In Other Words One Des­per­ate Ground by Hamp­ton Sides

Pasatiempo - - ON THE COVER - Blood and Thun­der, Trail, En­cy­clopae­dia Bri­tan­nica On Des­per­ate Ground Des­per­ate Ground

The for­got­ten war, they called it.

Yet the Korean War, or con­flict, or po­lice ac­tion — which­ever term you pre­fer — is a per­sis­tent mos­quito of his­toric pro­por­tions. Tech­ni­cally, the com­bat­ants re­main frozen in a truce, the long­est time-out in mod­ern war­fare. It may seem we’ve for­got­ten those who fought it, but the war it­self lives on as a threat that some­times bursts forth like a morn­ing bar­rage from North Korean ar­tillery.

Santa Fe his­to­rian Hamp­ton Sides, whose cat­a­logue in­cludes Ghost Sol­diers,

and Hell­hound on His has writ­ten a timely re­minder of one of the best-re­mem­bered episodes of that war. In his new book, Sides cre­ates for con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­cans a story straight out of an­cient mythol­ogy, of warriors re­mem­bered for their fan­tas­tic deeds.

The book comes at an op­por­tune time. Sides’ bril­liant re­port­ing and crisp sto­ry­telling pro­vides a back­drop for events on the world stage al­most 70 years later. On Des­per­ate Ground: The Marines at the Reser­voir, the Korean War’s Great­est Bat­tle is a stream­lined retelling of the fight that took place in what is now North Ko­rea in No­vem­ber and De­cem­ber of 1950. The on­line de­scribes the bat­tle as “one of the most-sto­ried ex­ploits in Ma­rine Corps lore.”

In­deed it is. Part of Ma­rine Corps boot camp in­volves lessons in Corps his­tory and tra­di­tions, dur­ing which re­cruits in­gest the tale from Tun Tav­ern to Khe Sanh and be­yond. The story of the First Ma­rine Di­vi­sion at the “Frozen Chosin” is a cli­max in that nar­ra­tive. It’s an epic wor­thy of Homer: a des­per­ate band of sol­diers, sur­rounded. An in­spired leader, larger than life. A foe bent on the com­plete de­struc­tion of its en­emy. In their will to sur­vive, the Amer­i­cans are just as crafty as their Greek fore­bears.

In the boot-camp ver­sion of the tale, the Chi­nese Com­mu­nists (or ChiComms) make the ul­ti­mate mis­take of sur­round­ing a Ma­rine di­vi­sion at the Chosin Reser­voir, a wa­ter body in a moun­tain fast­ness just south of the Chi­nese bor­der. By Ma­rine brio, sur­rounded is for­tu­itous, for it sim­pli­fies the sit­u­a­tion. The sub­zero cold is bit­ter. Thou­sands of Chi­nese sol­diers ap­pear out of the snowy wastes, driven by their of­fi­cers and the shrill calls of whis­tles and bu­gles. They are met and mowed down by res­o­lute and out­num­bered gyrenes fight­ing from frozen fox­holes.

First among them was Col. Lewis B. “Ch­esty” Puller, who by force of will in­spired his Marines to su­per­hu­man com­bat. The Marines sliced through the ChiComm hordes and marched to glory. (At least that’s the ver­sion I re­call be­tween boot-camp class­room cat­naps.) Puller, who com­manded the First Ma­rine Reg­i­ment, is a Ma­rine le­gend. The bull­dog mas­cot at the Ma­rine Bar­racks in Wash­ing­ton, for ex­am­ple, is “Sgt. Ch­esty.”

How­ever, Sides gives Puller but brief men­tion. The war­rior king of is Puller’s im­me­di­ate su­pe­rior, Maj. Gen. Oliver Prince Smith, “The Pro­fes­sor,” and com­man­der of the First Ma­rine Di­vi­sion. Ac­cord­ing to Sides, Smith, a UC–Berke­ley grad­u­ate and for­mer North­ern Cal­i­for­nia log­ger, was re­garded as an in­tel­lec­tual — an atyp­i­cal sort of Ma­rine. “He was flu­ent in French, drank spar­ingly, read the clas­sics and never cursed. An ex­pert gar­dener, he cul­ti­vated roses in his spare time,” Sides writes. He’s a cham­pion for the 25,000 men in his com­mand — with­out his lead­er­ship, Sides makes clear, these men were doomed.

Sides be­gins the story with the bril­liant, en­daround am­phibi­ous land­ing at In­chon. This move by Gen. Dou­glas MacArthur, head of the United Na­tions Com­mand in Ko­rea, re­lieved U.N. forces trapped by the North Kore­ans at Pu­san. Flush with that suc­cess and the sub­se­quent fall of bat­tered Seoul, MacArthur or­dered his men to the Yalu River and a po­ten­tial end to the war. The men, the story goes, would be home by Christ­mas.

MacArthur and his sub­or­di­nate, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Ned Al­mond, ig­nored re­ports that Chi­nese troops had crossed the Yalu, the bor­der with China. Mao ap­par­ently feared the United Na­tions would not stop there, and be­sides, the reser­voir it­self pro­vided hy­dro­elec­tric power to his na­tion. The Chi­nese Ninth Army Group lay in wait in the ridges above the ser­pen­tine moun­tain roads that led to the Chosin Reser­voir. As the Marines and their Army brethren of the Sev­enth Di­vi­sion en­tered the trap, the tem­per­a­tures plum­meted.

The bat­tle of the Chosin Reser­voir is not a new topic for mil­i­tary writ­ers, but Sides im­bues his ver­sion with el­e­ments of mythol­ogy. Acts of brav­ery wor­thy of Achilles are fol­lowed by im­prob­a­ble feats of en­gi­neer­ing. In one episode, a Chi­nese-Amer­i­can Ma­rine lieu­tenant leads a col­umn of 500 through un­tracked snow to res­cue a com­pany of fel­low Marines. In an­other, a Navy flier crash-lands his Cor­sair to res­cue his wing­man, who has been shot down by the Chi­nese.

Com­bat en­gi­neers, mean­while, rush to scrape a land­ing strip from frozen earth while duck­ing in­com­ing Chi­nese fire. The field al­lows wounded men to be evac­u­ated in planes bring­ing food and ammo. Later, troops de­vise a method of re­pair­ing a bridge de­stroyed by the Chi­nese at a choke­point along the Amer­i­cans’ es­cape route.

Read­ers of mil­i­tary his­tory will find Sides’ ac­count sat­is­fy­ing but not bur­dened by de­tail; the book is de­void of blow-by-blow troop move­ments and mil­i­tary ter­mi­nol­ogy, for the most part. And for the av­er­age reader, is a well-told tale. Sides em­ploys a re­porter’s eye and spare writ­ing style that keeps a steady pace. No Greeks of an­tiq­uity out­did these Amer­i­cans. — Joseph Dit­zler

Hamp­ton Sides gives a talk at 6:30 p.m. Wed­nes­day, Sept. 26, at Vi­o­let Crown Cin­ema, 1606 Al­cadesa St. Doors open at 6 p.m. Tick­ets are $30 and in­clude a copy of the book. Visit­o­ or call 505-216-5678.

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