"Can we get a picture of you holding the medal?" a photographer asks retired Marine Col. William E. Barber, one of three recipients of the Medal of Honor who live in Orange County.
"Well, I don't like to do that," Barber says in a slow, deliberate voice. "I am happy to talk to you about it or let you take a picture of my medal or give you a picture of the Medal of Honor. I don't know--I don't like to do that (hold the medal and have a picture taken). I don't know why I feel that way, but I sort of do."
Barber received his medal from President Harry S. Truman during a White House ceremony on Aug. 20, 1952, for his actions in the Korean War. He was honored, his citation reads, "for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. . . ."
For five days, during a bitter Korean winter, the 240 men of Barber's Company F withstood repeated Chinese attacks. Their tenacity allowed them to hold a key strip of mountain terrain and permitted the escape of thousands of American troops who had been surrounded.
The men of Company F killed as many as 2,000 enemy soldiers. Most of those in the company, including Barber, were wounded. Twenty-one of his men were killed during the battles, during which his troops were outnumbered almost 20 to 1.
Barber is one of about 150 medal winners who are gathering in Orange County today for the national convention of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society of America.
A resident of Irvine, Barber has been working as the official liaison between the society and Orange County convention organizers. The four-day event will be headquartered at the Irvine Hilton.
Years later, this most reticent of heroes, the man who won't pose with his medal, who shrugs off his wounds, who attributes his remarkable success in combat to "good training," best recalls the bitter cold of the winter battles.
"The weather is one of the easiest things to remember," says Barber, recalling the patches of snow on the mountainsides. "It was very cold, below zero all of the time. . . ." "Wiggle your toes," officers would tell their men. "Wiggle your toes."
It sounded like a stupid command, but it was one of the few ways to stay alert and avoid frostbite. Sometimes a soldier would fall over, complaining that his feet had gone to sleep.
In late November, 1950, it was unbearably cold in North Korea near the Chosin Reservoir. The reservoir was south of the Yalu River that separated North Korea from China. Rifles and machine guns sometimes froze up at night, when temperatures could drop to 20 and 30 degrees below zero. C-rations became like rocks, the water in canteens turned to ice.
Cooks could not figure out how to thaw thousands of turkeys sent to the front for Thanksgiving.
Barber remembers that the earth was frozen solid to a depth of eight inches, making it particularly difficult for his men to dig foxholes.
Sometimes they would build fires and warm themselves until the fires went out. Then they would dig the holes where the fires had softened the earth.
Early on Nov. 27, Barber, a captain then, was ordered to move his Fox Company from Hagaru-ri, a small village south of Chosin Reservoir, six miles northwest to the Toktong Pass, which was halfway between U.S. and United Nations' forces in Hagaru and Yudam-ni, the northernmost point that Marine forces had reached.
By 9 o'clock that night, Fox company had positioned itself on high ground that was later named Fox Hill, in honor of the company that defended it. The hill ran steeply up from the road below. The frozen dirt road was simply called MSR: main supply route.
It ran from Yudam-ni to the bustling port city of Hungnam, 78 miles to the south, along the west side of the Chosin Reservoir, where between Nov. 23 and Dec. 14, some of the bloodiest battles in the Korean conflict took place.
That first night, there was a vicious battle as a Chinese regiment surrounded Fox Hill and inflicted heavy casualties on Company F. But Barber, after beating back the attacks, sent assurances to headquarters that he could hold his position if supplies were dropped by air.
The Chosin Reservoir campaign ranks in Marine history with the famous battles of Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, Tarawa and Guam. Even in Vietnam nearly 20 years later, they referred to the battles as the "Frozen Chosin in the Freezing Season."
In the weeks before Thanksgiving, an estimated 150,000 Chinese had crossed the Yalu River into North Korea. They hid in the desolate hills and mountains waiting for the allies--U.S. Marines and Army and South Korean regulars--to work their way northward toward the reservoir.
On Nov. 27, the enemy began to spring its trap, attempting to surround or overrun the Americans, including Barber and the 240 Marines of Company F.