Retreat Hell!" is the story of the 1st Marine Division's landing in Korea, their march north to the "frozen Chosin" reservoir, and their epic two-week fighting retreat to the sea while surrounded and outnumbered 35-to-1 by Chinese troops. As author Jim Wilson put it, "Navy and Marine pilots reported the hills ahead alive with Chinese. They said it looked as if entire hills were moving." The military historian Brig. Gen. S.L.A. Marshall called this retreat ". . . the most violent small-unit fighting in the history of American warfare."
"Retreat Hell! We're Just Attacking in Another Direction," a quote attributed to the 1st Division's commanding general, is an unfortunate title that doesn't do the book justice. It's the kind of John Wayne guts-'n'-glory "battle cry" that is an embarrassment to most soldiers who have been in combat, adolescent bravado that seems absurd once people start shooting at you.
The grim heroism of the Marines' retreat is a dark story of determination and endurance, a two-week nightmare of freezing darkness, muzzle flashes, shadows, confusion and death. It was also a war against cold, like a war on some other planet where normal rules didn't apply.
Exposed skin froze. If you worked up a sweat marching or digging a foxhole, the sweat froze. Lt. Col. Raymond Murry, Fifth Battalion commander, found the Third Battalion commander warming up in a shack. "He had his socks off," Murray remembered, "and he was picking the ice out from between his toes. I watched him throw little chinks away, then put his shoes and socks back on."
Marines used plastic explosives to warm up frozen cans of food. "But what this did was to make the outside warm and leave the inside frozen," Lt. Chuck Kiser recalled, "so we'd stick a knife in the middle and eat it like a Popsicle. We ate a lot of bean Popsicles in those days." Poorly prepared food gave them diarrhea, and it was difficult to remove the many layers of clothes in time to relieve themselves.
Radios wouldn't work and rifle bolts froze. Hand grenade fuses were unreliable, as were the powder charges in mortar and artillery rounds.
Plasma froze, and the medics had to warm syrettes of morphine in their mouths before they could use them. Wounds froze. PFC LeRoy Hintsa saw a Marine stagger toward the aid tent. "His lower jaw was missing. All he had was frozen red icicles on his face," Hintsa said. "A corpsman came over, told the wounded Marine there was nothing he could do, that when he thawed, he would die. Then he handed him a pencil and a piece of paper and told him to write a letter home.
" 'The last time I saw him,' Hintsa remembers, 'he was sitting outside the aid tent writing a letter.' "
After screaming, bugle-blowing human wave attacks, the Marines gathered "Chinese sandbags" (frozen bodies) from the snow and stacked them up around their foxholes for extra protection when the next wave came.
Wilson served with the Army in Korea. The dust jacket of the book says that Wilson traveled 5,000 miles to track down hundreds of survivors of the retreat to tell their stories. I'm grateful to him for saving these stories. A number of the people he interviewed have since died, and that reminds me just how fragile history is.
Yet the weakness of the book--and it seemed at first, the weakness of this kind of military history--is the number of voices. I found it impossible to keep track of them. There are too many passages like this: "Ray Davis' 1st Battalion was at the northern end of the valley, just south of Sudong. Capt. David W. Bank's A Company was on the right of the road, on Hill 532. Capt. William E. Shea's C Company was on the front of Hill 698 . . ." and so on. I'm a military history buff, but even with the help of maps I was not able to keep the names and the hills and the unit designations straight. I quit trying to match quoted passages with the soldiers who spoke them.
Finally though, it didn't matter that much which Marine was speaking. Their voices, laughing and grim, terrified and amazed, coming out of the dark, carry the story well. They almost duplicate the chaos of combat, a face and voice appearing in the light of an illumination flare, then vanishing and moving on as the darkness returns and the wounded moan until they freeze to death.