In the bitter cold winter of 1950, in the middle of the Korean War, hell froze over for Gen. O.P. Smith as his 1st Marine Division led MacArthur’s push to the Yalu River at the China-Korea border.
MacArthur miscalculated. The Chinese feared United Nations forces would cross into China and responded with a massive pre-emptive attack near Chosin Reservoir. Shaara’s (A Chain of Thunder, 2013, etc.) latest is a novel of character formed in war’s crucible. Smith, thought a plodder by glory hounds, is a master strategist, saving his division—and much of the army’s 7th Division—from being wiped out by "advancing in another direction." There are views from the front lines: in minus-35-degree temperatures, phlegmatic Sgt. Hamilton Welch leads the defense of a barren hilltop against human wave attacks. Welch’s confidant, Okinawa veteran Pete Riley, collapses from malnutrition and dehydration. A doctor gives him a can of fruit cocktail, and he returns to the fighting, feeling "the guilt, the odd need to stay out here, that even if they couldn’t fight, they didn’t want to leave their units." There are also candid assessments of MacArthur, poorly served by yes men and intelligence officers; his 10th Corps commander, the arrogant and pompous Almond; and ever stoic Smith. The communist modus operandi comes through Gen. Sung, a wily survivor of Mao’s legendary Long March, and Maj. Orlov, Stalin’s on-site observer; conversations between them are sharp and revealing. Shaara's pace never stumbles. Weather is everyone's common enemy—the desolate mountain terrain is constantly scoured by implacable winds and freezing temperatures—which is reflected in scenes such as a Marine sharing bottles of whiskey baked into his wife’s homemade bread; a crusty battalion commander rescuing stragglers lost on a frozen reservoir; or Marines treated to hot Thanksgiving dinner only to find the food freezing quickly in their mess kits.
Brilliant, thoroughly readable historical fiction.