The Battle of Chosin

The Battle for the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War…..

I recently watched the excellent 2016 film The Battle of Chosin, produced and directed by Randall MacLowry for PBS in America and for sheer hard-hitting quality it is up there with the epic ten-part series Vietnam by Ken Burns.

Often called The Forgotten War, Korea was a pivotal moment in the Cold War and with the exception of the Cuban missile crisis the closest East and West has come to a nuclear conflict since the end of World War Two. It has long struck me as odd that this particular war has been given the kind of wide berth in the mainstream history of the twentieth century that Vietnam most certainly hasn’t. Thousands of books, films and television programmes have been made in remembrance of Vietnam but Korea and the magnitude of what was at stake has been largely left to the military academics despite the global success of M*A*S*H during the 1970s and 80s.

Of course M*A*S*H was a sitcom and despite the occasional best efforts to make a serious point it was largely a comedy set in a relatively safe environment, it was harmless stuff and as far from most Korean veterans own experiences as it was possible to get. I shall avoid going into great depth about the history of the war in this post but, as part of a keen interest in the Cold War shall be returning to key elements in future posts.

Korea was a brutal three year war which saw almost as many American deaths as that in Vietnam which lasted seven years longer. The United Nations, which played a key role, saw over 140,000 casualties which included many British lives lost whilst the numbers on the opposing side numbered a million Koreans and an undisclosed yet heavy toll on the Chinese. What strikes one the most about any war is of course, the human cost and hearing the accounts of the veterans in this film made me feel angry at the lack of recognition either side received for fighting in the most horrendous conditions.

The Korean winter of 1950 was savage, temperatures of sub thirty and forty degrees with poorly equipped soldiers on both sides battling chronic frost bite as they fought in the snow and ice. The documentary tells of how one US Marine found some of his toes left behind in his boot when he took it off, photographs of Chinese prisoners with blocks of ice on their ears and dead bodies stacked up in frozen blocks, their bodies stripped for ammunition and clothing. It is grim but essential viewing and to be reminded of how Mao was determined to bulldoze his way through the American front lines with no regard to loss of Chinese life was sobering in the extreme. The Chinese flooded into the Marines who were hopelessly outnumbered and forced into an agonising retreat.

“If I saw one now I’d hug him like a brother” this from an American veteran about his Chinese enemy. He recognised what his opposite number was made to do, going into battle wearing plimsols without socks, thin jackets and threadbare trousers, frostbite and the resulting loss of limbs were inevitable. Neither side were given the support they deserved, the Americans boots were poorly designed for the cold weather, their water and food rations froze and supplies were short. Outnumbered by 10:1, it was the hardest winter battle in American history. How those men continued to fight in such conditions defies belief, the sheer cold, hunger and anger at being subject to such an onslaught when they were assured of a quick and easy fight must have been near impossible to bear and whilst it is useless to compare one conflict from another the fight and plight of the US Marines and Allied Forces against all the odds is worthy of far greater mention. Much is made of the Vietnam veterans treatment upon their homecoming and rightly so but for those on both sides of the Korean war, those who actually fought deserve better.

Whilst the world looks on at the two leaders of North and South Korea and America’s part in the peace talks, now, more than ever, is a time to reflect on why and how the country remains divided and the human cost of communism and the fight for and against it.

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