From the New York Times bestselling author of Ghost Soldiers and In the Kingdom of Ice, a chronicle of the extraordinary feats of heroism by Marines called on to do the impossible during the greatest battle of the Korean War
On October 15, 1950, General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of UN troops in Korea, convinced President Harry Truman that the Communist forces of Kim Il-sung would be utterly defeated by Thanksgiving. The Chinese, he said with near certainty, would not intervene in the war.
As he was speaking, 300,000 Red Chinese soldiers began secretly crossing the Manchurian border. Led by some 20,000 men of the First Marine Division, the Americans moved deep into the snowy mountains of North Korea, toward the trap Mao had set for the vainglorious MacArthur along the frozen shores of the Chosin Reservoir. What followed was one of the most heroic--and harrowing--operations in American military history, and one of the classic battles of all time. Faced with probable annihilation, and temperatures plunging to 20 degrees below zero, the surrounded, and hugely outnumbered, Marines fought through the enemy forces with ferocity, ingenuity, and nearly unimaginable courage as they marched their way to the sea.
Hampton Sides' superb account of this epic clash relies on years of archival research, unpublished letters, declassified documents, and interviews with scores of Marines and Koreans who survived the siege. While expertly detailing the follies of the American leaders, On Desperate Ground is an immediate, grunt's-eye view of history, enthralling in its narrative pace and powerful in its portrayal of what ordinary men are capable of in the most extreme circumstances.
Hampton Sides has been hailed by critics as one of the best nonfiction writers of his generation. As the Miami Herald wrote, "Sides has a novelist's eye for the propulsive elements that lend momentum and dramatic pace to the best nonfiction narratives."
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In the misting rain, they pressed against the metal skins of their boats and peeked over the gunwales for a glimpse of the shores they were about to attack. Some thirteen thousand men of the First Marine Division, the spearhead of the invasion, had clambered down from the ships on swinging nets of rope and then had crammed themselves into a motley flotilla of craft that now wallowed and bobbed in the channel. Several of the rusty old hulks, having been commandeered from Japanese trawlermen, smelled of sour urine and rotten fish heads. The Marines, many of them green from seasickness, saw the outlines of the charred foothills that rose above the port, and caught the scent of the brackish marshes and the slime of the mudflats. Corsairs, bent-winged like swallows, dove over the city, dropping thousand-pound bombs and sending five-inch rockets deep into hillside nests where the enemy was said to be dug in. Far out at sea, the naval guns rained fire upon the city, damaging tanks of butane that now flared and belched palls of smoke.
On this warm, humid morning of September 15, 1950, the Marines had arrived at their destination halfway around the world, to stun their foe and turn the war around: a surprise amphibious attack, on an immense scale, deep behind the battle lines. Only a few months before, these young men, fresh from their farms and hick towns, had piled into chartered trains and clattered across America to California. Then they climbed aboard transport ships, where many of them did their basic training, learning how to strip and rebuild M1 rifles, drilling on the crowded decks, practicing their marksmanship on floating targets towed from the fantails. They crossed the Pacific and stopped briefly in Japan, then heaved their way through a full-scale typhoon. They rounded the peninsula and moved in convoy up the west coast, through the silted waters of the Yellow Sea.
By the thirteenth of September the ships had begun to concentrate, 261 vessels in all, carrying more than 75,000 men and millions of dollars’ worth of war matériel. On the fourteenth, the armada was closing in on its target: the narrow confines of Flying Fish Channel. The channel led to Inchon, an industrial city of a quarter million people, whose strategically vital but treacherous port served the capital, Seoul.
On the morning of the fifteenth, in the seas west of Inchon, the ships ranged along the horizon, a long line of gray bars stitching through the mist. First came the destroyers Swenson, Mansfield, DeHaven. Then the high-speed transports Wantuck, Horace A. Bass, Diachenko, and the dock landing ship Fort Marion. Then the heavy cruisers Toledo and Rochester and three more destroyers: Gurke, Henderson, and Collett. Following in their mingled wakes came the British light cruisers Kenya and Jamaica, the attack transports Cavalier and Henrico. Farther out at sea lay the fast carriers, from which the Corsairs rose into the skies to make their deadly sorties.
