By Rear Adm. Rick Williams
Commander, Navy Region Hawaii and Naval Surface Group Middle Pacific
Our recent change of command aboard USS Chosin (CG 65) here at Pearl Harbor was another occasion to reflect on the ship’s namesake – Battle of Chosin Reservoir, 64 years ago this week.
In that battle, the Navy provided firepower support off the coast of Korea to assist Marines, Soldiers and other United Nations troops fighting ashore.
Those warriors, led by Marine Generals “Chesty” Puller and Oliver Smith, give us perspective for the present and a sense of purpose for the future.
Here at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, on historic Marine Barracks property, stands the venerable old building known as Puller Hall, named after Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Lewis “Chesty” Puller.
Gen. Puller is a legend in American military history. His record of five Navy Crosses and an Army Distinguished Service Cross in a career that spanned nearly forty years is unmatched in the annals of the U.S. Marine Corps.
His fifth Navy Cross was won during the Korean War as the commanding officer of the First Marine Regiment when then-Col. Puller led his Marines in the breakout from the Chosin Reservoir.
On Nov. 24, 1950 American forces began the final drive toward the Yalu River on the border between China and the Korean Peninsula. Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Douglas MacArthur believed that this offensive would shatter the North Korean army and effectively end the Korean War. American troops looked forward to being home by Christmas.
But on Nov. 27 approximately 65,000 enemy troops began pouring over the border and 15,000 U.S. Marines found themselves surrounded in the Chosin Reservoir, with only a thin and winding mountain pass between them and escape through the port of Hungnam some 60 miles to the east. Thoughts of Christmas carols and relaxing by the fire turned to simple survival and the relentless focus on keeping the road to Hungnam open allowing the Marines out of the suddenly perilous dilemma.
The weather didn’t help the situation, with a Siberian cold front and 60-knot winds dropping temperatures to minus-35 degrees. Many of the casualties during the battle were a result of the exposure to what was considered the coldest winter Korea had seen in 100 years.
At this critical moment in the Korean War leadership, teamwork and courage won the day. On Dec. 6, the breakout from Chosin began. Maj. Gen. Oliver Smith, the Commander of the First Marine Division, is quoted as saying, “it is not a retreat; we are attacking in a different direction.”
For his part, then-Col. Puller led his regiment in the rear guard of the withdrawal, defending the perimeter and keeping the vital supply main supply route open for the movement of the division. Col. Puller is reported to have said to a journalist, “We’ve been looking for the enemy for several days now. We’ve finally found them. We are surrounded. That simplifies the problem.”
With the steady hand of leaders like Smith and Puller and the tenacity and courage of the troops under their command, the breakout was successful and the majority of the U.S. troops trapped at Chosin were able to reach Hungnam by the 13th of December.
In the final phase of the battle Navy and Air Force aircraft flew missions to defend the Hungnam perimeter and ships like the USS Missouri off the Korean coast laid down covering fire for the Marines as amphibious craft sealifted thousands of military personnel and civilians to safety.
Gen. Smith’s quote about an attack “in a different direction” reminds us of the importance of perspective.
It has been said that, “great opportunities are often disguised as impossible situations” and it requires perspective to turn the tide.
The epic Battle of Chosin, fought and won 64 years ago in the most adverse conditions and implacable odds, reminds us that adversity often requires leaders to keep a cool head, take a fresh look at a problem and attack the issue from a different direction.
Retreat does not always mean defeat.
The withdrawal from Chosin may have led to a disaster and the destruction or capture of thousands of American troops. Instead they fought their way out of the impending catastrophe and instead inflicted as many as 25,000 casualties on the enemy while evacuating the bulk of their strength to rejoin the fight on another day.
As I said in my commentary on NavyLive blog last year: Looking back more than 60 years later, we know the Korean War preserved freedom and democracy for South Korea and provided a better way of life for millions of people over many generations. The U.S. Navy had a critical role in supporting Marines and UN Allies throughout the war.
Naval forces provided the key strategic advantage. Our surface ships, submarines and aircraft provided sea control, effectively blockading North Korea’s coastlines and denying enemy shipments while ensuring mobility of sea lanes for our side. Aircraft from Task Force 77 carriers and escorts provided strikes and support. Cruisers, destroyers and other ships put a barrage of fire between our troops and the enemy during the war. Pearl Harbor’s own Mighty Mo, battleship USS Missouri (BB 63), added the weight of her 16-inch guns to the fight.
For our own perspective on what we fought for in Korea, just consider the powerful ally and friend we have today on the southern half of the peninsula. The Republic of Korea navy regularly visits Pearl Harbor and was here for RIMPAC last summer.
ROK sailors and marines work with their American counterparts as partners for a common defense. That perspective leads to our sense of purpose: building and maintaining cooperative partnerships as we support Adm. Harris and the U.S. Pacific Fleet in the rebalance to Asia-Pacific.
Jim Neuman, historian and public affairs specialist, contributed to this commentary.