In November of 1950, high in the mountains of North Korea, American military forces counterattacking deep into the country met and engaged Chinese forces swarming south from the border as the People’s Republic of China entered the conflict with one of the most brutal battles of the war.
Howling, subzero weather jammed weapons with the cold, and chilled the ground harder than iron and froze combatants on both sides to death in the remote northern landscape as men fought desperate, gouging fights to survive.
It was a fight that marked its survivors for life; Marines and soldiers who made the desperate fighting retreat to the sea were later branded the Chosin Few.
It is a group that dwindles every year distant from the battle, fought 72 years ago.
Irvin Stephens is one of them.
We sat down with him at his home in Raymond to hear his recollections of the battle.
“I was born and raised here. My father was too,” Stephens said. “My grandfather moved here just after the Civil War.”
Stephens joined the Marine Corps Reserve in 1949, aged 17, requiring his mother’s permission to do so, an action he said she later regretted.
“There was a lot of guys from Raymond,” Stephens said. “I think there was 200 of us at one time, but now we’re about to 14, 15.”
In June 1950, the war that would become known as the Korean War exploded into existence as Soviet-backed North Korean forces surged across the border to smash through unprepared South Korean defenses.
That border had been set only five years before when the country was partitioned into zones administered by the Soviets in the north and the U.S. in the south. North Korea was led by Kim Il-Sung, while the military dictatorship in South Korea was led by Syngman Rhee.
“Of course the war broke out, and I was a junior in high school,” Stephens said. “They activated us and I went to Camp Pendleton.”
By this stage in the war, Republic of Korea, U.S. and United Nations forces under command of Army General Douglas MacArthur had staged a fightback, from defending the sole remaining ROK city of Busan with their backs to the sea to making a breakout and retaking Seoul in a bloody slog.
In September, an amphibious landing at the city of Inchon, located on the west coast of Korea, spearheaded by the 1st Marine Division and the Army 7th Infantry Division, inflicted a stunning strategic reversal.
U.S. forces were now advancing into North Korea. Stephens would be among them.
“I went to Camp Pendleton and they put me on the USS General Mitchell. I think there was 5,200 of us on there,” Stephens said. “I landed at Wonsan sometime in late October or early November.”
Stephens would be part of How Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. Stephens had been trained as a mortarman, firing the 81mm mortar, a skill set he would singularly fail to employ in Korea, tasked instead as a replacement firing the Browning Automatic Rifle.
“I never did see one in Korea. I was a replacement. They put me in a weapons company,” Stephens said. “I was a BAR man and rifleman. (The BAR was) 27 pounds, you know. It was a problem.”
Stephens landed as part of a replacement draft in Wonsan on the east coast before entraining to catch up with the front lines, advancing on the Chosin Reservoir high in the mountains.
“The sniper fire became pretty heavy so they took us off the train and put us on the trucks,” Stephens said. “Most of the guys I was with were WWII guys that got called back. They were about 10 years older. So I got all the shit details. But they treated me good. Taught me well, took me under their wing.”
Stephens would be attached to How Company at Hagaru-ri, where Marines were building an airfield to support the offensive.
“That was the airfield they were building to evacuate the wounded and dead,” Stephens said. “We dug into the airfield. The (Caterpillar tractors) out there were still trying to build.”
The PRC had entered the war with more than 100,000 troops, crossing the border in late October and early November, set against about 30,000 Marines and soldiers heading north as part of the advance.
“The Chinese at that point had crossed the Yalu River. 150,000 Chinese had crossed the Yalu River into North Korea. We were outnumbered, some say, 30-1 at some point,” Stephens said. “We absolutely had no business being there. The Chinese didn’t want us on their southern border. I can understand that. MacArthur, he had an ego that was unbelievable.”
1st Marine Regiment, Stephens’ regiment, was under the command of Col. Lewis “Chesty” Puller, one of the most revered Marines to serve, who spent nearly 40 years in uniform, retiring after Korea.
“He was really not a politician. He was a Marine’s Marine,” Stephens said. “He come out and spoke to us a couple times. He was a character, really. He didn’t take any shit from MacArthur.”
Stephens was employed helping prepare defenses at the airfield, he said — putting up tents, digging foxholes, setting up defenses and occasionally pulling a trigger.
“All I did was dig holes in the frozen ground and hang hand grenades on trip wires,” Stephens said. “We had an air-cooled .30 on my left, and a water-cooled .30. The water-cooled .30 worked because we ran straight antifreeze through it. There was two tanks on our right with twin .50s.”
The shattering cold affected everything, from the oil used to lubricate their weapons, to the ground for digging foxholes, to the Marines themselves.
“The ground was so cold, if we wanted to put up a shelter half, we’d put a stick upright on the ground and piss on it,” Stephens said. “It was severe, severe weather conditions. It was 40 below zero and we didn’t have any winter gear because MacArthur didn’t bring any. Casualties were severe. There were frozen hands and frozen feet and things.”
Savage or brutal are words too mild to describe the killing cold that stalked the men during the battle.
“Some of the Marines, they froze solid the way they died. You had to break some arms to get them in body bags. It was terrible,” Stephens said. “We couldn’t bury anybody. So we brought ‘em all out.”