By afternoon, as the Marines drew near the Inchon seawall, enemy rounds zinged across the water surface and mortar shells crashed haphazardly all around. Within a few minutes the Marines would reach the cut-granite ramparts. They would climb over, and they would set foot on the western shores of central Korea.
What was Korea to these young men? Some fate-ravaged place, an inflamed appendix, a wattle of real estate flapping off the face of the mainland. Though some of the units approaching Inchon had spent the past month bolstering United Nations forces at the southern tip of Korea, most of the First Marine Division had no experience with the country. They had little knowledge of Korea’s tragic history, no appreciation for how faithfully this proud culture had held on through centuries of turmoil and besiegement. It was a small nation that history had pushed around—a shrimp among whales. The Mongols had had their way with her, the Manchus, the Russians, the Japanese. Now had come the Americans, nervous young men who knew next to nothing about the place, though some had passed around guidebooks filched from hometown libraries.
Korea, they’d learned, was known as the Hermit Kingdom. The Land of the Morning Calm. Its national dish was a hot mess of fermented cabbage. Some Marines had read with astonishment that in parts of Korea, peasants still nourished their crops with night soil and were known to roast the occasional hound for dinner—these were some of the clichés that were passed around. Korea was said to be a dirt-poor country, mountainous, swept by Siberian winds, sultry during summer and breathtakingly cold in winter.
But what did the travel manuals really know? God created war, Twain wrote, so that Americans would learn geography, and the men of the First Marine Division were about to learn a lot about this tough, sorrowful scrap of land. While some would find a deep affinity for it, many would come to hate it, for all the things it was and for all the things it wasn’t. But to most of them, more than anything, Korea just seemed a long way from home—a long way to come to fight and bleed and die, in a war that was not officially a war, for a cause that at times was not altogether clear, for an endgame that was anybody’s guess.
The Marines had a tradition of being the first to fight, the first to kill, the first to die. They didn’t earn their reputation by asking many questions. In a few months, they would face the armies of the most populous nation on earth and would become engaged in one of the more harrowing clashes in the history of warfare. Many would never return home. But for those who survived, Korea would be forever stamped on their psyches, and on their souls. They would never forget what happened here, even if the majority of their countrymen quickly did.
Now the assault vessels angled past the pitted harbor islands of Inchon and made for the bluff face of the seawall, where the breaking surf left a ring of bone-white foam. The bullets whined and smacked in weird patterns upon the surface. A shell screamed overhead, and the Marines crouched a little tighter into the walls of their boats.
Book One: Seoul
War is the unfolding of miscalculations.
- Barbara Tuchman
On the Yellow Sea
The amphibious invasion taking place off the jetties and docks of Inchon—an action officially known as Operation Chromite—was among the boldest and most technically complex engagements in modern military annals. The man who conceived the invasion, prevailing over enormous doubts in Washington, was General Douglas MacArthur, and his name would forever be associated with it. But the officer most directly responsible for executing the details of the initial landing, the unsung and largely unknown architect of the Marine assault, was in many ways MacArthur’s opposite. He was Oliver Prince Smith, commander of the First Marine Division, one of the great underrated generals in American history.
From the decks of the command ship USS Mount McKinley, Smith watched the proceedings as best he could through shifting curtains of smoke. He squinted into his field glasses as the ship heaved in the swells. In the distance, the small landing craft, having butted against the seawall, were in position. In the bow of each vessel, Marines raised a pair of scaling ladders, and the waiting boats treaded the water like enormous bugs with antennae quivering. The leathernecks began to scale the ladders and vanished from view. But the radio reports that came in from the spotter planes were all positive. The Marines were moving into the city now, swarming over the causeways and saltpans, already seizing industrial complexes and other installations along the ruined harbor.
Smith’s division was a formidable fighting force. Though it had been hastily thrown together at Camp Pendleton, California, most of the division’s officers and noncoms were seasoned warriors, men of the Old Breed who had served in the bitter World War II battles of the Pacific—at places like Guadalcanal and Okinawa. “They could load jeeps with their decorations,” said one account, and would “need a truck to carry off their Purple Hearts.” Battalion for battalion, the First Marine Division was as fierce and as disciplined as anything the United States had to offer. “It was the strongest division in the world,” boasted one Marine captain who served under Smith. “I thought of it as a Doberman, a dangerous hound straining at the leash, wanting nothing more than to sink its fangs into the master’s enemy.”
