Photo “The Last Of The Rear Guard” by Col. Charles Waterhouse, USMC (Ret.); courtesy of the Waterhouse Museum, www.waterhousemuseum.com.
While most of our nation’s wars, including the American Revolution, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, Vietnam and the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, are familiar to the majority of Americans, the 1950-1953 conflict on the Korean Peninsula often receives only cursory mention in most history books. Thus, the Korean War is often referred to as the “Forgotten War.” But for the American servicemen who had to battle the determined Communist North Korean and Chinese troops in bitterly hostile weather conditions, the Korean War will never be forgotten. There were numerous examples of heroism and sacrifice displayed by the soldiers and Marines who fought in some of the most miserable conditions imaginable while often being outnumbered by the enemy.
The bravery and tenacity of the American fighting men in Korea was exemplified by the Chosin Reservoir campaign, one of the pivotal battles of the Korean War. United Nations forces, including elements of the 1st Marine Division and the U.S. Army’s 3rd and 7th Infantry Divisions, were surrounded by an estimated 60,000 Red Chinese troops in the area of Korea’s Chosin Reservoir. Caught by surprise, they fought their way out of the encirclement during a brutal 17-day battle. As was the case for most of the Korean War, with the exception of the South Koreans, the United States fielded more troops and suffered greater casualties than any of the other Allied nations involved in the conflict.
For most of the veterans of the campaign, the hardships and travails are forever etched into their memories. The brutal and harrowing campaign was waged between Nov. 27 and Dec. 13, 1950, in atrocious winter weather conditions with temperatures sometimes plummeting to minus 40 degrees F. In addition to heavy casualties inflicted by the tenacious Communists troops, many of our men suffered serious frostbite and related debilitating injuries. Nevertheless, our troops were able to battle their way out of the stranglehold while inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy. The Chinese considered the retreat of UN forces from the area as a success, but it was clearly a Pyrrhic victory for the Communists as their causalities were more than three times that of the Americans. The survivors of the campaign proudly, and appropriately, dubbed themselves the “Chosin Few.”
As was the case in the Korean War, most of the American small arms at Chosin were the same as those used in World War II. The primary infantry arms carried by the intrepid Marines and Army personnel involved in the campaign were the M1 Garand rifle, the M2 carbine, the M1911A1 pistol and the M1918A2 Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR). Each of these was designed to fulfill specific requirements, and each had its strengths and weaknesses. All passed rigorous U.S. Army Ordnance Dept. testing prior to their adoption and all provided valuable service during World War II. These tests did not, however, replicate such extreme climatic conditions as our troops experienced during the Chosin campaign. As events transpired, the bitter cold resulted in numerous malfunctions of the guns as they simply were not designed to operate in such extreme weather conditions.
U.S. M1911A1 Pistol
Despite the reliability of the M1911A1 pistol, the extreme cold weather wreaked havoc on its performance. This is also addressed by Gen. Marshall: “[A]t temperatures just below freezing, [the .45] gives a great deal of trouble because of frost lock, and, according to the users, must be cleaned of all oil and then fired periodically if it is to be trusted.” As will be seen, the M1911A1 pistol was not alone in this regard.
U.S .30 Caliber Carbine
To increase the carbine’s firepower, a selective-fire version of the .30-cal. M1 carbine was adopted as the “M2” carbine and first issued in late World War II. During the post-war period, many standard M1 carbines were converted to M2 configuration by means of a simple kit. By the time of the Korean War in 1950, the M2 was the predominate version of the carbine in service, and many soldiers and Marines carried it in lieu of the heavier, but more effective, M1 rifle. Throughout much of the Korean War in general, and the Chosin campaign in particular, the carbine was often looked upon with disfavor for its failure to provide adequate “stopping power” and for the frequency of its malfunctions in inclement weather.
A 1st lieutenant in the 1st Marines, Joseph Fisher, made the following statement regarding the carbines in his unit during the Chosin fighting: “About 30 percent of our carbines gave us trouble; some wouldn’t fire at all [and] others responded sluggishly. But the main reason my men lost confidence in the carbine was because they would put a bullet right in a Chi-Com’s chest at 25 yards range, and he wouldn’t stop. This happened to me. The bullet struck home; the man simply winced and kept on coming. There were about half a dozen of my men who made this same complaint; some of them swore they had fired three or four times, hit the man each time, and still not stopped him.”
Such complaints were typical of those lodged against the M2 carbine in Korea. In some cases, the soldier or Marine may have believed he hit his target but actually missed and erroneously blamed the carbine. In other cases, if our troops had been armed with .45 pistols rather than carbines, one might wonder how many of the enemy would not have been touched at all. Other Marines held their carbines in higher esteem, but they were in the definite minority. In any event, it cannot be denied that the carbine did not perform up to expectations during the Chosin campaign. Despite its light weight and rapid-firing capability, the carbine was one of the more unpopular arms of the conflict due to the relative ineffectiveness of its cartridge and its propensity to malfunction under even marginal weather conditions.
U.S. M1 Garand Rifle