Nightmare at the Chosin Reservoir

By Matthew J. Seelinger, Chief Historian

In late November 1950, a conclusion to the Korean War appeared to be close at hand. U.S., Republic of Korea (ROK), and various U.N. units had advanced deep into North Korea in an attempt to destroy any remaining North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) units and reunite Korea under one government. Some units had even reached the Yalu River, which separated Korea from Communist China.

But just as U.N. forces launched what was hoped to be the final offensive, hundreds of thousands of Communist Chinese soldiers poured into Korea, overwhelming the U.N. troops and completely changing the nature of the war. Fighting in extreme cold and over rugged terrain, the Americans and their allies were forced to retreat south down the Korean peninsula, suffering heavy casualties along the way.

(U.S. Army Center of Military History)

For one U.S. Army unit, the intervention of Chinese Communist Forces (CCF) resulted in absolute disaster. The 31st Regimental Combat Team, better known as Task Force MacLean (later known as Task Force Faith), comprised of elements of the 7th Infantry Division, was virtually annihilated east of the Chosin Reservoir. The experiences of the American soldiers who fought and died in the frigid cold of the Chosin area proved to be some of the most harrowing and tragic in the history of the U.S. Army.

In late November 1950, Task Force MacLean and the rest of the 7th Infantry Division were part of the U.S. Army’s X Corps, under the command of MG Edward M. Almond. X Corps had been steadily advancing up the eastern side of the Korean peninsula and was pressing on towards the Yalu.

On 24 November, the Eighth Army, under the command of LTG Walton H. Walker, which had been advancing north along the western side of Korea, went on the offensive. GEN Douglas MacArthur, commander of all U.N. forces in Korea, hoped this offensive would finally end the war, hopefully by Christmas. Yet, MacArthur and many on his staff were soon to make one of the worst military intelligence blunders in U.S. Army history. Ignoring reports of contact with CCF troops, MacArthur ordered the Eighth Army and X Corps to push on to the Yalu.

On the night of 25 November, one day after Eighth Army began its offensive, the CCF struck Eighth Army with massive numbers of troops. Thousands of Chinese soldiers, armed with burp guns and grenades, with bugles blaring, swarmed the American positions. Several American units were overrun and destroyed. The CCF onslaught took MacArthur and the U.N. forces completely by surprise and almost instantly changed the tide of the war. Soon, Eighth Army was in full headlong retreat southward.

Despite the CCF attack, the X Corps offensive scheduled for 27 November proceeded according to plan. The offensive called for the corps to strike west towards Mupyong, northeast of Kunu in the CCF rear, cut the Chinese supply lines, and possibly envelop the CCF in front of Eighth Army. The attack would be spearheaded by the 1st Marine Division, under the command of MG O.P. Smith, which would advance up the west side of the Chosin Reservoir, with the 7th Infantry Division (led by Task Force MacLean) along the east side of Chosin and the 3rd Infantry Division guarding the Marines’ flanks.

Colonel Alan McLean
Colonel Allan D. “Mac” MacLean and Lieutenant Colonel Don C. Faith of the 31st Regimental Combat Team “Task Force MacLean”

Task Force MacLean, under the command of COL Allan D. “Mac” MacLean, commander of the 31st Infantry Regiment, had been formed in mid-November to relieve elements of the 1st Marine Division east of the Chosin Reservoir. MacLean, a 1930 graduate of West Point, had served as a staff officer in the European Theater during World War II. After the war, he commanded the 32nd Infantry in Japan. Later assigned to Eighth Army’s G-3 section, MacLean served as Walker’s personal “eyes and ears” during the early days of the Korean War. In early November 1950, he eagerly accepted command of the 31st Infantry, a unit he had served with in the Philippines early in his career.

Task Force MacLean consisted of the following units: the 2nd and 3rd Battalions, 31st Infantry (2/31 and 3/31); the 31st Tank Company; the 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry (1/32), under the command of LTC Don C. Faith; the 57th Field Artillery Battalion, equipped with 105mm howitzers; and a platoon of eight antiaircraft vehicles (M19s with dual 40mm cannon and M16 quad-.50 halftracks) from D Battery, 15th Antiaircraft Artillery (Automatic Weapons) Battalion. In all, Task Force MacLean numbered about 3,200 men, including 700 ROK soldiers.

On 25 and 26 November, the lead elements of Task Force MacLean, Faith’s 1/32 Infantry, relieved the 5th Marines, which redeployed to join the rest of the 1st Marine Division along the west side of Chosin. However, due to delays with the rest of the task force’s redeployment, the 1/32, which occupied the 5th Marines forwardmost positions, stood alone without artillery support for a full day.