Smith was enormously relieved by the progress of the invasion. The resistance was proving tepid—either the North Korean defenders had been caught off guard or they were overwhelmed by the intensity of the firestorm. But Smith stopped short of celebrating. He was superstitious of good fortune. As an assistant division commander at the World War II battle of Peleliu, he had witnessed a senseless loss of life—the result of intelligence failures and strategic mistakes not of his making. Scarred by the events at Peleliu, he tended to proceed with a thoroughgoing sense of caution. In his own experience, it was overconfidence, more than any other single factor, that caused men to die.
He felt a little uneasy that MacArthur had invited a gaggle of journalists aboard the Mount McKinley to follow the invasion. It struck Smith as unseemly to have assembled so many members of the press to capture what MacArthur’s people confidently expected would be his moment of triumph. “This is a public relations war,” Smith wrote in disdain. “We are overrun with onlookers.”
Smith had spent a lot of time with MacArthur aboard the Mount McKinley. During the past few days, as part of the larger convoy, they had steamed over from Japan in this 460-foot floating command center, a plush flagship tricked out with all manner of radar, radiotelephones, and other advanced communications equipment. Smith found the supreme commander initially impressive, occasionally entertaining, but ultimately insufferable. MacArthur, he said, is “a born actor” who “puts a lot of drama into his conversation.” He “has to his credit many outstanding accomplishments,” Smith allowed. “However, the pomposity of his pronouncements is a little wearing.”
Major General Oliver Prince Smith, fifty-six years old, was a cerebral, soft-spoken man whose habits seemed atypical of a gung-ho Marine. There was no bluster in his demeanor. A Berkeley graduate who incessantly smoked a pipe, he had a reputation in the Corps as an intellectual. People called him “the Professor.” One Marine historian described him as an “ascetic thinker and teacher.” He was fluent in French, drank sparingly, read the classics, and never cursed. An expert gardener, he cultivated roses in his spare time. He was an incessant notetaker; he kept a small green notebook on his person and wrote in a cryptic shorthand. Reed-thin and tall, his sharp-featured face set with piercing blue eyes and topped by a nimbus of prematurely white hair, he spoke deliberately and with precision.
But for all his gentleness and reserve, Smith was tough. As a young man, he had been a winch operator and then a crew foreman at a rough-and-tumble logging camp in the Santa Cruz Mountains of Northern California. He knew hard work, and his hands showed it. He had climbed his way from an impoverished background to become a scholarship student while steering his family through several tragedies—most notably the death of his only sibling, Peggy, who was found raped and murdered in a cabin at Yosemite National Park, the perpetrator unknown.
On the battlefield, Smith believed in ruthless efficiency. One Marine called him “a professional killer, employed in a hard trade: tenacious, cunning, resourceful, cold, cynical, and tough.” He took a dim view of those who brought an exaggerated sense of chivalry to war. Engagements were won by systematically destroying the enemy, not through flamboyant acts or the symbolic capturing of ground. At Quantico, he was famous for giving a lecture that analyzed the effectiveness of the bayonet charge during modern wars; after crunching the numbers, he proclaimed it, by and large, a pseudo-heroic waste of energy.
He was keenly aware of the impact of his decisions. During World War II, through his battles across the Pacific, he would tally in his diary the precise number of casualties the day’s fighting had brought. It was his nightly ritual. With the zeal of a sharp accountant who understands where every last dollar was spent, Smith demanded a reckoning of war’s exact human cost.
He had enlisted in 1917 and had devoted his life to the Corps. The Marine ethos appealed to his sense of order and rectitude. He had bounced across the globe during his long career: Guam, the Mariana Islands, Washington, D.C., Iceland, the American embassy in Paris. He had lived in a bungalow in the jungles of Haiti and in a castle in the Loire Valley. He had commanded every type of unit from platoon on up. Smith was said to be a “school man and a staff man.” He had studied at France’s prestigious military academy, L’École Supérieure de Guerre—he was the first U.S. Marine ever to do so. Smith, said one account, was “one of those rare men who love to work and who find a natural delight in detail.” If he had come to understand warfare from the perspective of the textbook, he had also seen how poorly and how seldom the theories and abstractions of military science obtained in the context of the grime, grit, and chaos of a battlefield. Smith was a “by-the-book” Marine—but he knew when to throw the book away.
