Breakout A Marine Remembers the Forgotten War
The Korean War, 50 years old this June, is sadly deserving of its other name: the forgotten war. A flurry of new books marking the anniversary ˜ including MacArthur’s War by Stanley Weintraub, The Korean War by Michael Hickey and James Brady’s novel The Marines of Autumn may begin to change that. One of the best works on the United Nations’ first war is a former Marine’s riveting account of a series of battles that was published, and largely ignored, last year.
Martin Russ, whose service in the Marines earned him a Purple Heart, describes one of the war’s most intense contests—perhaps second only to General Douglas MacArthur’s victorious landing at Inchon—in Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950. Russ’ account, citing Chinese, Korean and American sources and combat and eyewitness reports, describes the winter days from November to early December, 1950, when 60,000 Communist Chinese troops surrounded 12,000 Marines, who were marching north to the Yalu River, on frozen ground in the slopes of Korea’s mountains.
It was part of an unforeseen invasion by the Communist Chinese, executed by Mao, possibly with the cooperation of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, and it followed serious blunders by both President Harry Truman and MacArthur. Astonishingly, the Marines rallied during the siege, broke out of the ring of terror and, though they sustained heavy losses, inflicted great harm against the Chinese, who eventually left Korea after a truce was signed in 1953. Korea was the first armed conflict of the Cold War, pitting both China and Russia against the United States, which demonstrated, however equivocally, that we would stop the march of communism. In Korea, we did.
Like the war itself, the story in Breakout begs to be properly remembered. Russ writes about battle with a Marine’s sense of mission and a poet’s way with words. Whether the reader is surprised and horrified by sudden attacks by Chinese troops or brought to tears by the heroic, often deadly, acts of American men, the story of Chosin is an especially suitable reminder that the Korean War, itself a brief prelude to Vietnam and the modern seeking of war by world permission, was, Russ writes, neither victory nor defeat; Korea was purgatory.
That it wasn’t hell is purely a credit to men like those in Russ’ narrative—men who come alive as individuals. Plagued by frostbite, diminishing fuel and food and weapons that were rendered useless by the freezing temperatures, the Marines live up to their legendary reputation.
With the onslaught of winter, Russ writes, “the evenings were chilly once again, the mornings misty, the skies no longer blue. During the night of November 9-10, the first snowfall of the season whitened the bleak narrows of the pass. The following day, shockingly, the [high altitude] temperature plummeted forty degrees in a few hours. By nightfall it was eight degrees below zero, made much worse by a twenty-to-thirty knot Siberian wind.”
Lest the reader shiver and move on, Russ lets Navy surgeon Henry Litvin remind the reader what it means: “I had set my canteen cup of coffee on a fence post, planning to enjoy it after I [ate my] eggs; but when I picked it up ˜ Holy mackerel! The tin was so cold my fingers stuck to the metal and there was a film of ice on the coffee itself.” The cold led to frostbite, which became a serious medical dilemma for the Marines, and frozen plasma, which prevented the doctor from giving blood to his wounded patients. Later, Russ recounts the story of an officer who died from lack of blood because the sun hadn’t hit the valley floor and thawed the plasma.
“It was always cold,” remembers one Marine infantryman, “and there was always one more mountain to climb. It was cold when it snowed and it was cold when the sun was shining. And I was dog tired; I had been on the march since the August campaign down south, not to mention the Inchon landing and the capture of Seoul. My nose was all the time running. I kept wiping it with my wrist—they don’t issue hankies in the Corps—to keep the mucous off my upper lip. Finally I just let it run, and then I had this frozen buildup on my mustache that was disgusting, but at least I had lots of company. And my knees were bloody from slipping and falling on the icy slopes.
“Also, my hands had no feeling in them. Not to mention the foot situation, which I don’t even want to go into. Tell you one thing, I much preferred the muggy hundred-and-six-degree heat in the Pusan perimeter to that damn wind at the reservoir. I was nearing that point where I didn’t give a [----] one way or the other. I had even stopped hitting the deck when the Chinese opened up. ‘To hell with ya, I’d say.’
Quoting several dispatches, Russ contends that the U.S. Army contributed to the Marines’ predicament and, though he’s too harsh on a branch of the military whose members were drafted, he offers cogent criticisms. But Russ’ tale is not intended as a history of military strategy, though his facts are solid and he largely resists placing too much blame on the much-maligned MacArthur.
Instead, Breakout is both a tribute to the irrepressible men of the pivotal Chosin campaign, which basically stopped a complete Communist Chinese takeover, and a stirring remembrance of the Korean War—a war which foretold both the futility of America’s foreign policy, from Vietnam to Kosovo, and America's victory in the Cold War.
Russ’ greatest achievement is his thorough integration of the Chosin history with the unforgettable lives of those Americans who fought the war; Breakout includes a collection of photos of many Marines. The result is a literary memorial not to war, but to man. As Doc Litvin told Russ: “The only way we got out of the Frozen Chosin is because a lot of young guys knew how to fight. God bless the Chosin Marines. They are my brothers for life. Every Memorial Day my thoughts go drifting back to those youngsters who never came home. I can still see them, exactly as they were then. They’ll never grow old.”
This 2000 article was published in the Raleigh (NC) News & Observer, Portland Oregonian, San Jose Mercury News and Los Angeles Daily News. Please note that the author's father, Lawrence Holleran, fought in the Second Division of the U.S. Army during the Korean War.