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The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War [Secure]
eBook by David Halberstam

eBook Category: History
eBook Description: Around Thanksgiving, 1950, while the rest of the country paid as little attention as possible, units of the Second Infantry Division were virtually annihilated by forces of the People's Republic Army. It was a defeat which shocked an otherwise disinterested and distant nation. In The Coldest Winter, award-winning reporter and historian David Halberstam explodes this moment in time, using it as a jumping off point to delve into the Korean War's particular horrors and triumphs. Using first-person interviews and detailed historical research, Halberstam exposes the truth about this underreported war by examining the geopolitics involved and also showing it from the vantage of the men whose poor fortune it was to be on history's cutting edge. The book contains portrayals of ordinary soldiers as well as of McArthur, Eisenhower, and other major players.

eBook Publisher: Hyperion e-books/Hyperion e-books, Published: 2007
Fictionwise Release Date: September 2007

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IT WAS THE warning shot the American commander in the Far East, Douglas MacArthur, did not heed, the one that allowed a smaller war to become a larger war.

On October 20, 1950, the men of the U.S. First Cavalry Division entered Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. Later, there was some controversy over who got there first, elements of the Fifth Regiment of the Cav or men from the South Korean First Division. The truth was the men of the Cav had been slowed because all the bridges in their sector going over the Taedong River had been blown, and so the South Korean troops, or ROKs (for Republic of Korea), beat them into the ruined city. That did not diminish their pleasure. To them, the capture of the city meant the war was almost over. Just to make sure everyone knew that of all American units in country, the Cav got there first, some troopers, armed with paint and brushes, painted the Cav logo all over town.

Small private celebrations were taking place throughout Pyongyang. Lieutenant Phil Peterson, forward observer with the Ninety-ninth Field Artillery Battalion, and his best buddy, Lieutenant Walt Mayo, both working with the Third Battalion of the Eighth Regiment of the Cav, had their own two-person celebration. They could not have been closer as friends, having been through so much together. Peterson thought it an unusual friendship, one only the Army could forge. Walt Mayo was a talented and sophisticated man who had gone to Boston College, where his father taught music, whereas Peterson was a product of Officer Candidate School, and his formal schooling had ended back in Morris, Minnesota, in the ninth grade because they were paying $5 a day for men to work in the fields. In Pyongyang Lieutenant Mayo had managed to procure a bottle of Russian bubbly from a large store of booze liberated from the Russian embassy, and they shared it, drinking the pseudo-champagne, so raw it made you gag, from the metal cups in their mess kits. Vile, but good, they decided.

Sergeant First Class Bill Richardson of Love Company of the Third Battalion felt a wave of relief sweep over him in Pyongyang. The war was virtually over, and the Cav might be getting out of Korea. He knew this, not just because of all the rumors, but because Company headquarters had called asking all men who had experience loading ships to notify their superiors. That was as sure a sign as any that they were going to ship out. Another sign that their days of hard fighting were over was that they had been told to turn in most of their ammo. All the rumors seeping out of the different headquarters must be true.

In his own mind Richardson was the old guy in his unit: almost everyone in his platoon now seemed new. He often thought of the men he had started out with three months earlier, a period that seemed to have lasted longer than the preceding twenty-one years of his life. Some were dead, some wounded, and some missing in action. The only other soldier in Richardson's platoon who had been there from the start was his pal Staff Sergeant Jim Walsh, and Richardson sought him out. "Jesus, we did it, buddy, we made it all the way through," he said, and they congratulated each other, not quite believing their good luck. That mini-celebration took place on one of the last days of October. The very next day they were reissued their ammo and ordered north to save some South Korean outfit that was getting kicked around.

Still, the word was out: there was going to be a victory parade in Tokyo, and the Cav, because it had fought so well for so long in the Korean campaign, and because it was a favorite of Douglas MacArthur's, the overall commander, was going to lead it. They were supposed to have their yellow cavalry scarves back for the parade, and the word coming down was that they better be prepared to look parade-ground sharp, not battlefield grizzled: you couldn't, after all, march down the Ginza in filthy uniforms and filthy helmets. The men of the Cav were planning to strut a bit when they passed MacArthur's headquarters in the Dai Ichi Building. They deserved to strut a bit.

