They called it the Frozen Chosin.
That’s the Chosin Resevoir, in North Korea on the Manchurian border. We marched all the way up there, got surrounded by the enemy, and had to fight our way back.
Only it wasn’t that simple. Ever seen a Korean winter? Hot coffee freezes before you can drink it. The snow piles seven feet high.
And we weren’t just retreating, we had to attack back the direction we’d come. The enemy fought us every step of the way.
It was near a place called Hagaru-Ri. I’d just come off a hill where the ground was so frozen we could only dig our trench six inches deep.
We were preparing to move further south. I got some hot chow and took my turn in a warming tent. Looked around a bit for the guys I come down with, but couldn’t find ’em. Lieutenant I talked to told me to help with the wounded and the dead.
You never seen so many bodies. Marine Corps doesn’t leave nobody behind. The wounded were loaded in trucks and dragged on stretchers. We had so many dead we tied them on fenders, and over artillery pieces.
I helped load trucks till only the clean-up crew was left. We were burning anything we couldn’t take with us, when down the North road comes this jeep with no real cover, just some bits of an old parachute rigged up over the frame. Pulls up to me and the Lieutenant, and the Lieutenant, his jaw dropped. Nobody had come down the North road for hours and we knew the enemy must be right behind us now.
The Lieutenant looked in the back of the jeep. There were two wounded and one dead Marine. The dead man was covered up with more of that parachute nylon. The driver didn’t say anything, which wasn’t all that unusual. None of us were too talkative and the wind was whipping up. Lieutenant looked at me, said, “You ride shotgun and get going.” So up I went into the jeep.
I checked my rifle–they froze in the cold so I had been wearing mine tucked under my coat. It was in working condition. I tried to make a little small talk with this guy driving.
I asked him how he got through with the enemy closing in behind us, but he didn’t say nothing. I asked him where he was from, but he didn’t say nothing. So I started looking at this guy. Real close like. He was no green Marine, I can tell you. Lean, tanned face, pretty scarred. Had a good ten years service on me I guessed.
We were about half way to Koto-Ri when we came under heavy sniper fire. We jumped out of the jeep, pulled the wounded with us into a ditch. In the Corps they say every man a rifleman, and I earned my pay that day. Took out two of ’em. If there were any others, they left us alone. But they’d done for the jeep. Tires, radiator, everything riddled with holes.
So me and my talkative buddy, we hauled the dead guy out of the jeep and carried the wounded out of the ditch and tied the three stretchers together and started pulling the wounded and the dead behind us like we were oxen.
Now, I suppose you’re wondering why we didn’t just leave ’em, the two wounded and the dead man. And I won’t say I didn’t think about it, but just as I was thinking it, thinking about leaving these guys behind so I’d have a better chance of making it, this guy, the driver, he looks at me, real steady-like. And I know we’re gonna do it. Get these guys to Koto-Ri.
In the Corps we bring every man out, alive or dead.
So we walked. Through the wind and the snow. If we stopped, I knew we’d freeze to death, and it didn’t help to dwell on that, so I looked at the driver some more. His gear was real beat up. Looked like he’d been shot. His jacket was ripped and bloody. I asked him if he was hurt. He just looked straight ahead and kept on going.
There was a kind of clinking noise coming from him when he walked. I could see through the rips in his jacket that he was wearing his dog tags with all sorts a bits of extra metal strung between them. Some jagged, some real smooth, some dark metal, some shiny. I could just make out the words scratched on a few of ’em.
Not just words. Names. Real important names if you were a Marine, like Tarawa, and Iwo Jima. So this guy was a bona fide tough sonava—
Well, he was a real Marine. But I didn’t need to see that shrapnel charm bracelet to know. By the time we reached Koto-Ri I’d stopped trying to make small talk.
When we got to the hospital tent I just sat down next to our stretchers, while the doctors came around and gave the wounded morphine. I could hardly move I was so exhausted, and I couldn’t feel my feet, which was when I knew I had frostbite.
I musta dozed sitting there, because when I looked up my talkative buddy was gone, and there was a corpsman asking me about the dead guy we’d dragged from Hagaru-Ri. He flipped the parachute cover off the body, and I knew what I would see before I looked, because I heard those bits of shrapnel clinking as the corpsman moved the cover. It was the Marine who’d come down the north road with the two wounded in his jeep and walked by my side from Hagaru-Ri.