Don Faith, commander of the 1/32 Infantry, was considered one of the most promising officers in the Army. The son of a retired brigadier general, he had been handpicked from the Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning by then MG Matthew B. Ridgway to serve as his aide-de-camp. He served with Ridgway throughout Europe and jumped with the 82nd Airborne Division on D-Day. In battle, Faith was considered a virtual clone of Ridgway: intense, fearless, aggressive, and unforgiving of error or caution.

Most of the remaining units that comprised Task Force MacLean arrived on the east side of Chosin on 27 November. MacLean was among the first to arrive and immediately jeeped forward to confer with Faith. He confirmed with Faith that the task force would attack north the following day with whatever forces were on hand and that the 1/32 would spearhead the attack.

MacLean positioned forces north to south in their approximate order of arrival: 1/32 Infantry; MacLean’s forward command post (CP); the 31st Heavy Mortar Company; the 3/31 Infantry; A and B Batteries of the 57th FAB; the 57th FAB CP and the eight A/A vehicles; and finally, the 31st Infantry’s headquarters, located in a schoolhouse in the village of Hudong, and the twenty-two tanks of the 31st Tank Company. C Battery, 57th FAB, and the 2/31 Infantry were lagging behind and had not yet left the Pungsan area.

Late in the day MacLean ordered the 31st’s Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon to scout enemy positions. The platoon was ambushed in the hills around Chosin by CCF troops and every soldier was either killed or captured.

That night, MacLean laid out his final plans for the next day’s attack with the 7th ID assistant division commander, BG Hank Hodes. He then went forward to finalize them with Faith.

While MacLean and Faith remained confident, Task Force MacLean already faced serious problems. In addition to the disappearance of the I&R Platoon, communications between the scattered units were poor at best. There was no time to lay landlines and radio communications were virtually nonexistent. Furthermore, the task force was not in radio contact with the 7th ID HQ at Pungsan or the Marines in Hagaru-ri. The scattered units of Task Force MacLean were dangerously isolated, not only from the rest of the 7th ID and the Marines, but also from each other.

Also, unbeknownst to the Marines and Task Force MacLean, massive numbers of CCF troops were preparing to attack the dispersed units of X Corps on the night of the 27th. Three CCF divisions (59th, 79th, and 89th) were to hit the Marines at Yudam-ni and Hagaru-ri, along with the 7th Infantry, 3rd Infantry Division, and farther south. One division (80th) would attack Task Force MacLean.

On 27 November, the X Corps offensive began with the 5th and 7th Marines attacking from Yudam-ni along the west side of Chosin. In light of the rugged terrain, bitterly cold weather, logistical problems, and the situation facing Eighth Army, the X Corps offensive, in the words of one historian, “ranks as the most ill-advised and unfortunate operation of the Korean War.” The Marines, reluctant to carry out the attack in the first place, advanced only 1,500 yards before they met stiff CCF resistance and suffered heavy casualties.

Later after dark, in zero-degree weather, the CCF divisions struck. Two divisions hit the 5th and 7th Marines frontally while a third cut the road between Yudam-ni and Hagaru-ri. Elements of another division also struck the 7th Infantry. The situation quickly became desperate for the American forces around Chosin.

East of the Chosin Reservoir, the situation was just as chaotic. During the early evening hours, the CCF 80th Division encircled the unsuspecting units of Task Force MacLean. At about 2200, the division attacked out of the darkness, with CCF soldiers blowing bugles and screaming wildly. The isolated units, cut off from each other, fought for their lives.

Faith’s 1/32 Infantry was hit first along the north side of its perimeter. Marine CPT Edward P. Stamford, a forward air controller assigned to the task force, took command of A Company after its commander was killed and also called in Marine air strikes. While Marine aircraft and the troops of the 1/32 inflicted heavy casualties on the CCF troops, the battalion suffered over one hundred casualties.

