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On Desperate Ground: the Epic Story of Chosin Resevoir—the Greatest Battle of the Korean War

5 April 2020

On Desperate Ground: the Epic Story of Chosin Reservoir—the Greatest Battle of the Korean WarHampton Sides, 2019, ISBN 978-1-101-97121-5, 402 pp.r


On Desperate Ground: the Epic Story of Chosin Reservoirthe Greatest Battle of the Korean War by Hampton Sides

I thought I knew about this battle—I was wrong.

At first I despised the glad-handing comment regarding “advancing to the rear”—but I had that wrong, very wrong.

I thought I had read all about bravery, endurance and drive—I was wrong again.

Hampton Sides corrected all the above for me and provided so much more in On Desperate Ground. His book is about the desperate and brilliant action at the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War. USMC General Oliver Prince Smith saved his Marines as well as many US Army and other attached UN forces—and lost many. He foresaw the poor strategy of General MacArthur, and his right-hand-man Edward Almond, of stretching out his men over 120 miles along a single mountain road—not to mention dividing his forces in a way that denied their mutual support. So he prepared for a defense contingency should the march to the Yalu River be interrupted.

And interrupted it was with China’s infiltration of a quarter million troops. A surprise that was foretold but incredibly ignored by General MacArthur’s direct interventions over the previous month. Yes, ground forces knew the Chinese were coming into North Korea for a month before the “surprise invasion” but these signs were dismissed based upon unfounded beliefs. And why wouldn’t China interfere to keep opponents off their border as well as to protect hydroelectric power plants supplying priority electricity to Manchuria though located just south into North Korea? Further criminal action on the part of MacArthur as he later tried to rewrite his legacy by stating he knew it all along and the thrusts up the Korean Peninsula were an armed reconnaissance.

Smith knew he’d have to fight his way back to a friendly harbor since he’d be surrounded—by definition he’s be attacking in whichever direction was selected—hence advancing to the rear. The path to the sea would not be a retreat as the vanguard would be bashing through enemy forces while the rear guard and flankers would also see intense fighting—along the miles and miles of mountaineous travel and in intense cold.

Sides tells the overview interspersed with individual decision making as well as actions. And what actions they were! Marines immediately volunteering as drivers though snipers were killing drivers quite quickly. A blinded Marine loading rifles for his buddy to keep up a volume of fire—these two held a small draw between two units which plugged a gap the Chinese were trying to exploit. Men fighting with entrenching tools since there often was not time to reload their weapons. Airmen taking off from a slightly prepared airstrip 1000 feet shorter than required. Men giving their lives so their fellows might live a bit longer. Engineers replacing a destroyed bridge segment in a matter of hours while under fire so that a thousand vehicles and thousands of men could continue their “advance” to the coast—one they had left such a short time, but seemingly a lifetime, ago. The silent 10 miles cross terrain trek of 450 Marines to relieve Fox Company.

Sides tells these stories so well that the book is difficult to put down. A defeat turned into a victory since Mao lost thousands upon thousands of combat troops to destroy the “Frozen Chosin” and failed, as the USMC (with attached units) came out with their gear (destroying what they couldn’t save) and their wounded. Mao payed too high a price to be called a political victory though he had his military achievment.

Sides doesn’t explain or simply recite all of this history. He has the talent to get the human interest dimension woven into the tale being told in captivating prose. The understanding is comprehensive. The stories, including follow-ups, inspiring. Changing the Korean War into a war that should be studied and honored for its success as a UN action—sorely testing the UN shortly after its creation—from the “Forgotten War” as most of us were taught back in the day.

He also tells readers the details which make the difference. How Tootsie Rolls became a field expedient. Corpsmen carrying morphine ampules in their mouths to keep them from freezing. M-14 Carbines were unreliable in subzero temps but M-1 Garands worked well.

Sides is right stating this is one of America’s most epic of battles and General Smith perhaps the most unappreciated of military heroes in American history. Sides has done his best to show us this character testing, character making, part of our history in a warmly accurate way. And he makes an excellent job of it.


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