His command style was preternaturally calm. His chief of staff when he was serving at Quantico found Smith to be a rare gentleman, a dignified man who seldom raised his voice: “If you think of a forceful person as one who beats his chest and shouts loudly and utters tirades, then Smith was not a very forceful person. It was contrary to his personality to make a fuss about things. But the people who worked for him listened for any expression of opinion that he gave and took it on themselves as a directive.”
Frank Lowe, a retired Army general who was serving as President Truman’s eyes and ears in Korea, described Smith this way: “He is a very kindly man, always calm and cheerful, even under the greatest strain. He is almost professorial in type and this characteristic is apt to fool you because he is an offensive tiger. His concept is to find the enemy and kill him—with a minimum of casualties. His officers and men idolize him, albeit he is a strict disciplinarian—Marine discipline.”
Smith also happened to be one of the country’s preeminent experts on the tactics and logistics of amphibious warfare. He had practically written the book on the subject. He had taught ship-to-shore landings in classrooms at Quantico and Camp Pendleton, had perfected some of the techniques on the beaches of Peleliu and Okinawa. The Professor was legendary for his seaside drills. Amphibious operations were among the most complicated maneuvers in war, requiring tedious planning, careful choreography, an exquisite sense of timing. They were the Marine signature, the Marine specialty—at the heart of why the Marines existed in the first place.
Marines were supposed to be “Soldiers of the Sea,” shock troops sent to hector coastlines and establish beachheads. They were finned creatures who washed up on hostile shores, only to sprout legs. Time and time again in the Pacific during World War II, the Marines had demonstrated their indispensability, and MacArthur, having relied upon them throughout his island-hopping campaigns, had long been impressed by their steady, ready competence. Smith’s First Marine Division was the largest, oldest, and most decorated division in the Corps. So when MacArthur decided, against the better judgment of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to forge ahead with an audacious and incredibly risky scheme to storm the harbor at Inchon, it was obvious whom he needed to draw up the plans.
Table of Contents
Prologue: Morning Calm 3
Book 1 Seoul
Chapter 1 The Professor 9
Chapter 2 Traitor's House 21
Chapter 3 Across the Han 29
Chapter 4 Beneath the Lighthouse 36
Chapter 5 The Battle of the Barricades 39
Chapter 6 The Savior of Our Race 48
Chapter 7 God's Right-Hand Man 56
Chapter 8 The Tiger Wants Human Beings 62
Book 2 To The Mountains
Chapter 9 Many, Many 71
Chapter 10 King's Envoy to Hamhung 80
Chapter 11 Heroic Remedies 88
Chapter 12 Will o' the Wisp 95
Chapter 13 Broken Arrows 104
Chapter 14 A Powerful Instrument 109
Chapter 15 Fattened for the Kill 119
Chapter 16 Never Too Late to Talk 128
Chapter 17 Never a More Daring Flight 132
Book 3 The Reservoir
Chapter 18 Easy for Us, Tough for Others 141
Chapter 19 Boon Companions 150
Chapter 20 Easy Company Holds Here 157
Chapter 21 Where the Bullet Belongs 163
Chapter 22 Gung-ho, You Cowardly Bastards 168
Chapter 23 When the Lead Is Flying 172
Chapter 24 A Hot Reception 182
Chapter 25 The War Council 191
Chapter 26 An Entirely New War 195
Book 4 $$$
Chapter 27 You Will All Be Slaughtered 203
Chapter 28 Kissing a Buzz Saw 211
Chapter 29 Morphine Dreams 215
Chapter 30 No Soft Options 219
Chapter 31 One-Man Army 228
Chapter 32 Every Weapon That We Have 236
Chapter 33 The Ridgerunners 239
Chapter 34 This Place of Suffering 247
Book 4 $$$
Chapter 35 Attacking in a Different Direction 257
Chapter 36 In the Day of Trouble 266
Chapter 37 I'll Get You a Goddamn Bridge 275
Chapter 38 Blood on the Ice 281
Chapter 39 Taking Departure 289
Chapter 40 The Bridge of Long Life 297
Chapter 41 Down to Earth 300
Chapter 42 The Most Harrowing Hour 306
Chapter 43 The Crossing 310
Chapter 44 We Will See You Again in the South 316
Chapter 45 We Walk in the Hand of God 323
Epilogue: In the Pantheon 333
A Note on Sources 345
Selected Bibliography 369
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I remember much regarding the start of the Korean war but this book puts it in clearer focus!
