Sixty-Three Years Ago Today in North Korea

Sixty-three years ago today, my father was fighting at the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea.  It is a mountainous rural region next to a huge reservoir that, at that time, was completely frozen over.

Family 260

My father in Korea in 1950

By November 27, over 60,000 Chinese were carrying out suicide missions on 15,000 U.S. Marines.  The fighting was intense.  The American forces had set up their machine guns and artillery and were mowing down row after row of Chinese, but some Chinese were able to overrun the American positions, killing many of our own soldiers.  Soldiers saw battlefields so littered with Chinese corpses that it actually changed the landscape.

The U.S. Marines were in retreat and carrying out their many dead, as the marines are pledged to do.  At the same time, the temperatures were hovering around -15 F, and sometimes reached as low as -40 F.

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My father was one of the lucky ones who avoided serious battle injuries.  However, it was on Dec. 7, 1950, my father began to display unmistakable symptoms of frostbite, including pain and numbness in his left big toe, blue and purple discoloration, and softening and cracking of the skin, according to his medical records.

In the two weeks of the Chosin campaign, over 5,000 of the 15,000 American marines at Chosin turned out to be casualties.  On that day, my father joined their number.  A corpsman examined his feet, diagnosed frostbite, and recommended that he be flown out rather than march out.

My father was a young man.  He had already been smoking for eight years.

My father was a young man. He had already been smoking for eight years.

Frostbite would show itself to soldiers, first, by pain and numbness in their feet.  Then they would begin to limp.  Some men would complain while others would ignore their symptoms.  If they got to the point where their toes were purplish and black, their toes and often their feet were done for.

But however badly the Americans had it, the Chinese had it worse.  Their clothes were skimpier, their supplies were fewer, and their boots were cheaper.  One American corpsman stumbled upon a Chinese soldier who had frostbite so severe that his friends had left him to die.  His feet had frozen and burst open.  He was sitting there in the snow, crying and growling at the same time.  The corpsman took one look at him and shook his head.  A moment later, there was a gunshot.  The corpsman considered it a mercy killing.

The Chinese POWs had it bad, too.  One of them had ears that were frozen through completely, and when he tried to rub them, they were so brittle that they snapped off.  Others had feet that were so frostbitten, blistered, and in pain that they had to remove their shoes.  Some even walked through the snow barefoot.

The frigid weather had effects on the equipment, as well.  If soldiers didn’t keep their C-rations under their arms, for example, they would turn into frozen food.  And the cold decreased the range of the artillery, too.  The 105 mm howitzer, once fired, wouldn’t snap immediately back into position, but instead, would creep back over 30 seconds.  In the heat of battle, that often cost lives.

My father in the Marines with his friend Chick, both smoking.  His military medical exam showed lung damage even at his early age.

My father in the Marines with his friend Chick, both smoking. His military medical exam showed lung damage even at his early age.

By early December, the marines were well into their retreat, but it was a fighting retreat.  Hordes of Chinese troops were converging on them, and they were constantly having to stand their ground and fight. Their trucks were carrying out the dead and wounded.

“The walking wounded who could carry a weapon were turned to as riflemen to protect the column,” one soldier wrote.  “Every man who could walk, hobble, or limp was ordered off the trucks.  The only riders were the serious cases, the gut wounds and blinded men, those with severe leg wounds, and men with frostbite so bad they would need amputation.  Many of the wounded died in the trucks; some froze to death and some were shot by the [Chinese]….Days and nights of grim survival.”

By December 7, 1950, my father had reached Koto-ri, a small hamlet with just a few rudimentary huts, which was the second to the last stop before they reached the port city where the ships waited for them.  Koto-ri was windswept and bleak, with fishtail winds and turbulence blowing in over the pass, causing trouble for the American planes.  Still, the planes kept flying in and out at a constant rate.

My father was put on one of those planes.  There were few seats, and the wounded were laid out eight across, with an aisle in the middle.  It was morning when they placed my father on the plane.  Shaky takeoff, frightening turbulence, then a short, shaky flight to the port town of Hungnam, where he was placed on another, more substantial plane bound for Japan.

Donald Groves in 1950 in his Marine uniform

Donald Groves in 1950 in his Marine uniform

It’s good he left when he did.  The very next day, a heavy snowfall put an end to the air evacuations.  Over 400 American soldiers were stranded in Koto-ri, and some died waiting for the weather to clear.

By December 23, my father was actually back in the US of A, home for Christmas, even if it was in a lonely military hospital in Vallejo, California, where he knew no one.  By January, however, he was well enough to take a month’s leave, when he took the bus down to L.A.  By February, he was declared “fully recovered,” the irony being that he suffered the painful effects of frostbite for the rest of his life, stabbing pains that came whenever his feet were immersed in water.  Although we had a backyard pool growing up, he could never swim in it.

By March, PFC Don Groves met my mother Sally.  They liked each other immediately.  The first time they went to the beach together, she noticed his feet, which had a yellowish cast, and wondered why he didn’t wash them.  She asked him about it.

“I got frostbite in the war,” he said.

My mother didn’t  know what frostbite was.  It didn’t matter.  He was a good man, and very handsome.  They married within three months.  And he never told her another word about all that he had endured at the Chosin Reservoir.

Don and Sally in the woods 1a smaller cropped2

For other stories of my father’s experience of the war, click here:

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