The mood in general among the American troops in Pyongyang just then was a combination of optimism and sheer exhaustion, emotional as well as physical. Betting pools were set up on when they would ship out. For some of the newest men, the replacements, who had only heard tales about how hard the fighting had been from the Pusan Perimeter to Pyongyang, there was relief that the worst of it was past. A young lieutenant named Ben Boyd from Clare-more, Oklahoma, who joined the Cav in Pyongyang, was given a platoon in Baker Company of the First Battalion. Boyd, who had graduated West Point only four years before, wanted this command badly, but he was made nervous by its recent history. "Lieutenant, do you know who you are in terms of this platoon?" one of the senior officers had asked. No, Boyd answered. "Well, Lieutenant, just so you don't get too cocky, you're the thirteenth platoon leader this unit has had since it's been in Korea." Boyd suddenly decided he didn't feel cocky at all.

On one of their last days in Pyongyang there was another positive sign. Bob Hope held a show there for the troops. Now, that was really something: the famous comedian, who had done show after show for the troops in World War II, telling his jokes in the North Korean capital. That night many of the men in the Cav gathered to hear Hope, and then, the next morning, with their extra ammo restored, they set out for a place just north of them called Unsan, to protect a ROK unit under fire. Surely, all they would have to do was clean up a small mess, the kind they believed South Korean soldiers were always getting into.

When they headed off, they were not particularly well prepared. Yes, they had gotten some of their ammo back, but there had been the question of uniforms. Should they take the ones they would wear on parade in Tokyo, or winter clothes? Somehow, the choice was made for the dressier ones, even though a Korean winter—this was to be one of the coldest in a hundred years—was fast approaching. And there was their mood: a sense on the part of officers as well as troops, even as they headed for areas perilously close to the Yalu River, the border between Korea and Chinese Manchuria, that they were out of harm's way. Many of them knew a little about the big meeting just two weeks earlier on Wake Island, between Harry Truman and Douglas MacArthur, and the word filtering down was that MacArthur had promised to give Washington back an entire American division then being used in Korea and ticket it for Europe.

MacArthur himself had shown up in Pyongyang right after the First Cav arrived there. "Any celebrities here to greet me?" he had asked when he stepped off his plane. "Where is Kim Buck Tooth?" he joked, in mocking reference to Kim Il Sung, the seemingly defeated North Korean Communist leader. Then he asked anyone in the Cav who had been with the unit from the beginning to step forward. Of the roughly two hundred men assembled, four took that step; each had been wounded at some point. Then MacArthur got back on his plane for the flight back to Tokyo. He did not spend the night in Korea; in fact he did not spend the night there during the entire time he commanded.

* * *

AS MACARTHUR HEADED back to Tokyo, it was becoming increasingly clear to some officials in Washington that he was planning to send his troops farther and farther north. He was sure that the Chinese would not enter the war. His troops were encountering very little resistance at that point, and the North Koreans had been in full flight, so he was stretching his orders, which in this case were much fuzzier than they should have been. He obviously intended to go all the way to the Yalu, to China's border, brushing aside the step-by-step limits Washington thought it had imposed but was afraid of really imposing. A prohibition issued by the Joint Chiefs themselves against sending American troops to any province bordering China seemed not to slow MacArthur down at all. There was no real surprise in that: the only orders Douglas MacArthur had ever followed, it was believed, were his own. His confidence about what the vast Chinese armies everyone knew were poised just beyond the Yalu River would or would not do was far greater than that of top officials of the Truman administration. He had told the president at Wake Island that the Chinese would not enter the war. Besides, if they did, he had already boasted of his ability to turn their appearance into one of the great military slaughters in history. To MacArthur and the men on his staff, wonderfully removed from the Alaska-like temperatures and Alaska-like topography of this desolate part of the world, these were to be the final moments of a great victory march north that had begun with the amphibious Inchon landing behind North Korean lines. That had been a great success, perhaps the greatest triumph of a storied career, all the more so because the general had pulled it off against the opposition of much of Washington. Back in Washington most senior people, both civilian and military, were becoming more and more uneasy as MacArthur pushed north. They were not nearly as confident as the general about Chinese (or for that matter Russian) intentions, and they were made uneasy by the extreme vulnerability of the United Nations forces. But they realized that they had very little control over MacArthur himself—they seemed to fear him almost as much as they respected him.

