The Washington Post

Give thanks to the Chosin Few

- GE­ORGE F. WILL georgewill@wash­post.com

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.

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