On Desperate Ground - Book Review
The beauty of well-written history is that it reads like a gripping literary work. In most cases when we read history, we know the outcome, excepting if you happen to pick up the biography of an obscure historical figure such as, for example, Thomas Cromwell (kudos to Hilary Mantel for her excellent work on that fascinating English figure). But reading a well written historical work that keeps your rapt attention, even when you do know the outcome, is pure delight. This is why I have such respect and admiration for the late Barbara Tuchman, whose works encompassed disparate issues such as the Black Plague in 14th century France, the root causes of World War 1, and U.S. foreign policy in China. All of her works read like novels, especially my favorite Tuchman work of all: Stillwell and the American Experience in China. This work follows the career of Gen. Joseph Stillwell, one of the least-known four-star American generals to have served in World War 2.
Hampton Sides’ latest book On Desperate Ground is about the U.S. ‘fighting’ withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir in the midst of one of the coldest winters ever in Korea in December 1950. Although we know the outcome (the majority of the Marine and Army troops got out safely), the heroism of the men—particularly those of the First Marine Division—never ceases to astonish when you take in Sides’ detailed, but readable work. Unbeknownst to U.S. Marine and Army troops who—at the behest of General Douglas MacArthur—raced toward the Yalu River in the fall of 1950, Chinese People’s Liberation Army forces were massing just across the border. As the weather grew colder, U.S. and United Nations’ forces (primarily South Korean troops) were unaware that Chinese PLA forces had already infiltrated Korean territory and were massing for an ambush near the Chosin Reservoir. This reservoir was created by a hydro-electric project, that had been built by the Japanese in the 1930s to help power industry on the east coast of Korea to assist the war machine of the Japanese Imperial Army in WW 2 (one of the many interesting historical anecdotes you will find throughout the book). Blinded by ambition, dismissive of the available intelligence, and urged on by Gen. MacArthur, Army General Edward ‘Ned’ Almond ordered the Army and Marine units right into the Chinese trap. When the Chinese launched their attack, U.S. troops were surrounded and outnumbered by four to one. Had it not been for the foresight and tactical acumen of Marine General Oliver Smith (and the gallantry of Naval and Marine pilots—including the Navy’s first African-American pilot), many more Marines and soldiers would have met their death.
Sides also focuses on various individuals whose heroism in the battle helped to win the day, and on various individuals who simply survived. Sides elucidates many facts that are lost against the greater story, for example, the fact that many of the wounded were actually saved by the fierce cold snap (sometimes measuring as low as -36 degrees Fahrenheit). Wounds that would normally have meant death by blood loss were often tamped down by the freezing weather. Of course, many other men died of exposure. Sides describes the story of a brave young Korean man who survived the battle of Seoul in the fall of 1950 and volunteered to work as an interpreter for U.S. and UN forces at Chosin. Sides also points out that Mao Zedong’s oldest son—Mao Anying—was killed in a U.S. napalm strike on PLA forces in late November as the battle was commencing. There are too many anecdotes to be retold in this short of a space, but Hampton Sides needs to be commended for bringing to our attention an amazing story in an almost forgotten campaign. The Battle of the Frozen Chosin Reservoir will always loom large in the lore of the U.S. Marine Corps.