Marine Division has come to view him as, you know, as a saint. He's one of their great commanders. They believe he saved their lives, and he truly did.

And I understand he has a somewhat famous quote about retreat?

He does. When they realized that there was no hope of continuing the march north, you know, they had to basically hold on for dear life, regroup, and then march back to the sea. Some people might say, "Well, what you're talking about is retreat." But General Smith famously said, "Well, retreat hell! We're just attacking in another direction."

And, you know, that certainly captures some of the ethos of the Marines, but it also... just in terms of literally, he was saying that if you're surrounded, completely surrounded, by overwhelming numbers of the enemy, movement in any direction is, by definition, an attack. It's going to be a fight every step of the way and that's what it proved to be. It was 70 miles of marching and fighting. And all the military books will tell you that the hardest maneuver there is in warfare is a well organized fighting withdrawal. So it was a very complicated endeavor, but it was one that General Smith pulled off in textbook fashion.

These soldiers were battling more than each other. Talk to me a little bit about the weather conditions and the effects of the cold.

Yeah, you know, I think in olden days when armies were fighting and winter descended like this they tended to say, "Look, you know, let's just lay down our arms and meet in the spring." Right? You just can't fight. You can't think, you can't move in weather like this. Thirty-five degrees below zero. And it was a constant presence. It was the third adversary in this battle. The Chinese suffered from it even worse than the Marines did. But it affected everything from the weapons, which wouldn't fire, and the vehicles, which would freeze. It was like everything began to shut down. It affected the men mentally, psychologically, spiritually. You know, they just... it was an element of hopelessness. They say they can't even, today, feel like they have fully gotten the cold out of their bones. It's certainly a study in endurance and resilience and how humans can withstand just about any test. But the biggest part of the test of this battle was that cold.

On Desperate Ground: The Marines at the Reservoir, the Korean War's Greatest Battle by Hampton Sides was published by Doubleday.

Marginalia was produced at KMUW Wichita. If you like this podcast, please consider leaving a rating or review on Apple Podcasts.

Engineers: Mark Statzer and Torin Andersen
Editors: Lu Anne Stephens and Haley Crowson
Producer: Beth Golay

Follow Beth Golay on Twitter @BethGolay.