High winds deepened the cold. Stephens said his own feet froze, causing lifelong health issues.
“The wind would come up at 35-40 mph and blow that snow up. The snow would sting you. It was a miserable son of a bitch, I tell you. The weapons wouldn’t fire… they froze up,” Stephens said. “The water-cooled ones would work. So would the tanks. They had the twin .50s, you could plow a field with them.”
PRC forces were also notably underequipped for the cold, underdressed and starving in many cases.
“Some of the Chinese came down, they didn’t even have shoes,” Stephens said. “We took a few prisoners, damn few.”
During their time defending the airfield, Stephens also took part in a northward patrol foreshortened as the front lines were pushed south.
“When we were on patrol, we came back to lines. Of course, we didn’t have the password,” Stephens said. “There was a machine gunner on the hill, a black kid, and he said, halt. … ‘You better tell me who you is, before I come down and see who you was.’ We all cracked up.”
Before long, the PRC advance was pressing in on the airfield, probing for a weakness in the defensive line, making a sortie down a drainage ditch on the east side of the airfield.
“We had a massive attack. They all came down that drainage ditch,” Stephens said. “Weapons Company was zeroed in on it with their mortars. It was carnage in that ditch.”
Huge numbers of Chinese troops attacked U.S. forces everywhere, coming down to hand-to-hand fighting in places, with some U.S. formations cut off, surrounded, overrun and destroyed over the course of the battle.
“We had to fix bayonets 4-5 times,” Stephens said. “We were ready for them, but they never got into How Company. We took care of most of them with the grenades. Those trip wires work.”
A massive concentration of air power, particularly carrier-launched Navy and Marine squadrons, were instrumental in holding the Chinese onslaught at arms length. F4U Corsair attack aircraft provided precision close air support, working with Marines on the ground to drop explosive and incendiary ordnance on targets harrowingly close to allied lines.
“It was constant. (The Chinese would) set up on the high ground and snipe,” Stephens said. “The Corsairs would come in 50 feet off the ground with napalm. I couldn’t believe the area the napalm covered — it just splattered out.”
How Company and the rest of 3/1 , the furthest northern battalion of 1st Marine Regiment, held the line at Hagaru-ri as the airfield provided a crucial lifeline to the south.
“We held our ground. They never did take that airfield,” Stephens said. “They never took it.”
Wounded in action
Stephens would not make it through the battle unscathed.
“Something went off and I ended up on the ground,” Stephens said. “They never did set my arm. The swelling was so bad they couldn’t set it. I’ve got some permanent damage.”
He fought on for four more days, not reporting his injury so as to stay on the line, Stephens said.
“I felt kind of bad about what happened to me. I had a couple concussions and a compound fracture in my left wrist,” Stephens said. “I didn’t turn in because I didn’t want to leave my guys. My left wrist, it swelled up to the size of a football. After four days, someone turned me in. The corpsman said, ‘that’s broken.’ I said, ‘Well, it’s so cold, I don’t feel it much.’”
Stephens was eventually evacuated, first to Seoul, then to a Navy medical ship, and eventually to Japan. U.S. forces were preparing to pull out of the airfield and push south toward the port of Hungnam as he was evacuated, Stephens said.
Remaining Marine and Army units were able to break out of the grasp of PRC forces and successfully retreated to Hungnam intact before being sealifted clear.
“We had some good officers. Good people,” Stephens said. “Damn good people.”
While rehabilitating in Japan, Stephens was able to call home, as The Daily World previously reported. Stephens then transferred to a military police position at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island to serve out the remainder of his contract, in spite of his injury.
“They wanted to muster me out,” Stephens said. “I had nine and a half months to do. I said no, I want to serve my time.”
A permanent mark
Stephens returned to the real world after leaving active duty, returning to Raymond, first attending school. Like many veterans, Stephens said, the war left its mark on him, making reintegration with civilian life, with people his age without the same sort of experiences, difficult.
“I went back to school. School wasn’t for me. I just couldn’t deal with that,” Stephens said. “They were kids my age but I just had nothing in common.”
He would go back to work logging in the region and go on to marry his wife Louise in 1953 and raise three children, Stephens said — Scott, Karla and Doug. His children all live in the region, Stephens said.
Some of the experiences in Korea and their effects on him did not lend themselves to a smooth reentry into the civilian world, Stephens said.
“I think you have to deal with things you’re not really capable with dealing with. I had some trouble,” Stephens said. “My wife straightened me out in a hurry.”
The Chosin Few
Now, Stephens is one of the shrinking number of veterans remaining who were there in the cold mountains in late 1950.
“I think there was 57,000 casualties, the Forgotten War. You mention Korea, most people don’t even know where the hell it is,” Stephens said. “I would want people to remember the Marines that were left there, that were killed there.”
The Chosin Few are held with respect by Marines, with recruits going through basic training taught about the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir and the lessons learned there.
“We had some awful good people,” Stephens said. “I can wear that cap around here or up to the base, and if there’s another Marine around within half a mile, I hear ‘hey, Jarhead.’”
The battle will always remain with him, Stephens said.
“I don’t regret any of it,” Stephens said. “I did the best I could.”
Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or email@example.com.