“On Desperate Ground” places the struggle of the First Marine Division at the Chosin Reservoir in the context of the early phase of the Korean War. It provides insights into the MacArthur Court in Tokyo and Mac’s relations with Washington. The Inchon Landings set in motion the events that placed the First Marines at the frozen lake when the Chinese intervention turned the United Nations war from a march to the Yalu to a desperate struggle for survival. The trials of individual soldiers add human interest to the tale. I appreciate the even-handed treatment of MacArthur. Criticism of his unwillingness to tolerate dissent among his staff and glaring errors in assessing intelligence about Chinese and Russian involvement is balanced by recognition of his master stroke at Inchon and the universal enthusiasm to conquer North Korea from the battleground to the White House. I am intrigued by the suggestion that MacArthur could not figure out why he was summoned to Wake Island to meet President Truman. Author Hampton Sides has crafted an informative tome that draws the reader into the conferences and the intense cold and pain of Chosin that is difficult to put down. It is a must read for anyone interested in the Korean War, Douglas MacArthur or just in search of a great read.
Good combination of personal stories in the context of the bigger picture.
On Desperate Ground by Hampton Sides is an incredibly well-researched account the battle at Choisin Reservoir during the Korean War. As someone who doesn't normally pick up nonfiction titles I was amazed at how quickly I was pulled in to the story of the Marines and their extraordinary heroism. Engaging writing and amazing attention to detail provides the reader with an immediate connection to not only the soldiers, but the innocent people who were affected by the war. Thank you to Netgalley and Doubleday for the opportunity to read and review this advanced copy. All opinions are my own.
On Desperate Ground: The Marines at The Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle by Hampton Sides is the history of one of the greatest stories to come out of the Korean War. Sides is an American historian, author, and journalist. He is the author of Americana, Hellhound on His Trail, Ghost Soldiers, Blood and Thunder, and other bestselling works of narrative history and literary non-fiction. The Korean War is America’s forgotten war, and the heroics that took place in the war are often overlooked. Marines, however, do remember the events from the landing at Inchon to the evacuation at Chosin. Perhaps the Marine Corps most celebrated and most iconic leader Colonel Chesty Puller. Puller and the Marines left no man behind as they fought their way out of being surrounded at Chosin. Puller always saw the positive: “We’ve been looking for the enemy for some time now. We’ve finally found him. We’re surrounded. That simplifies things.” Temperatures were well below zero, and the Marines reported 7,338 non-battle casualties from the weather alone. The navy provided close air support and the air force dropped in supplies. If there was a time to see defeat this was it. There would be no defeat at Chosin. The Marines made an orderly withdrawal under heavy fire and against a force that vastly outnumbered them. Sides tells the story of the forces involved at Chosin. Using the narrative form, he brings to life Marines and members of the other services and countries who fought the battle, I am not usually a fan of the narrative style in nonfiction writing, but here Sides breathes life into those who were there. Army and Marine Corps archives were used to form much of the narrative. Also used were interviews of over fifty who fought at Chosin and the personal papers of many others. On Desperate Ground puts a human voice on the battle and the war. More than just battle plans and casualty counts this book is about the people who were there.
This is a comment about the "Editorial Review" of the book. Whoever wrote it clearly does not know anything about the Korean War, the battle of the Chosin Reservoir, or Korean geography. First, the Marines were not the only force that was involved with the battle. The Army 9th Infantry Division played a significant role in that as the Marines withdrew toward Hamhung harbor, the 9th fought a delaying action giving the Marines cover. The editor needs to give credit where credit is due. Second, Inchon is on the west coast of Korean and is located below the 38th parallel in South Korean. The editor needs a remedial geography lesson. Bottom line: get an editor and check your facts.