On Desperate Ground: The Epic Story of Chosin Reservoir–the Greatest Battle of the Korean War by Hampton Sides

The Korean War – one of the most brutal wars regarding the extreme cold in which it was fought and the massive numbers of enemy soldiers thrown against American and U.N. forces. On Desperate Ground by Hampton Sides revisits the heroic withdrawal (“fighting in another direction”) of the First Marine Division in the brutal cold from the Chosin Reservoir.

Sides takes an interesting approach to his description of the campaign. For the initial Chinese surprise attacks on the night of November 27, he writes detailed narratives of small unit experiences (platoon and company level). Sides then transitions to a broader view of the campaign at the regiment and division level (although he still includes stories of individuals struggling to survive the incessant Chinese attacks and the cold). For example, he describes the efforts of the Division’s engineers to repair a bridge that was blown by the Chinese and how the various units supported the engineers as they performed their work under fire.

This approach gives the reader a glimpse of the fighting at all levels of the Marine command.  Sides also thoroughly – rightfully so – praises the leadership of the Division commander General Oliver Smith. Smith’s calm, sometimes cautious, approach to battle was exactly what the Marines needed at the time. For instance, he ignored the X Corps commander’s order to push forward to the Yalu River prior to the main Chinese attack. Sides points out that this caution paid off because the Division was more concentrated at the time of attack. If Smith had heeded the corps commander’s orders, the Marines would have been more easily cut off with little chance of breaking out.

Sides takes a less kind analysis of General Douglas MacArthur – supreme commander of U.N. forces. As with most historians that write about MacArthur – they either love him or hate him – Sides is no different. He begrudgingly credits MacArthur for Inchon (although Sides credits the resounding success more on Smith’s and his Marines’ actions than MacArthur), but he eviscerates MacArthur for his strategy of pushing to the Yalu River. MacArthur ignored obvious signs of aggression from the Chinese – even when Chinese troops were captured, he did not believe his own commanders that the U.N. forces were at risk of attack.

Sometimes the book does feel like a rah rah for the Marines, but it is mostly an objective look at the Marines who fought hard to save themselves and their fellow Marines.

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