Several miles south, the situation was similar. The CCF struck the 3/31 Infantry and two batteries of the 57th FAB, overrunning much of their perimeter. Most of the senior officers were killed or wounded. The battle raged on through the night, with the CCF finally withdrawing at dawn for fear of American air attacks. Like the 1/32, the 3/31 and 57th FAB suffered heavy casualties and one of the A/A vehicles was destroyed. Furthermore, the 31st’s medical company was wiped out. Back at the 31st’s rear CP in Hudong, BG Hodes heard heavy gunfire to the north and immediately ascertained something was wrong. He quickly ordered CPT Robert E. Drake to take two platoons of the 31st Tank Company forward to the 3/31 and 1/32 perimeters. Drake’s rescue column, however, soon ran into trouble. Some tanks skidded out of control on the icy road, while others became hopelessly stuck in mud. The column was then attacked by CCF troops with captured American bazookas. Two tanks were knocked out and a wild fight ensued as Chinese swarmed the tanks and attempted to open the hatches. Two more tanks become mired and had to be abandoned. Drake ordered his remaining twelve tanks back to Hudong. Once the tanks returned, Hodes quickly realized Task Force MacLean was in serious trouble. He borrowed one of the tanks and rode to Hagaru-ri to get help.

At about 1300 hours on 28 November, MG Almond flew into the 1/32 perimeter to confer with MacLean and Faith. Seemingly unaware of the crisis at hand, Almond announced that Task Force MacLean would press on with the attack, claiming that the Chinese facing them were nothing more than the remnants of retreating units. He then added, “We’re going all the way to the Yalu. Don’t let a bunch of Chinese laundrymen stop you.” MacLean made no objection to Almond’s order, despite the fact that the task force was in no position to attack. Both Almond and MacLean would later be criticized for their failure of command east of Chosin. Almond never fully appreciated the enemy’s strength, while MacLean failed to give Almond a clear picture of the situation facing his own task force.

At around midnight on 29 November, the CCF 80th Division attacked Task Force MacLean once again. The fighting was savage, often hand to hand. At around 0200, MacLean, still in the 1/32 perimeter, ordered the battalion to withdraw south in the darkness to the 3/31’s perimeter, taking all weapons and wounded with them. The move was to be a temporary one to consolidate forces before attacking, as ordered by Almond, the following day.

After disabling and abandoning several vehicles and loading the wounded into trucks, MacLean, Faith, and the 1/32 began moving south at 0500. Darkness and falling snow made the maneuver difficult, but fortunately, the CCF did not attack. Along the way, the task force gathered up the 31st Heavy Mortar Company, which was located halfway between the 1/32 and 3/31 and had supported the two battalions during the CCF attacks.

By dawn, the battalion reached the 3/31 perimeter, only to find it under heavy enemy attack. Without communications, attempting to enter the perimeter would be an extremely hazardous operation. Furthermore, the Chinese had created a roadblock at a bridge on the road leading into the perimeter. Faith led a party of men that successfully drove the CCF off the bridge and cleared the block. MacLean then came forward in his jeep. He spotted a column of troops whom he believed were his overdue 2/31. The troops within the 3/31 perimeter, however, began firing on the column, much to the dismay of MacLean. The troops were actually Chinese. MacLean, still believing they were American, ran towards them, shouting, “Those are my boys.” He dashed out onto the frozen reservoir towards the perimeter, attempting to stop what he believed was friendly fire. Suddenly, CCF troops concealed near the bridge fired on MacLean, hitting him several times. MacLean’s men watched in horror as an enemy soldier grabbed him and dragged him into the brush.

Unfortunately, there was no time to attempt a rescue of MacLean. Faith had to focus on getting his men into the 3/31 perimeter. With the men crossing the frozen stream on foot and the vehicles with the wounded dashing across the bridge, most of the column made it into the perimeter.

Once in, Faith surveyed the carnage. Hundreds of American and CCF dead littered the ground. The 3/31 had suffered over 300 casualties and its L company had ceased to exist. With MacLean gone, Faith assumed command and did his best to strengthen the perimeter. Marine air controller CPT Stamford also called in for Marine close air support and an airdrop for desperately needed supplies, especially 40mm and .50 caliber ammunition. Faith then sent out search parties to look for MacLean, with no luck. MacLean was declared missing, but later, an American POW stated that MacLean died of wounds on his fourth day of captivity and was buried by fellow POWs. He was the second and final American regimental commander to die in Korea.

On the morning of the 29th, Drake’s 31st Tank Company made another attempt to reach the 3/31 perimeter, only to be driven back to Hudong by CCF troops dug in on Hill 1221. For the remainder of the day the newly designated Task Force Faith remained in position. With nearly 500 wounded, the force was in no position to carry out the attack ordered by Almond. Yet, Faith had no authority to order a withdrawal. The situation was helped somewhat by Marine close air support and an airdrop of supplies, although the drop lacked 40mm and .50 caliber ammunition. A Marine helicopter also flew out some of the most serious wounded. Task Force Faith’s situation, however, remained desperate, particularly since it had still had not established communications with the Marines or the 7th ID HQ.