If the balance now favored the UN, the first phase of the war, when the North Koreans had crossed the thirty-eighth parallel back in late June, had decidedly favored the Communists. They had gained victory after victory over weak and ill-prepared American and South Korean forces. But then more and better American troops had arrived, and MacArthur had pulled off his brilliant stroke at Inchon, landing his forces behind the North Korean lines. With that, the North Korean forces had unraveled, and once Seoul had been taken after some very hard fighting, the North Korean resistance had generally vanished. But in Washington many of the top people, though pleased by Inchon, were quite uneasy about the extra leverage it gave MacArthur. The Chinese had warned that they were going to enter the war, and yet MacArthur, difficult to deal with under the best of circumstances, had become even more godlike because of Inchon. He had said the Chinese would not come in, and he liked to think of himself as an expert on what he called the Oriental mind. But he had been wrong before, completely wrong, on Japanese intentions and abilities right before World War II. Later some of the senior people in Washington would look at the moment when the UN troops reached Pyongyang and before they went on to Unsan as the last chance to keep the war from escalating into something larger, a war with China.

* * *

NO LESS NERVOUS were some of the men and officers who were leading the drive north. For experienced officers making the trek as the temperature dropped alarmingly, and the terrain became more mountainous and forbidding, there was an eerie quality to the advance. Years later, General Paik Sun Yup, commander of the South Korean First Division (and considered by the Americans the best of the Korean commanders), remembered his own uneasiness as they moved forward without resistance. There was a sense of almost total isolation, as if they were too alone. At first, Paik, a veteran officer who had once fought with the Japanese Army, could not pinpoint what bothered him. Then it struck him: the absolute absence of people, the overwhelming silence that surrounded his troops. In the past, there had always been lots of refugees streaming south. Now the road was empty, as if something important were taking place, just beyond his view and his knowledge. Besides, it was getting colder all the time. Every day the temperature seemed to drop another few degrees.

Certain key intelligence officers were nervous as well. They kept getting small bits of information, from a variety of sources, that made them believe that the Chinese had already entered North Korean territory by late October—and in strength. Colonel Percy Thompson, G-2 (or intelligence officer) for First Corps, under which the Cav operated, and considered one of the ablest intelligence officers in Korea, was very pessimistic. He was quite sure of the Chinese presence, and he tried to warn his superiors. Unfortunately he found himself fighting a sense of euphoria that had permeated some of the upper ranks of the Cav and originated in Tokyo. Thompson had directly warned Colonel Hal Edson, commander of the Eighth Regiment of the First Cavalry Division, that he believed there was a formidable Chinese presence in the area, but Edson and others treated his warnings, he later noted, "with disbelief and indifference." In the days that followed, his daughter Barbara Thompson Eisenhower (married to Dwight Eisenhower's son John) remembered a dramatic change in the tone of her father's letters from Korea. It was as if he were writing to say farewell. "He was absolutely sure they were going to be overrun, and he was going to be killed," she later remembered.

Thompson had good reason to be uneasy. His early intelligence reads were quite accurate: the Chinese were already in country, waiting patiently in the mountains of Northern Korea for the ROKs and perhaps other UN units to extend their already strained logistical lines ever farther north. They had not intended to hit an American unit that early in the campaign. They wanted the Americans to be even farther north when they struck; and they knew the difficulty of the march north made their own job easier. "On to the Yalu," General Paik's soldiers had shouted in late October, "on to the Yalu!" But on October 25, the Chinese struck in force. It was like suddenly hitting a brick wall, Paik later wrote. At first the ROK commanders had no idea what had happened. Paik's Fifteenth Regiment came to a complete halt under a withering barrage of mortar fire, after which the Twelfth Regiment on its left was hammered, and then his Eleventh Regiment, the division reserve, was hit on its flank and attacked from the rear. The enemy was clearly fighting with great skill. Paik thought it must be the Chinese. He reacted by reflex, and thereby probably saved most of his men. He immediately pulled the division back to the village of Unsan. It was, he later said, like a scene from an American Western, when the white folks, hit by Indians and badly outnumbered, circled the wagons. His division had walked into a giant ambush set by the Chinese. Some other ROK units were neither so lucky nor so well led.

That it was the Chinese Paik soon had no doubt. On the first day of battle, some troops from the Fifteenth Regiment had brought in a prisoner. Paik did the interrogation himself. The prisoner was about thirty-five and wore a thick, quilted, reversible winter uniform, khaki on one side, white on the other. It was, Paik wrote, "a simple but effective way to facilitate camouflage in snowy terrain." The prisoner also wore a cap, thick and heavy, with earmuffs of a sort they would soon become all too familiar with, and rubber sneakers. He was low-key but surprisingly forthcoming in the interrogation: he was a regular soldier in the Chinese Communist Army, from Guangdong province. He told Paik in passing that there were tens of thousands of Chinese in the nearby mountains. The entire First ROK Division might be trapped.

Copyright © 2007 by David Halberstam.

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