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Arms of the Chosin Few

American troops defeated North Korean and Chinese troops in the Chosin Reservoir campaign.


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
While not issued to all troops, the .45 ACP M1911A1 pistol was valued by those Marines and Army soldiers at Chosin who were fortunate to have one of these hefty, but hard-hitting, handguns available. The “.45” certainly wasn’t the first arm of choice but, at times, it could literally be a life-saver. General S.L.A. Marshall, in his authoritative book “Battlefield Analysis of Infantry Weapons—Korean War,” states the following regarding the M1911A1 pistol: “There are numerous examples in the record of the service pistol being used with killing effect at 10-25 yards range in perimeter defense when the firer had no other weapon. In fact, there are more such instances in the Korean operations than were to be found in all company studies made during World War II.”

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
Of all the primary U.S. small arms of the era, the M2 carbine proved to be the most problematic during the fighting at Chosin. The carbine was adopted in late 1941 to replace the pistol in the hands of officers and other personnel whose primary duties precluded carrying the standard M1 Garand service rifle. The trim little semi-automatic carbine was much lighter and compact than the Garand (approximately 5 pounds vs. 9½ pounds) and used a 15- or 30-round detachable box magazine, as opposed to the M1 rifle’s eight-round en-bloc clip. To achieve this weight reduction, the carbine fired a .30-cal. cartridge that was much less powerful than the .30-’06 Sprg. cartridge fired by the M1 rifle. Since the carbine was originally intended to replace the .45 pistol, the reduced range, accuracy and “stopping power” were not considered detrimental. During World War II, however, the carbine was often used in place of a full-power service rifle (something it was not designed to do), and the carbine’s deficiencies when used in this manner soon became evident.

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
The M1 rifle proved to be the premier service rifle of World War II and continued as such during the Korean War. While not perfect, the M1 was adequately accurate, fired the powerful .30-’06 Sprg. cartridge and was reliable in operation given a modicum of care and maintenance. The most criticized feature of the rifle (other than gripes about its weight) was its eight-round en-bloc clip that could not be “topped off” as could other types of magazine systems. The M1 rifle was the standard infantry rifle of the soldiers and Marines during the Chosin battle where it once again proved its mettle.

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7 Responses to Arms of the Chosin Few

Ross wrote:
June 24, 2012

my dad was a 25 year army vet. as a little kid, I could never get much out of him. he was on garrison duty in japan when the war started. so he was in the very first unit sent over there. he walked up and down the peninsula. he had severe frostbite and went through the chosin reservoir and everything else. he could never talk much about it. he was just an enlisted slob but still got the bronze star and purple heart. Staff Sergeant Waldo Myers. he drank too much the rest of his life. god bless him. Bi

Rob wrote:
November 10, 2010

It makes me sad to think of the men who fought and died over there when I think of all the "fruits and nuts" that are tearing down our country today.

jack wrote:
November 07, 2010

Can you imagine if the troops had M-4 Carbines back then. At least they could burn the plastic to keep warm.

Jason Mays wrote:
November 04, 2010

The M1 Garand was 'adequately accurate'? Huh-I have owned 4, all service grade rifles purchased from CMP-the best shot a true .617 inch 5 shot group on a frigid winter day and the least accurate shot 1.2 inch at 100yd-all with greek surplus ammo-all with open sights and my tired 47 y/o eyes-a bit more than 'adequate' especially for a service rifle mass produced into the millions-I'd trust my M1 anytime, anywhere

Angelo wrote:
November 03, 2010

My Dad is a Korean War Vet, and while he says he never did it, I've heard this urine story a million times and always figured it to be an"old soldiers"tale. I still don't believe it would work.That pee in the works is gonna freeze it worse in a second or two at below zero temps.Expedience my eye. All you'll have is a rifle encased in yellow ice.

Robb wrote:
November 03, 2010

My Dad fought in the Frozen Chosin, it's nice to read about it. So very little has been written about it, as compared to other wars. But as I learned in Marine Boot Camp, the Chosin Resevoir was one of the most brutal battles in Marine Corps History.

Kyle in Waco wrote:
November 03, 2010

As to fixing the jamming, when you gotta go, you gotta go. And God willing, you may need to often!