They say there is a healing power in laughter, so I always go well supplied with jokes. And I’ve discovered that are men our pretty quick with a joke themselves – Bob Hope
By Ken Zurski
In the book On Desperate Ground, a retelling of the troubled Korean War’s Chosin Reservoir Campaign, author Hampton Sides deftly and brilliantly chronicles the officers and soldiers who fought a perilous and ultimately hopeless battle.
Rough terrain, freezing conditions and poor decision making were the Americans undoing, Sides surmises, but the soldiers, especially the brave Marines somehow prevailed by sheer ingenuity and determination. Their reasoning for retreating, if you can call it that, was resolute: to live to fight another day rather than sit and be slaughtered. Losses were already great.
The enemy seemed to be on a suicide mission to keep the Marines from reaching Pyongyang, something General Douglas MacArthur thought they would do with ease. But that was against only North Korean forces. When the Chinese joined the fight, their sheer size alone pinned the Americans into a corner, a trap without an escape hatch. The Korean winter was another matter. Frostbite took soldiers toes and fingers and weapons wouldn’t fire. Eventually, an impossible rescue mission was devised to retrieve the trapped and wounded soldiers.
It was just the start of the Korean conflict, but as Sides writes, it was the war’s “greatest battle.”
The brave Marines in this case, the First Marine Division, a body of 20-thousand strong, were certainly the last to leave the Chosin Reservoir. But unlike the classic Marine Corp motto that a Marine is always “the first to arrive and the last leave,” in this instance, which Sides touches on in the book, they were not the first to arrive.
It wasn’t their fault.
On September 15, 1950, after a successful water landing at a South Korean seawall, the Marines quickly secured the occupied town of Inchon. It was a commanding early victory for the Americans and one General MacArthur took credit for. Then as Sides so painstakingly points out, the general got greedy. He wanted to work his way inland and claim the whole peninsula for the Americans and its allies.
North Korea and its communist leader would be quickly overrun, he predicted.
He ordered his field generals, Edward Almond and Oliver P. Smith to lead the charge. The plan: Marines would enter North Korean territory by sea, leaving Inchon and sailing down the Yellow Sea to a landing in a port city known as Wonsan. The first to arrive! From there they would convoy by vehicle and foot to the capital city.
But not everything went as planned. The transport ships had to stop short of the coast. An intelligence report arrived that the North Koreans along with the Russians had mined the waters off Wonsan. “Eventually the word shifted through the ranks,” Sides writes. The Marines would have to remain out to sea, stalled, while minesweepers cleared the coastline.
The reports were accurate. Thousands of mines were planted and the excavation was long, arduous and costly (two American minesweepers lost their lives). The Marines in the transports could do nothing but wait. Bobbing in circles, and bucked by waves which never seemed to subside, morale waned, food rations ran short, and the ships began to reek of sweat. “Never did time die a harder death,” one disparate soldier explained. “And never did the grumblers have so much to grouse about,”
Then even more bad news, especially to a proud Marine.
Wonsan was already occupied by Republic of South Korea forces who worked overland from Seoul. Nearby an air field was established allowing American forces, both Marine specialists and the U.S Army X-Corps, to be flown in instead. “We had the word that the beach had been secured, but we came in fully loaded and ready to fight if necessary,” said Marine Joe Lieutenant Joe Owen to Stars and Stripes in 2011. “Then we saw the flyboys standing on the beach waving us in.”
Before the Marines arrived, however, Wonsan was deemed secure enough to fly in the USO show featuring popular comedian Bob Hope and actress Marilyn Maxwell. Hope had done the same for troop units in World War II. This was his first visit to Korea. “I hate war with all my guts,” Hope would later say about his USO tours, “but I admire the guys with guts enough to fight them when they have to be fought.”
In Wonsan, while flying overhead, Hope spotted the armada of stalled transport ships. In his usual deadpan style, he joked about beating the leathernecks to shore. “Boy are we going to have a big show tonight,” he quipped. “I want you guys to back me up at all my landings.”
A bit of levity before the nightmare campaign would begin.