A Korean War story of miscalculation, military ambition, and overreach.
Outside editor Sides (In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette, 2014, etc.) doesn’t always dig deep for topics, but once he settles on one, no matter how well-covered previously, he piles on the research. So it is with this story of “Frozen Chosin,” when American forces of the 1st Marine Division penetrated deep into North Korea, assured by their commanders that Mao’s Chinese forces would not cross the Yalu River and enter the fight. In any event, Douglas MacArthur devalued the Chinese: “They were nothing more than a band of serfs—subsisting on rice balls and yams, relying on little burp gins and fizzly explosives that usually failed to detonate, an army held together with hemp string and bamboo.” MacArthur had reason to re-evaluate his position once 300,000 Chinese troops entered the fray and encircled a much smaller American force in a mountain fastness alongside a huge reservoir. Fought in bitterly cold temperatures, the battle was horrible: “The cold seemed to come with only one upside: It had a cauterizing effect on wounds. Blood from bullet holes or shrapnel tears simply froze to the skin and stopped flowing." The Battle of Chosin Reservoir is part of the DNA of every Marine since, and numerous books, such as Bob Drury and Tom Clavin’s excellent Last Stand of Fox Company (2009) and Roy Appleman’s order-of-battle East of Chosin (1987), have emerged as standards in the field. Sides adds a fast-moving and well-written narrative to the mix, though without bringing much news to the enterprise. A plus is his respectful treatment of the sometimes-maligned (especially in Army accounts) Marine field commander, the scholarly but tough Gen. Oliver P. Smith.
Better books are available, but for general readers, this account is a worthy introduction to a battle that has become a byword for suffering.