Military historian O’Donnell (They Dared Return: The True Story of Jewish Spies Behind the Lines in Nazi Germany, 2009, etc.) chronicles a Marine company’s struggles in the toughest campaign of the Korean War.
George Company was thrown together from raw recruits and World War II veterans in the wake of North Korea’s invasion of the south in 1950. When they went ashore at Inchon, most of the men had never seen combat and some barely knew how to handle their weapons. But their arrival tipped the balance, beginning an offensive that drove the North Koreans nearly to the Chinese border by late October—at which point the Chinese army came into the conflict. That invasion set up George Company’s defining moment. Surrounded by overwhelming numbers near the Chosin Reservoir, the company held out with nearly inhuman determination to protect a vital intersection and haven for other cut-off units. Gen. Oliver Smith’s response, when asked if his men would retreat, showed the Marines’ resolve: “Retreat, Hell; we’re just advancing in another direction.” Drawing on interviews with the surviving members of George Company, O’Donnell graphically details the rigors of battle in the brutal Korean winter. First Sgt. Rocco Zullo, a prototypically tough Marine who’d seen action in the Pacific during WWII, is in many ways the hero of the story. He drove his green recruits to remarkable feats of valor until he was wounded in late 1950. His men believed him dead until he showed up at a reunion decades later. While he does not underplay the horrors of the war, and does justice to the lighter moments that men remember years later, the author shines when he captures such catch-in-the-throat moments as when the Fifth and Seventh Marines, coming into base after a harried withdrawal under intense Chinese pressure, marched in singing the Marine Hymn. A final withdrawal, which included crossing a deep chasm on an air-dropped bridge, brought the soldiers to temporary safety, though its members saw more action throughout the war.
George Company’s performance at Chosin Reservoir practically defines heroism. O’Donnell brings it to vivid life.