SANTA FE, N.M. — For 65 years – since the signing of the war-ending 1953 armistice that was actually a cease-fire, not a peace treaty – North Korea and South Korea have stared each other down along the Korean peninsula’s Demilitarized Zone.
The armistice ended three years of horrific fighting, with China and the Soviet Union backing North Korea, and the United States-led United Nations military forces supporting South Korea.
Perhaps the most savage fighting of that war occurred during three weeks in the winter of 1950 in what is called the Chosin Reservoir Campaign.
The campaign is the subject of narrative historian Hampton Sides’ powerfully written book “On Desperate Ground – The Marines at the Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle.”
The American forces, led by the 20,000 men of the 1st Marine Division, marched through the freezing mountains of North Korea toward a trap that China had set for Gen. Douglas MacArthur at the Chosin Reservoir.
Sides, a Santa Fe resident, first learned of the campaign at a book event years ago. “I met a grizzled old veteran of the battle. With a hand that was missing a few digits from frostbite, he slipped me this card that said, ‘The Chosin Few.’ He said I ought to write about it someday. … When I finally started looking into the battle, I realized it was one of the most harrowing clashes in our history, a remarkable feat of arms. I thought it should be better known,” Sides said in an email.
Sides’ book about this all-but-forgotten battle bears the theme of human endurance. It seemed to Sides that “On Desperate Ground” “was the ultimate military survival story. Finally, with all the recent developments in our relations with China and the two Koreas, it seemed that this was an auspicious time to tell this story,” Sides wrote.
It tells how the far outnumbered Marines – they fought through 300,000 Chinese soldiers – pushed through below-freezing mountains and the snowy reservoir shores.
“MacArthur and his staff had ignored clear evidence that vast numbers of Chinese had entered North Korea to spring a trap and prepare a surprise attack,” Sides said. “He had a lot of blood on his hands. He presided over one of the more egregious intelligence failures in American military history.
“Once the intelligence came in, MacArthur and his staff “chose to ignore it, or willfully misinterpret its import,” thus putting thousands of Americans in harm’s way,” he added.
Interestingly, the North Korean dictator at the time was Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong-un, the country’s present leader.
It seems to Sides that Kim Il-sung’s son, and now grandson, have expanded on the grandfather’s absolutist style, creating a totalitarian state built on a family dynasty.
“But more than anything else, it’s tragic,” he said. “For, historically speaking, there is no difference between northern and southern Korea. It is one culture, one language, one people, and the peninsula should never have been divided in the first place,” he said.
Falling between World War II and the Vietnam War, the Korean War is, unfortunately, widely forgotten, Sides said, and the men who fought in it resent that fact.
“… I’ve tried to understand the source of that amnesia. One of the reasons for it, I think, is that it was a stalemate. … .”