MG Dave Barr, commander of the 7th ID, flew in by helicopter to bring Faith more bad news. All the units of X Corps, including Task Force Faith, now under operational command of the Marines, were to withdraw. The Marines would provide Faith with air support, but other than that, the men would be on their own. To make matters worse, the task force was burdened with wounded, which would make their withdrawal even more difficult. Furthermore, the 31st’s CP, the 31st Tank Company, and the HQ Battery, 57th FAB, had evacuated Hudong for Hagaru-ri, further isolating Task Force Faith.

At about 2000, the CCF launched another attack. While killing large numbers of Chinese, Task Force Faith suffered another 100 casualties. Faith soon concluded his force could not survive another major attack. He summoned his remaining officers and told them to prepare to move out at 1200. The task force, after destroying its artillery, mortars and other equipment, began to move south, carrying 600 wounded in thirty trucks.

With a twin 40mm gun vehicle leading the way, the column began to move at around 1300 hours. It immediately came under fire. Stamford called in Marine air support, but the lead plane’s napalm canisters hit the front of the column, engulfing several soldiers and creating panic throughout the task force.

The situation quickly grew worse. Heavy fire from the flanks killed many of the wounded in the trucks. The fire grew more intense as the column reached Hill 1221, which dominated the surrounding area. At the north base of the hill, the CCF had blown a bridge, forcing a two-hour delay as the lead A/A vehicle had to winch the thirty trucks across a stream. A roadblock then held up the task force, while the CCF troops on the hill kept up their heavy fire. There was only one way to break through: take Hill 1221. Several hundred men charged up the hill, including many of the wounded, some of whom said they preferred to die on the attack than while waiting in the trucks. Despite heavy casualties, the men drove the CCF off most of the hill. Many, however, simply kept going over the hill and down the other side, venturing out onto the frozen reservoir and walking towards Hagaru-ri.

The task force then ran into another block at a hairpin turn. Faith led an assault that cleared the enemy from it. However, he was struck by enemy grenade fragments and mortally wounded. Once Faith was lost the command structure of Task Force Faith collapsed. As the 1/32’s S-1, Robert Jones, described it, “When Faith was hit, the task force ceased to exist.” Faith would later be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

While some such as Jones and Stamford tried to provide leadership, Task Force Faith quickly fell apart. Another roadblock, this one comprised of disabled tanks from the 31st Tank Company and other vehicles, furthered delayed the column. At Twiggae, the CCF had blown another bridge, forcing the column to attempt a risky crossing of a railroad trestle. All the while, the vehicles were under fire. Many men left the trucks to hide or tried to escape over the reservoir. Many died from wounds and exposure, or were captured.

Just north of Hudong, the task force ran into yet another roadblock. This spelled the end for Task Force Faith. The CCF brought heavy fire to bear on the column. CCF troops lobbed grenades and fired rifles into the trucks, killing masses of wounded. Those who could escape ventured out onto the reservoir and began the arduous march to the Marine lines at Hagaru-ri.

During the night of 1-2 December, survivors straggled into the Marine lines. Many came through a sector held by the Marine 1st Motor Transport Battalion. LTC Olin L. Beall, commander of the battalion, led a rescue mission across the ice by jeep, picking up over 300 survivors, many suffering from wounds, frostbite, and shock. In all just over 1,000 survivors reached the Marine lines, and of those, only 385 could be considered able-bodied. The survivors, along with other 7th ID soldiers, were organized into a provisional battalion and attached to the 7th Marines. Known as the 31/7, the battalion participated in the 1st Marine Division’s breakout from Hagaru-ri to the coast beginning on 6 December.

For years afterward, the saga of Task Force MacLean/Faith had been largely ignored. Many believed that the collapse and panic that engulfed the task force had brought great shame to the Army. Upon closer examination, the task force’s role in the Chosin battle proved to be much more noteworthy. Many historians now agree that Task Force MacLean blocked the Chinese drive along the eastern side of Chosin for five days and allowed the Marines along the west side to withdraw into Hagaru-ri. Furthermore, the task force destroyed the CCF 80th Division. In recognition of their bravery, Task Force MacLean/Faith was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation in September 1999.

For additional information on Task Force MacLean/Faith, please read: Roy E. Appelman, East of Chosin: Entrapment and Breakout in Korea; Clay Blair, The Forgotten War: America in Korea, 1950-1953; and Anthony Garrett, “Task Force Faith at the Chosin Reservoir,” in Infantry, (September-December 1999).