Chosin Reservoir veteran recalls battle that began 64 years ago

Marines of the 5th and 7th Regiments, 1st Marine Division, receive the order to withdraw from their positions near the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea after repelling a surprise attack by three Chinese communist divisions. The photo was taken Nov. 29, 1950, two days after the Chinese entered the Korean War by throwing 200,000 shock troops against Allied forces.


By BRENDA AHEARN | Daily Inter Lake, Kalispell, Mont. | Published: November 27, 2014

KALISPELL, Mont. (Tribune News Service) — On this day 64 years ago, the Chinese Ninth Army Group set out to annihilate the United States 1st Marine Division at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea.

The battle began the night of Nov. 27 and continued for 17 days. The 1st Marine Division, reinforced by a British Commando and two U.S. Army regiments — 25,000 troops in all — under the command of Marine Maj. Gen. Oliver P. Smith were surrounded by 150,000 Chinese under the command of Song Shi-Lun.

Survivors of the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir are known as the “Chosin Few” and Ret. Capt. Richard Wayne Bolton, 82, of Happy Valley, is one of them.

In 1950 at the start of the Korean War, Bolton was a private first class on leave from the U.S. Marine Corps. Because he was a good swimmer, he’d been assigned to a reconnaissance unit, a group known for its specialized training. Bolton also was a “BAR Man,” a Browning Automatic Rifleman. The Browning Automatic was the weapon of choice for Marine infantrymen.

One minute Bolton was enjoying being home on leave, and the next he had orders to get to California as rapidly as possible.

“We had no warning,” remembers Bolton. Within days of arriving in California, Bolton and the 1st Marine Provisional Brigade, which had been hastily built around the 5th Marine Regiment, were on their way to Korea. The Marines were not at full wartime strength because their numbers had been severely reduced following World War II. As the Corps rebuilt the 1st Marine Division, this smaller brigade was put together to assist in the war effort as quickly as possible.

In Korea the United Nations troops were under the command of the renowned U.S. Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

In September 1950, Bolton was one of the Marines to take part in the amphibious Landing at Inchon. Two weeks later he was part of the retaking and securing of Seoul and a month later he was at Wonsan.

That year, Thanksgiving fell on Nov. 23. Bolton remembers having “turkey and all the fixings” for Thanksgiving dinner at division headquarters. He also recalls being part of a reconnaissance patrol the day before, up behind enemy lines.

“They really tried to make it a holiday,” Bolton said. “The cooks did an excellent job. Everything was hot, but we had three platoons rotating through so we had to eat it quick.”

After many meals of C-rations and pork and beans, a Thanksgiving dinner complete with cigars was a gift. Just four days later they would be in one of the worst battles of the war on rough terrain and in severe winter weather conditions.

What does Bolton remember of the Chosin Reservoir?

“Cold,” he says simply, but his words carry a weight to them that is impossible to miss. He isn’t talking about 20 degrees and snow-falling type of cold. He is talking about a deep cold, a cruel cold, that sinks into bones and is the stuff of nightmares.

And he would remember it well. He lost three toes to frostbite, including both of his big toes.

Temperatures got as low as minus 40 degrees. Bolton remembers the blood plasma froze, which added to the difficulty medical staff had in caring for the wounded.

C-rations froze in their cans and Bolton recalls having to chip away at the frozen meal. Icy roads and weapon malfunctions all were contributing factors to the battle.

Tom Sward, a retired Marine colonel and Bolton’s friend, added that “however severe the weather is that you are trying to endure, remember that the enemy has to deal with it as well. It is the elements that can kill any military unit. You must be prepared and then you must have developed mental toughness to endure. Because in the end, it will all come down to mental and physical toughness to see the battle through.”

The battle started at night.

“They waited until dark to attack,” Bolton said. “When they came, they blew bugles and whistles and shouted. The Chinese came in waves and they came, and they came, and then in the daylight they completely disappeared to wait for dark to attack again.”

“I thought the whole division was going to die,” he continued. “The Chinese came to annihilate the 1st Marine Division and I thought every one of us was going to die.”

The Battle of the Chosin Reservoir is one of the epic battles in the history of the U.S. Marine Corps. The Marines who survived are accorded a special level of deference. One of the most famous quotes to come out of the battle is that of Marine Maj. Gen. Oliver P. Smith who said, “Retreat, hell! We’re not retreating, we’re just advancing in a different direction.”

The surrounded, outnumbered Marines not only managed to break free of the Chinese, they inflicted heavy casualties as they went.

“Mao said they won the battle but they lost 45,000 men in the fight. The Chinese 9th Army was combat-ineffective,” Bolton stated. “But the 1st Marine Division was still in action.”

The Korean War ended with an armistice on July 27, 1953. Total battle casualties for the war were 33,686. At Chosin, America lost 2,836 men and suffered an additional 13,000 casualties, most due to the severe weather.

Seventeen Medals of Honor were awarded during the war, one to a Navy pilot, two to Army soldiers, and 14 to Marines.

Bolton served two tours in Korea. After the war he remained with the Marines and went on to reach the rank of captain and later served two tours of duty in Vietnam.

He prefers not to talk about his wartime experiences. He does not use this time of year to look back and remember; he said there is too much that he doesn’t want to remember.

“There is just something about these Marines,” Sward said. “Something about the way they are willing to put their lives on the line for honor, and country, and loved ones back home. It is something they carry inside themselves, and it is difficult for them to talk about it.”

What Bolton holds on to is the “esprit de corps” — that spirit of enthusiasm and loyalty held in common with Marines. He holds on to the leadership and discipline he learned while serving. And though he doesn’t say it, it is clear he takes great pride in being part of something so much bigger than himself.

“The Marine Corps is the second oldest branch of the service,” Bolton noted. “They were established in 1775 and fought in the American Revolution and in every battle since.”

Pride and a deep sense of honor ring in every word.

Bolton believes in living honorably. He treats every person equally. His wife Carol describes him as trustworthy. “I’d trust him with my life,” she said.  

When asked what he is most thankful for these days, Bolton said, “I give a lot of thanks just to be alive and kicking at my age.”

©2014 the Daily Inter Lake (Kalispell, Mont.)
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A column of troops and armor of the 1st Marine Division move through communist Chinese lines during their successful breakout from the Chosin Reservoir.

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