The Chinese Failure at Chosin

By: Patrick C. Roe, Major, USMC (Ret) Chairman, Chosin Few Historical Committee

NOTE:

The following article is from the talk given at the Chosin Few Reunion in Portland in August.(1996) Information contained in the article is based on translations of some of the Chinese histories published in the past ten years and on information on the Chinese operations complied by intelligence sources during the Korean War and which have been recently declassified.


The Chinese hesitated to intervene in the Korean War until after the Inchon Landing. Party officials, led by Mao Zedong, agonized over the decisions, finally agreeing on October 2nd to act. Difficulties in mobilizing the troops and a further halt when the Russian reneged on their agreement to provide air support, delayed the entry of Chinese troops until October 20th.

The initial Chinese plan was to move into Korea, develop a defensive base in the central mountain region of North Korea, and hold a line across the peninsula from Chongju to Hamhung. The Chinese planned to hold that line through the winter while the Russians re-equipped the Chinese army with modern weapons and equipment. Then, in the spring, re-trained and equipped with modern weapons, they planned to launch and offensive that would drive all UN forces from Korea.

By the 20th of October as Chinese began to cross the river, the 8th Army had secured Pyongyang and commenced a drive north across the Chongchon River to the Yalu border. Unable to reach their planned positions in time, the Chinese collided with the 8th Army north of the Chongchon on October 25th. In nine days of heavy fighting the Chinese inflicted serious damage on the 8th Army and forced it to withdraw south of the Chongchon.

On the eastern side of the peninsula two ROK divisions had seized Wonsan on October 10th and were advancing north. Mao Zedong assumed they would continue north through the Chosin Reservoir area, then turn west. To protect the left flank of the Chinese forces facing the 8th Army the 42nd CCF Army was detailed to cross the mountains, move south, and engage the ROK divisions. It was the leading element of this army, the 124th CCF Division which we encountered at Sudong on November 3rd.

Mao Zedong had expected the 1st Marine Division to land at Chinampo, the port for Pyongyang, and was surprised to find it, with the 7th Infantry Division, landing on the East Coast. Realizing he needed more strength in the east, Mao ordered the 9th CCF Army Group under General Song Shilun, consisting of 150,000 men in twelve divisions, to move into Korea, cross the mountains and "seek opportunities to destroy the four divisions on the east."

The 9th Army Group began moving into Korea on November 5th. The 20th Army, four divisions, was to cross from Manpojin to Yudam-ni and, initially, cover the routes across the mountains leading to the west. The 27th Army followed, moving east to Changjin town and covering the route north. The 26th Army moved last, crossing at Linjiang and taking up positions between Linjiang and Huchang as army group reserve, and defending against any advance down the Yalu River by the 7th Infantry Division.

By November 12th General Song had devised a plan to attack and destroy the two leading regiments of the 1st Marine Division, the 7th and 5th. The remainder of X Corps could then be annihilated, one by one. General Song sent his plan to Mao for approval. In reply Mao said:

"The American Marine First Division has the highest combat effectiveness in the American armed forces. It seems not enough for our four divisions to surround and annihilate its two regiments. [You] should have one to two more divisions as a reserve force. The 26th Army should be stationed close to the front."

The 9th Army Group was to attack in coordination with the Chinese forces in the west on November 25th. But, due to delays in getting into position the attack was not commenced until the 27th of November. By that time the forces were disposed as follows:

At Yudam-ni four battalions of the 89th Division were to hold the road against our attack west. The 79th Division would attack from the north, possibly with one regiment of the 94th Division. The 59th Division would cut the road south of Yudam-ni and hold Toktong Pass.

At Hagaru-ri the 58th Division would attack from the southwest and over-run the town.

The 60th Division would cut the road between Hagaru-ri and Koto-ri and over-run Koto-ri.

East of Chosin the 80th Division, with one regiment of the 81st attached, would attack and destroy the army forces there.

By the 29th General Song realized his offensive was not going well. The forces at Yudam-ni had been unable to break into the perimeter. That evening he changed his plan and shifted his principal effort to the 31st RCT east of the reservoir. The two additional regiments of the 81st Division were committed to the attack, with, possibly, an additional regiment from the 94th Division.

