Vets recall deadly Korean War battleby Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
Inver Grove Heights, Minn. — Sixty years ago the temperature in North Korea plunged, just as American forces were battling their way north and west across the peninsula. They were hoping to unite Korea by the end of the year.
Harry Burke, of Bloomington, can remember the weather that day. Burke was a young Marine in Korea.
"I was a bazooka man," he said. "And on the 11th of November it turned way below zero. And it stayed that way all the rest of the time we were there. We were never told the temperature, but when Minnesotans would freeze their feet off and no longer could keep up, we knew it was cold."
Burke was among hundreds of other vets at the National Guard Armory in Inver Grove Heights Thursday for Minnesota's official Veterans Day observance. The event honored the men and women who served in the armed forces in peace and in war time. For the veterans, it was time to remember their own service, and that of those who never returned.
Burke recalls that Communist troops had retreated through the winter to the Chosin Reservoir, a man-made lake just a couple of miles from the Chinese frontier. It turned out to be a trap sprung by Mao Zedong.
"[Gen.] McArthur wanted us to go up to the Yalu River end the war. It wasn't that simple," Burke said.
The Chinese Army had secretly crossed the border and surrounded U.N. forces lead by the U.S. Chinese forces outnumbered the Marines as much as eight to one. Mao wanted the American forces destroyed. And in two weeks near the end of 1950, that nearly happened.
Burke was one of the Marines ordered to hold open Toktong pass, along the only escape route.
"When I left after five days, 83 of us out of the 240 were able to walk away," Burke said. "We left a lot of our dead up there, sorry to say. All of them weren't wounds. But a majority of 'em were wounded, but some of them, they just got so cold they couldn't walk any more."
Leigh Countryman, of St. Paul, tells a similar story from Chosin. He was among the Marines closest to China.
"We were at the northern end of the perimeter, and the Chinese attacked us about 10 o'clock at night," Countryman said. "I understand it was almost a regiment. They did not take the hill but they came pretty close. By the next morning, of the approximately 180 guys that were on the hill, only 35 walked off."
Burke and Countryman are both members of the "Chosin Few" a tongue-in-cheek designation for veterans of that desperate battle.
There's a group of them in Minnesota that meets occasionally to remember their comrades, the dead and the lost. Countrymen said three men from the Twin Cities are among the nearly 5,000 still listed as missing in that battle -- by some accounts, the lost outnumbered the official dead by nearly 5 to 1.
Today, he and the other Chosin vets sat in the second row of folding chairs, amongst veterans of more celebrated victories, like Guadalcanal, the liberation of Europe and even from Basra, Iraq.
But for some, like the Chosin vets, just being there was a victory of its own.
"I know a lot of people don't understand, because in the first place, they don't like war," Countryman said. "Who does? But they have to remember what the people that were in the service, particularly in combat, did. And remember that there were many of them that went over and never came back. They, in effect, gave their lives for the people of the United States."
The 60th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir is Thanksgiving weekend.
- All Things Considered, 11/11/2010, 5:55 p.m.