It is hard to read On Desperate Ground, and not gain an immediate appreciation for whatever is happening in your life. The old adage things can always be worse comes to mind. If your buddy says , “I’m having a bad day. I was fired from work, and my girlfriend dumped me.” Hand him a copy of this book. There is not much that compares to the harrowing experience of the First Marine Division and the men who fought in North Korea from November through December of 1950. On Desperate Ground: The Marines at The Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle is a page turning, damned good book that will end up on many reading lists very soon.
In my case, I listened via Audible. Not once, but twice! The narrative was exceptional. I liked listening in the morning while at the gym. The book was a shot of motivation like no triple espresso could compare. I was revved up to run harder and lift more listening to the courageous actions of America’s military members who fought in the brutal cold and crushing terrain.
The author, Hampton Sides, has written a concise, well-paced narrative that puts the reader firmly in the heart of the action. Furthermore, he blends a boots on the ground perspective with the strategic, geopolitical backdrop. From a historical point of view, the forces that led to Americans fighting in North Korea were a combination of poor intelligence, hubris on the part of General Douglas MacArthur, and an underestimation of Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong’s willingness to deploy troops. The Chinese leader preemptively and covertly moved his troops south of the Yalu River as American and Allied forces moved past the 38th Parallel separating North and South Korea.
There are countless examples of good and bad leadership in this book. The First Marine Division Commanding Officer, General Oliver P. Smith is chief among the good ones. On the other hand, Mr. Sides does not paint a flattering picture of either General MacArthur or General Ned Almond. General Almond commanded the U.S. X Corps. Additionally, Mr. Sides tells stories of other Marine heroes such such as Captain William Barber of Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, and Lieutenant Chew-Een Lee from 1st Battalion, 7th Marines.
On Desperate Ground brings out the brutality of warfare. If you read this as a bedtime story to your kiddies, one of two things will happen. You’ll either scar them for life or they will grow up to be meat-eating, Marine Corps machine gunners looking to get some everyday! One of the scenes that captures the gruesomeness occurs on a beach with landmines. North Korean soldiers planted them there. The Allied forces took the beach back. When they did, Republic of Korea (ROK) soldiers lined up the captive North Korean soldiers shoulder to shoulder and walked them forward to clear the beach. As the mines went off, they had the prisoners fill in the gaps as the others went up in a plume of red mist and scattered limbs.
Its hard to imagine the carnage of using stacks of bodies for cover. But, the Marines did it when they had to. During the breakout, Chinese bodies were used to build a bridge. I had to listen to this part again because it seemed so unreal.
Also, Mr. Sides book overlaps with other classics such as The Last Stand of Fox Company: A True Story of U.S. Marines in Combat by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin. On Desperate Ground retells the battle of Fox Hill. Mr. Sides does an equally fine job bringing out the heroism of the Marines in Fox Company. Hordes of Chinese soldiers attacked them at night as they fought in sub-zero temperatures. However, being led by Medal of Honor recipient Captain Bill Barber, the Marines of Fox Company never gave up. They were tough, resilient, and endured.
These Marines deserve to have their story told over and over again. They are the legends that make the Marine Corps what it is. Today’s Devil Dogs should read it before hitting the rack and wishing Chesty goodnight with a K-bar under their pillow!
In writing this swift reading epic, Mr. Sides did his homework. He used many resources, books, and letters. Unfortunately, the Korean War has been dubbed “the Forgotten War.” This is unfortunate considering how many Americans fought and died there. Ultimately, the Korean War veterans made sure that the South didn’t fall into the hands of the North. At the end, Mr. Sides notes that millions of South Koreans today can trace their lineage to family members that escaped the North. These are the fortunate ones. They live in a country that is starkly different and much better than their neighbors to the North. The First Marines and other American veterans helped make this possible.
“Marines” and “retreat” don’t pair well together in a sentence. But, the Battle of Chosin is one of the greatest tactical “withdrawals” in history. In typical Marine fashion, Marine leaders put a spin on things to add levity. When asked about the tactical retreat, General Smith replied, “Retreat! Hell! We’re just advancing in another direction.”
The Korean War produced several notable quotes. On Desperate Ground also notes when the Chinese surrounded the First Marine Regiment, the Commander, the famous “Chesty” Puller remarked, “We’ve finally found them. We’re surrounded. That simplifies things.”
When the Marines withdrew, they accomplished one of the greatest “breakouts” in history. Through the piercing cold, ice, and overwhelming enemy odds, the Marines were able to escape destruction. Chinese bodies piled up, and the Marines took many casualties. The F4U Corsairs from First Marine Air Wing rained a hail of ordnance to include napalm on the enemy to aid the Marine withdrawal.
In the end, Allied forces suffered nearly 18,000 casualties. By some estimates, the Chinese lost nearly double that figure if not more. The Battle of the Chosin Reservoir was a chaotic mess of violence and disorder. Mr. Sides book wades through the madness of these events. The reader feels the disorientation because Mr. Sides writing about it is so precise. In the end, Americans can be proud of what the Korean War veterans were able to endure and accomplish. The Marines can be rightly proud of this desperate and legendary moment in their Corps’ history. Mr. Sides has added another noble chapter to Marine Corps lore. Furthermore, he has helped give the veterans of this war proper recognition and the respect they deserve. Their sacrifice will never be forgotten.
Further Books and Reading
Hampton Sides website: www.hamptonsides.com
This Kind of War: The Classic Korean War History, Fiftieth Anniversary Edition (1963) by T.R. Fehrenbach
The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War (2007) by David Halberstam
Give Me Tomorrow: The Korean War’s Greatest Untold Story–The Epic Stand of the Marines of George Company (2010) by Patrick K. O’Donnell