Arms Of The Chosin Few

posted on November 2, 2010

Above image: “The Last Of The Rear Guard” by Col. Charles Waterhouse, USMC (Ret.); courtesy of the Waterhouse Museum

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.

Theo McLemore, a veteran of the 1st Marines who fought at Inchon and Chosin, recalled that they had to remove every vestige of grease and oil from their Garands in order for them to operate in the extreme cold. Any trace of lubricant would freeze solid and could render the rifle inoperable. As stated by McLemore: “Not having any oil or grease was hard on the weapons, but removing it allowed us to use our M1s even when the temperature got down to 40 below. The M1 was our best weapon, and we really relied on those rifles.”

McLemore’s feelings were mirrored by S.L.A. Marshall: “The issue rifle [M1] has performed adequately in Korea and is regarded by troops with a liking amounting to affection. This is true of all forces, Army and Marines alike. They have found that it stands up ruggedly against the most extreme tests by terrain, weather, and rough handling. … Its record of high serviceability remained unimpaired during the worst storms of winter. Of all weapons carried by the infantry, the M1 appeared to be the least sensitive to heavy frost, extreme cold and icing. Its ‘durability’ is the great reason why it stands in such high favor with the men. They no longer mind the weight of the piece because of its consistent performance.”

Even some 60 years later, most of the Chosin veterans remember the M1 rifle as a dependable arm that could be counted on “when the chips were down” in even the most hostile conditions imaginable. During the “Frozen Chosin” campaign, the M1 once again lived up to its reputation as one of the best service rifles of all time.

U.S. M1918A2 Browning Automatic Rifle
First fielded in the closing days of World War I, the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) was the standard squad automatic weapon from the time of its adoption into the late 1950s and early 1960s when it was eventually replaced by the M60 machine gun. Although essentially obsolescent by the time of the Korean War, the latest version of the BAR, the Model 1918A2, was a popular arm with many of the fighting men and BARs saw a great deal of combat action during the Chosin campaign. The BAR, which fed from a 20-round detachable box magazine, fired the same powerful .30-’06 Sprg. cartridge as the M1 Garand but at a full-automatic rate of up to 650 rounds per minute. While many soldiers and Marines groused about the BAR’s weight, the closer they came to a combat zone, the more these complaints subsided. The gun’s firepower and general reliability were important assets that trumped weight considerations. Marshall stated that during the Korean War the BAR was “still considered ‘indispensable’ and the troops shudder at any suggestion that it might ultimately be replaced by some other weapon. They cannot imagine having to get along without it.”

When the Marines were surrounded during the Chosin fighting, the BARs again proved to be one of the more important weapons in the small arms arsenal. As with the other guns employed; however, the brutally cold weather negatively affected the BAR’s performance. It has been reported that many of the BARs employed in the conflict had been arsenal-overhauled after World War II by ordnance personnel in Japan and that some small, but critical, parts such as springs were not always replaced. This led to reports that the refurbished BARs did not perform as well as the examples that had not been previously overhauled.

Regardless of whether a BAR was one of the rebuilt guns or not, the brutal cold of Chosin caused a number of malfunctions. As was the case with the M1 rifle and others, the BARs had to be thoroughly cleaned and all traces of grease and oil removed from the action in order to have any chance of functioning properly. Even so, the BARs often “froze” (literally and figuratively) in combat. Theo McLemore related that some of the Marines had to urinate on the frozen BARs in order to get them back into action. He wryly added that “they dried off pretty quick once we started shooting!” This crude, but effective, “field expedient” of thawing-out frozen BARs has been confirmed in many first-hand accounts of fighting around Chosin. For some reason, this procedure was not included in later field manuals for the BAR.

Despite the problems encountered in various degrees regarding the arms discussed above, the fact that they would function at all in such extreme temperatures was a testament to their design and quality of manufacture. The M1911A1s, Garands, carbines and BARs enabled the intrepid “Chosin Few” to not only battle their way out of an intended deathtrap but also to inflict grievous casualties on the enemy.

The U.S. Marine Corps has a glorious history for valorous service to our country. If the Marines’ Hymn is ever revised, a strong case can be made for adding the “Frozen Chosin” to the Halls of Montezuma and the Shores of Tripoli.


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