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During Korean War, battling bitter cold and the enemy at Chosin

The Marines, outnumbered eight to one, sustained more than 11,000 casualties, but U.N. estimates show that Chinese casualties were a staggering 40,000 to 80,000.

The Korean War memorial in Washington, D.C.
The Korean War memorial in Washington, D.C.Read morePhoto by Bob Flounders

In late November 1950, the biting wind and snow relentlessly swirled around the First Division Marines at the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea as they desperately fought their way south toward the American-held town of Hagaru. Marine Cpl. Ed Aversa wondered if he'd make it home to Roxborough alive.

With temperatures plunging to 30 below zero, the Chinese on Nov. 27 had launched a massive, surprise assault against U.N. forces. One of their main objectives was to encircle and annihilate the Marines at Chosin.

Aversa and his fellow Marines weren't going down without a fight. He smiled as he echoed the famous words of his division commander, Gen. Oliver Smith: "We weren't retreating, we were just fighting in a different direction."

But when he was pressed for details of the battle, Aversa's smile quickly faded. "When we first arrived at Chosin," he recalled, "a truck backed up to the cargo plane we just got off. It was loaded with dead Marines … naked … not a stitch of clothing on them. Frozen bodies in all different positions. They were so unprepared for the winter, for what happened, that [other Marines] stripped them of their clothes so they could reuse them. One of our officers said, 'Gentlemen, we are here for one reason now — to survive.' "

In those chaotic days, with the U.N. forces commanded by Gen. Douglas MacArthur in full retreat, the senior military leaders in Washington struggled to deal with the crisis. David Halberstam's brilliant book The Coldest Winter reports that the Joint Chiefs sat around "waiting for someone else to do something."

With American military personnel dying by the hundreds each day, one senior officer was outraged by this "vacuum of leadership": Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway.

Halberstam describes a meeting of the Joint Chiefs on Dec. 3: It was "another long meeting where, in Ridgway's mind, they were unable to issue an order. … Finally, Ridgway asked for permission to speak and then — he wondered later whether he had been too blunt — said that they had all spent too much damn time on debate and it was time to take some action. They owed it to the men in the field, he said, 'and to the God to whom we must answer for those men's lives to stop talking and to act.' When he finished, no one spoke."

When the meeting concluded, Ridgway asked the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg, "Why don't the chiefs send orders to MacArthur and tell him what to do?"

Vandenberg shook his head. "What good would that do? He wouldn't obey the orders. What can we do?"

"You can relieve any commander who won't obey orders, can't you?" exploded Ridgway — who eventually replaced MacArthur.

The drama in Washington paled in comparison with the fierce fighting at Chosin. Fortunately, a brilliant tactical decision made by Smith in the weeks before the surprise attack not only enabled the Marines to escape encirclement, but to also inflict heavy casualties on the enemy.

"Oliver Smith was a smart man and a good general," Aversa said. In early November, Smith had asked to slow the advance toward the Chinese border, fearing his Marines were walking into a deadly trap. Though MacArthur denied his request, Smith cleverly left supplies and established airfields along their route so that they could fight their way out if his instincts proved right.

Aversa recalled one particular night of intense combat. "An officer said, 'Anything moving — hit it.' [The Chinese troops] were 20 yards in front of us, and we didn't know they were there. Then, all of a sudden, they started with the noise — bugles, whistles — anything to try and rattle us. They didn't know that every Marine was wide awake waiting for them. When daylight came, their dead were everywhere … only 15 yards away … frozen."

What had initially appeared to be a disaster for the Marines is now regarded as one of their finest hours.

"When we got to Hagaru, [Lt. Gen.] 'Chesty' Puller was standing there with his pipe in his mouth," Ed recalled. "He said, 'A lot of boys went up that hill, but a lot of men coming down now.' "

The Chinese had driven the Marines out of Chosin, but at a terrible cost. The Marines, outnumbered 8-1, sustained more than 11,000 casualties, but U.N. estimates show that Chinese casualties were a staggering 40,000 to 80,000.

Aversa, at 87, is extremely proud to count himself among the "Chosin Few," the Marines who stunningly turned certain annihilation into one of the most remarkable feats of courage and survival in military history. As he looks at how far South Korea has come since the war, he almost can't believe it's the same country he left in 1951.

"When I first arrived, I thought, 'What is this place, and what the hell are we doing here?' But I look at the country now, and I'm proud of what we did. And the Korean people and the Korean government have not forgotten us."

Aversa does not seek recognition, and prefers to keep his emotions in check.

Perhaps his most endearing quality is his sense of humor. As the interview ended, I put on my coat and said, "It's supposed to get cold tonight."

He shot me a sarcastic look and replied, "When someone says it's getting cold, I just give 'em a look and say, 'Really?' "

Chris Gibbons is a Philadelphia writer.