Marine veterans gather to recall historic Chosin Reservoir battle
Cpl. Charles Price sounds taps over the graves of fallen Leathernecks during memorial services at the 1st Marine Division cemetery at Hungnam, Korea, following the division's break-out from Chosin Reservoir in North Korea. The photo was taken Dec. 13, 1950.
The Sun, Yuma, Ariz.
YUMA, Ariz. — It was frigidly cold the night of Nov. 27, 1950 when the Chinese army overran the U.S. Marine headquarters near the Chosin Reservoir where Marvin Garaway was serving during the Korean War.
"My rifle would fire but would not eject” the bullet casings, he told the Yuma Sun Friday afternoon. “It was frozen. At that point when I saw the enemy — and I had nobody and I couldn’t shoot or move myself back into another position – I just crawled under a Jeep and played dead."
Once he had taken cover, Garaway realized he wasn't alone. There was another Marine next to him, but this man really was dead.
Some time later, a Chinese soldier become aware of the bodies beneath the Jeep, and began poking the dead man next to Garaway to see if he was still alive. Garaway knew he was next, and that the Chinese soldier would realize he was alive, leading to execution or imprisonment in a prisoner of war camp.
But before the soldier could check Garaway's "corpse," the enemy combatant was called away by another soldier.
Garaway got “real lucky,” he said.
Although he had not been discovered, Garaway still had to lie next to that dead Marine all night in sub-zero temperatures. According to historians, it would get down to about -35 degrees Fahrenheit during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir — conditions that can easily lead to hypothermia, frostbite or even death. And that didn't even account for the wind chill factor.
Garaway knew if he stayed still for too long, he might freeze to death. "If you stopped, you froze,” he said, adding the Marines "did not have the winter clothes we should have. The worst thing we didn’t have was the proper boots.”
Against all odds, Garaway lived.
“There is no explanation" to communicate how cold it was that night, he remarked. "How anybody survived? Unbelievable. But we all did. I guess it was our willpower — and this was the first night of the battle.”
The next morning, "things got cleared up and our units pushed them out of our headquarters. We had to go through the rifles to find out which ones would fire.”
Some of the Marines had to resort to drastic measures to get their rifles functioning.
“The only way we got them warmed up was to piss on ‘em,” said Clyde Queen Sr., who served with the 1st Marine Division during the battle.
It is stories such as these which still draw the surviving members of the battle, known as the "Chosin Few," to get together for reunions nearly 63 years later. The most recent Chosin Few reunion, hosted by the Arizona Chapter, was held this weekend at the Best Western Coronado Hotel.
"Nobody else understands unless you have been there," Garaway said. "There is no way. You can’t explain to people what we’ve been through. Other people just don’t believe it. They can’t understand it.”
However, the reunions aren't all serious.
“We get together and we lie to each other, and lie about each other, and most of the time you have to wear boots because the stories get pretty deep,” Garaway joked laughingly.
Queen Sr. well remembers that first terrifying night when "the Chinese hit our lines," he said during the reunion. "I heard (enemy) bugles from the front, bugles from the rear, bugles from the right side, and bugles from the left side."
Then he heard "a lot of yelling and screaming and all hell broke loose," he added. "The first night they hit was the scariest moment because they had us surrounded – coming from all sides."
It was mixture of "a will to live and fear” that kept him going, Queen Sr. continued, adding he didn't have time to think about his own mortality. “The only thing I was thinking about was getting the hell out of there.”
The battle at the Chosin Reservoir would continue to rage on until Dec. 13. During that time, the 30,000 Marines and soldiers with the United Nations under the command of General Edward Almond were encircled by at least 67,000 Chinese troops under the command of Song Shi-Lun.
Queen Sr. had his fair share of close calls, including an artillery shell that landed about 10 feet from his foxhole. “The concussion knocked me out," he said, adding it is the incoming rounds you can't hear which are the deadliest.
He will never forget the noise an incoming shell creates — "zhoo-zhoo-zhoo-zhoo-zhoo" in a rapid succession beginning in a higher pitch and ending in a lower pitch before exploding on impact.
Garaway wasn't quite so lucky. He was wounded by shrapnel in the right arm before the battle was over and he evacuated.
“I had gotten tired and asked a radio operative who had a Jeep if I could sit down," he said. "As soon as I sat down I got hit. Of course I was in the jeep so he brought me over to the medic. They wouldn’t take (the shrapnel) out. It paralyzed my arm” and remains there to this day.
“I got out at an emergency airstrip at Hagaru-ri... on the last airplane out before they closed" the outpost. "We were flown out to Japan and were at a hospital" where the pretty nurses and warm beds were much appreciated, he joked, adding he later found out he was stricken with frostbite.
Back in Korea, the frigid icy temperatures continued to take a toll on the men in the field.
“Imagine yourself being in a foxhole 24-hours a day," Queen Sr. said. "The Siberian winds are coming down off the snow and ice covered mountains. It’s blowing right down on you and there is no escape from it. Just imagine yourself being in that foxhole and your limbs froze. And suddenly” when enemy troops attack “your arms are so stiff that you can’t get up and move quickly. Everything is slow motion.”
Bob Hennings, a Chosin Few veteran who has lived in Yuma since 1986, still suffers from being exposed to the elements during the Korean War.
“It was even worse than awful cold," he said. "Everybody has frozen parts we are still suffering with – hands and feet. My hands hurt. If it gets cold I can’t take it. It don’t bother me much in the summertime” because of the plentiful Yuma heat, which is part of the reason he now resides here.
There aren't many members of the Chosin Few left, which makes it even more important for the remaining veterans to gather together while they can.
“They keep dropping all the time – just age and health-wise," Garaway said. "I mean, my health is horrible. I am 80, but most of them are older.”
There are only about 83 Chosin Few members left in the entirety of Arizona, and only a handful were able to make it to Yuma for the reunion, noted Bob “BJ” Johnson, who served with the 7th Regiment of the 1st Marine Division during the battle.
Of the total amount surviving, only a handful were well enough to travel to the reunion in Yuma. “We just have a small group here," Johnson said.
Johnson hopes people will remember and honor the memory of the veterans of the Korean War — both those who came home and the 33,686 U.S. military members who died in combat — before their generation is lost forever to the never-ending march of time.
"That is a whole different story," he said, noting those who served during the Korean War, also known as the "Forgotten War," just want people to realize and appreciate the sacrifices the soldiers, sailors and Marines made in service to their country.
"We just happen to be between World War II and Vietnam. Everybody on the home front hated us anyway because we were causing too much trouble. They were tired of war. That’s where we ended up and we are still fighting it right now.”