The climax of the battle, although not realized by either side, came on December 2nd. By that time the 5th and 7th Marines were breaking through at Toktong Pass and would reach Hagaru the following day. While the Chinese forces East of Chosin had shattered the 31st RCT, the Chinese themselves had been reduced to ineffectiveness. Five of the eight Chinese divisions committed to the initial attack were, for all practical purposes, out of action and two more were badly battered.

At Yudam-ni the 79th and 59th Divisions were out of action. East of Chosin the 80th and 81st were unable to participate further in the campaign. At Hagaru the 58th Division had been virtually destroyed by its attacks on the perimeter. The 60th Division had been sufficiently weakened it was unable to mount an attack on Koto-ri, and the 89th Division had taken serious losses.

The heavy casualties the Chinese suffered from ground and air action were compounded by the cold. The terrible cold was at once our own worst enemy and our greatest ally. Chinese combat power was greatly weakened by the awful losses the poorly clothed Chinese suffered from frostbite and exposure. And, compounding the weakening of the Chinese forces by combat and cold was the failure of their logistic system. In two or three days of fighting most Chinese units had used up the meager allotment of ammunition they had carried when they crossed the river, and were beginning to suffer shortages of food.

So, on December 2nd, General Song Shilun ordered the 26th Army south from the Huchang River to take over the attack on Hagaru-ri. Movement of the 26th Army was slowed and delayed by air attacks. Further, according to one of the Chinese histories, some elements got lost in a snowstorm. The 26th Army was unable to reach Hagaru and launch an attack on the 5th. Advanced elements did reach East Hill and attempt to hold that. And, on the night of December 6th, at the 1st Marine Division was attacking toward Hagaru-ri, advance elements of the 26th Army did attack the column but were unable to organize a coordinated attack.

The last barrier was the Funchillin Pass. In desperation Mao Zedong ordered Song Shilun to send the remnants of the 58th and 60th Divisions south to cut us off there. Attack of the 1st Marine Division to seize the pass initially met moderate resistance. But the night of December 8th was one of the coldest of the campaign. Brisk winds whistling through the pass brought the windchill factor to new lows. That night many Chinese froze to death in their foxholes, and fearful injuries from the cold inflicted many more. The final barrier was breached. By the 11th all units had reached Hamhung and were commencing to embark.

At Hamhung the remnants of the 9th CCF Army Group were joined by the reorganized 3rd North Korean Corps. Neither was strong enough to mount an attack. As the Chinese history puts it, the "conducted on the spot surveillance of the enemy." The Chinese history admits that non-combat losses from cold were extraordinarily heavy. One Chinese source puts them at 40,000 for the 9th Army Group. This is partially confirmed by an estimate of 10,000 cold casualties in the 26th Army. Combat losses were also heavy. The Marine history estimates 25,000 killed by air and ground action and another 12,500 wounded. This is almost the exact reverse of the usual ratio of killed to wounded, but in that vicious cold, with little medical help available to the Chinese, even a minor wound could be fatal. The total losses in the 9th Army Group could have been as much as half the entire force. On the 17th of December when Mao heard the story of the volunteers who froze to death at the Funchillin! Pass he sent a cable to show his "deepest sorrow" for those who die of bitter cold.

The X Corps Command Report gives a total of 9,675 battle casualties. Non battle casualties are not given for the entire corps. In the 1st Marine Division there were 3,561 battle casualties and 3,349 non battle casualties, mostly from cold. All five of the divisions involved at Chosin were either in action again or ready for action by the middle of January.

The Chinese had commited divisions in Korea, eighteen in the west, the twelve divisions on the 9th Army Group in the east. The exceptionally severe losses inflicted on the 9th Army Group kept all twelve of those divisions, forty per cent of the available Chinese forces, out of action until the very last week in March. Had those twelve divisions been available for the Chinese Third and Fourth Phase attacks in January and February their presence could have been decisive. The war might have ended then and there.

It can be fairly said that the 1st Marine Division, with the 31st Infantry RCT and 41 Commando, supported by the 1st Marine Air Wing, the fast carriers of Task Force 77, and with an assist from the 5th Air Forces and the Third Infantry Division, played a decisive role at Chosin. We gave up the ground, but we may well have saved the war.

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