Memorial Day is Monday, May 27, this year in the United States. The three-day weekend marks the beginning of summer for most Americans (ahead of the June 21 summer solstice), a day off from work and, weather permitting, outdoor activities in glorious sunshine.
But the most important thing Americans do on Memorial Day is honor service members who gave their lives serving in the nation’s wars or who died as a result of their combat injuries.
Somber memorial services at cemeteries across the country are often punctuated by gun salutes and aircraft flyovers. Local officials give speeches and the media snap images for news outlets. An active-duty service member might be invited to share accounts of soldiers, sailors, marines, or airmen who gave their lives for their country. Sitting in the bleachers at one of these memorial tributes is a humbling reminder of the debt we owe to those who have gone before us.
Hampton Sides’ nonfiction book, On Desperate Ground: The Marines at the Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle, is another excellent reminder. His thorough and riveting account of the epic battle high in the mountains in the dead of winter at the Chosin Reservoir reads like a novel—a story you don’t want to put down, a story you wish were fiction rather than harsh truth.
Why were the United Nations (UN) forces even there?
Arrogance and lack of imagination.
The arrogance of General Douglas MacArthur, the supreme commander of UN troops in Korea, deluded him into thinking the Chinese would not perceive the presence of UN troops advancing to the Yalu River—the border between Korea and China—as hostile aggression against China. Indeed, in October of 1950, MacArthur not only convinced President Harry Truman that the Chinese would almost certainly not intervene in the Korean war, but also that the Communist forces of Kim Il Sung would be defeated by Thanksgiving.
President Truman agreed to MacArthur’s recommendation to proceed far north of the 38th parallel as long as MacArthur would scrap the plan upon the first hint of Chinese military intervention.
As the two men spoke, approximately 300,000 Chinese soldiers began secretly crossing the border into Korea.
Apparently, neither General MacArthur nor the decision makers in the US imagined that the Chinese might attack foreign forces at the Yalu River with the same ferocity that Americans might assault Chinese forces at the Rio Grande.
The Chinese struck just after Thanksgiving.
The UN forces were led by approximately 20,000 Marines of the United States’ First Marine Division. Unimaginable sub-freezing temperatures caused weapons to jam, motors to stop running, and human bodies to grind into near-inoperable numbness, frostbite and, sometimes, death by freezing.
So began the legend of the outnumbered Marines at the Frozen Chosin.
Hampton Sides honors their legendary valor with On Desperate Ground. He devoted years to researching archives, unpublished letters, declassified documents, and to conducting interviews with surviving Marines and Koreans.
The story is awe-inspiring, and the storyteller is superb.
Lynne Schall is the author of three novels: Women's Company - The Minerva Girls (2016), Cloud County Persuasion (2018), and Cloud County Harvest (fall 2022). She and her family live in Kansas, USA.