The Washington Post
Give thanks to the Chosin Few
Seventy Thanksgivings ago, Pfc. Warren Wiedhahn was 21, far from home and freezing. During a winter of record cold, nighttime temperatures were more than 30 degrees below zero in the North Korean mountains. The day after Thanksgiving, as Wiedhahn peered at the ridge across the valley from his listening post, suddenly “whistles and bells and bugles” — modes of communication for a People’s Liberation Army that also used Mongolian ponies and camels — revealed that hordes of Chinese soldiers wanted to kill him.
He says he and his fellow Marines burned out the barrels of their machine guns and ran out of ammunition that day, and that much worse was to come. He had craved adventure, and found it.
Born in Upstate New York, too late for World War II, he, like many teenagers then, thought he had missed an adventure. And he thought his brother-in-law, who had been wounded at Guadalcanal, “looked good in his [Marine dress] blues.” So, Wiedhahn enlisted in the Marine Corps after his Methodist mother made him swear on her Bible that, after his three-year commitment, he would go to college.
After a deployment in China, he was stationed at Camp Pendleton north of San Diego, where on June 24, 1950, a bartender asked him and a friend, “Are you Marines? Better get up to Pendleton because you’re going to war.” Told that North Korea had invaded South Korea, Wiedhahn’s friend wondered where Korea was. God, Mark Twain supposedly said, created war so that Americans would learn geography.
His unit of the 1st Marine Division immediately plunged into combat at Pusan on the peninsula’s southern tip, where South Korean and U.S. forces were besieged. On Sept. 15, his regiment participated in the most daring operation of Gen. Douglas Macarthur’s 44-year career, the amphibious landing at Inchon, some 200 miles north of Pusan, near Seoul. And near North Korea, where Macarthur soon made the worst blunder of his career — dividing his forces while ignoring evidence that China would intervene in force.
Macarthur had told President Harry S. Truman at Wake Island on Oct. 15 that “organized resistance will be terminated by Thanksgiving.” Eager to reach the Yalu River along the North Korea- China border, Macarthur ordered the 1st Marine Division to make an amphibious landing on North Korea’s eastern shore and march north to the Chosin Reservoir.
There it became cut off, surrounded by 100,000 of the eventually 300,000 Chinese troops on the peninsula. The 1st Division’s commander, Gen. Oliver P. Smith, said, “We’re going to come out like Marines, fighting!” Intrepid airmen, pushing their aircraft to their limits in the thin air of the mountains, parachuted in enormous components for rebuilding a blown bridge, a harrowing tale told in Hampton Sides’s magnificent history of the Chosin campaign, “On Desperate Ground.”
Wiedhahn says “what saved us” in the fighting withdrawal from Chosin was “the World War II leadership,” the noncommissioned Marine officers who had fought from Guadalcanal to Peleliu to Okinawa. And Navy and Marine aircraft flying off carriers. In retirement, Wiedhahn still runs a tour business, taking veterans to battle sites from Belleau Wood in France to, next summer, Iwo Jima. On a trip to Beijing, he met four People’s Liberation Army veterans who had fought at Chosin. When he asked them what they had feared most, they instantly replied, “Your aircraft.”
Wiedhahn recalls that during two weeks of nonstop fighting, some of it hand to hand, during the march to safety, medics, overwhelmed by severely wounded Marines, had to practice triage medicine: Dying Marines, “put outside the tent, froze to death.”
After the Marines — including the father of Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2015 to 2019 — reached the North Korean city of Hungnam and ships that took them to safety, the ships returned for the “Christmas miracle.” Between Dec. 15 and 24, more than 86,000 refugees were evacuated to South Korea, including the parents of Moon Jae-in, the current president of South Korea.
Since ending a 32-year Marine career ( mom was content when he became an officer) that included 19681969 near Vietnam’s demilitarized zone, Wiedhahn has lived in Northern Virginia, in a community with many immigrants from Korea — “all good friends and all good neighbors.” He is president of the dwindling ranks of “The Chosin Few,” the organization of that battle’s veterans.
Trim and energetic at 91, Wiedhahn had little to be thankful for 70 years ago. Today, his nation should give thanks for him and others like him, including hundreds who are still in North Korea’s mountains.