The history and events of the battle of Chosin during the Korean War has been described as the best depiction of a battle ever.

Michael J. Edelman


5.0 out of 5 stars

A superb, literate, popular history that illuminates the greatest battle of the Korean War

August 17, 2018

It's not often that you come across popular history that reads like good literature. On Desperate Ground follows the First Marine Division from their landing at Inchon to their legendary route at the Chosin Reservoir, and manages to be both detailed history and gripping narrative. Author Hampton sides provides a detailed look at the men, the commanders, the strategies, the terrain, and the politics for not just the Marines and allied Korean and UN troops, but also their North Korean and Chinese opponents.

If there's a hero in this book it is Marine General Oliver Smith, commander of the First Marine Division and architect of the Inchon landing. It was Smith who turned MacArthur's plan- "We will land at Inchon"- into reality, and it was Smith who led the breakout and retreat from Chosin, managing to extract the 100,000 soldiers of the American X Corps and Republic of Korea I Corps along with nearly 98,000 citizens, surrounded by 120,000 soldiers of the Chinese PLA. Smith's nemesis was his direct commander, Major General Ned Almond. Almond was one of MacArthur's inner circle of trusted aids, or as others often characterized them, toadies. Almond had an undistinguished career in WWII, and blamed his poor performance leading the 92nd Infantry in Italy- which he blamed entirely on his African American soldiers. His racism extended not only to his troops, but to Filipino troops who were part of the UN forces, and to the Republic of Korea troops, who had shown themselves to be fierce fighters in the battles to retake the South. Alexander Haig, who was an aide to Almond in Korea, wrote that "[Almond] was not a believer in the racial integration of the Army, and thought those of us who were, such as myself, were in the need of education, or perhaps something stronger, to wake us up to reality."

Having secured Inchon and driven the North Korean soldiers from South of the 82nd Parallel, MacArthur decided to push North to the Yalu, and chose Almond to lead that campaign, much to the dismay of Smith and others. Almond had his forces advance along narrow roads, making resupply or reinforcement difficult or impossible. Smith and others warned that Almonds plan was a dangerous division of forces, to which Almond maintained that North Korean forces would not put up a fight. Almond also echoed MacArthur's opinion that, contrary to intelligence assessments, China would not intervene, and even if they did, they were not a significant fighting force. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of PLA soldiers were preparing a trap for invasion forces.

The results of MacArthur's grand strategy and Almond's ground tactics are well known. UN forces encountered a massive PLA force, and despite superior tactics, weapons, and experience, found themselves outnumbered and encircled. Author Hampton Sides follows the progress of the battle and retreat through the eyes of commanders and individual Marines, soldiers, and airmen. It's a powerful, realistic, narrative and a book I recommend highly to anyone with an interest in the Korean war.

It depicts the arrogance of General Douglas MacArthur very well and provides a nice example of how arrogance and self promotion can lead to terrible consequences.

One anecdote is priceless. The US Marines called for ammunition which they nicknamed tootsie rolls. The headquarters in Japan thought they wanted the candy rather than ammunition. Tens of thousands of tootsie rolls were delivered and the tootsie rolls were used by the engineers to plug holes and as an adhesive and became the most desirable currency of the engagement.


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