The Ferocity of the 'Forgotten War' How a Marine Division Survived Overwhelming Odds in Korea

By Barnhisel, Greg | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), December 30, 2018 | Go to article overview

The Ferocity of the 'Forgotten War' How a Marine Division Survived Overwhelming Odds in Korea


Barnhisel, Greg, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


The Korean War, commonly described as the "forgotten war," was a remarkably brutal and pitiless conflict, a proxy war fought by two superpowers (and China) in an undeveloped land inhabited by a poor and largely agricultural population. "Was" is perhaps inaccurate, for the war has never been concluded. The 1953 truce that ended combat operations still holds, but no peace treaty has ever been signed. The two sides have been at a precarious stalemate for 65 years.

In truth, historian Hampton Sides argues in his latest book, "On Desperate Ground: The Marines at the Reservoir, the Korean War's Greatest Battle," that stalemate began in 1950, more than two years before the fighting ended, with the tactical retreat of U.S. and United Nations forces at the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir in December 1950. After Chosin, the two sides traded territory around the 38th parallel, with neither ever threatening to overwhelm the other.

Mr. Sides' book, though, is not primarily an argument about military history. Rather, "On Desperate Ground" is a vivid and terrifying character-driven narrative of a battle fought in unimaginable conditions from the point of view of the infantry soldiers who fought it.

Two dramatic shifts marked the early months of the Korean conflict. The North Korean army invaded the South in June 1950 and quickly pushed the South Korean army and the U.S. Eighth Army south to a small perimeter around Pusan. Late in the summer, though, U.S. and U.N. forces landed at Inchon, and chased the outnumbered North Korean forces back across the 38th parallel.

Mr. Sides opens his book here, with Maj. Gen. Oliver Prince Smith of the First Marine Division on the U.S.S. Mount McKinley aircraft carrier warily watching his Marines establish a beachhead at Inchon. Next to him were the supreme commander of U.S. forces, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and his chief of staff, the supercilious and racist Gen. Ned Almond, who had ordered this landing and were prematurely preparing for total victory.

To achieve this, Gen. MacArthur sought to press forward with his most seasoned troops - including Maj. Gen. Smith's First Marine Division - and push the North Koreans back to the Yalu River, the border with China. Mr. Sides' portrait of Gen. MacArthur is a familiar one, highlighting his self-importance, imperiousness, and disregard for the experience of soldiers on the ground.

For Mr. …

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