The battle of Chosin Reservoir began on Nov. 27, 1950, and lasted until Dec. 13. It was one of the most brutal battles ever engaged by the Marine Corps, and a decisive turning point in the Korean War.
North Korea fired the first shots of the war on June 25, 1950 when it invaded South Korea in a bid to overthrow the democratic government and make the entire Korean peninsula communist. After two months of fighting, South Korea had been forced to retreat to a small area on the southern tip of the peninsula call the Pusan Perimeter. It was on the brink of losing the country.
President Harry Truman had ordered American troops into Korea only five days after hostilities began. By September the United Nations joined the fray. Then, in a bold move, General Douglas McArthur landed 75,000 troops at Inchon Bay in the North Korean rear. This turned the tide of the war. More than half of the North Korean army was killed or captured. The rest escaped to the north.
After retaking Seoul on September 25, U.S. Marines continued to press the attack into North Korea. They did not know that China had secretly entered the war in October and were massing hidden troops in the mountainous terrain of North Korea. A skirmish in early November should have alerted our forces that China had joined the war. But since their troops dissolved back into the mountains, American leaders did not believe it was a significant force.
U.S. Marines continued advancing north and west. On November 14 a cold front from Siberia swept into the area. The relatively mild temperatures of early winter plunged well below zero. At minus 35 Fahrenheit, multiple problems arise. Vehicle batteries become weak and often unable to start frozen engines. Gun lubrication gels and causes jams and misfires. Medical supplies like plasma become useless blocks of ice. Most of all, men lacking the proper clothing are threatened with frostbite, gangrene and death by exposure.
In the middle of these horrendous conditions, and on some of the most rugged terrain in North Korea, 30,000 marines under the command of Major General Oliver P. Smith suddenly found themselves completely surrounded by 120,000 Chinese. Thus began the 17-day Battle of Chosin Reservoir.
There is too much to tell in a brief article. An excellent book titled, Breakout, by Martin Russ tells the story in detail. In order to paint a picture of the situation, I will only tell one small piece of it.
West of the reservoir, the 5th and 7th Marines were attacked and surrounded on the evening of November 27. They established a perimeter and held their position. During fighting on the second day, the Chinese managed to divide Fox Company of the 7th Marines from the rest of their forces. They were isolated on a hill and held out for five days.
On the fourth day of battle, both regiments were ordered to break out and retreat to Hagaru-ri. The wording of this order caused Smith to exclaim one of the most memorable lines in military lore. He said, “Retreat, hell! We’re not retreating, we’re just advancing in a different direction.”
That line characterized the battle for 17 days as 120,000 Chinese tried to prevent their 78-mile retreat to the port city of Hungnam. Once in the port, the Navy performed what historians have called, “the greatest evacuation movement by sea in military history.” The last of the U.N. troops left Hungnam on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, 1950.
The Chinese lost between 50,000 and 60,000 soldiers. As many were killed by starvation and exposure as were killed in battle. Of the 30,000 U.N. forces, 1,029 were killed, 4,582 wounded, 4,894 missing in action and 7,338 non-battle casualties—many caused by the bitterly cold weather.
After the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, the Korean war turned into a war of attrition until an armistice was signed in July 1953, which created the demilitarized zone centering on the 38th parallel. The Korean War is still not officially over. We are going on seven decades of a fragile truce with North Korea. This is part of the reason that the bodies of many missing in action were never recovered.
North Korea historically has stalled on recovery agreements in order to bargain for money and supplies. Between 1996 and 2005 the U.S. and North Korea cooperated in “joint field activities” (JFAs) to recover over 400 caskets of remains at the cost of approximately $28 million dollars. Of these, 330 have been identified. But the project was halted when Washington became concerned about the safety of American personnel.
As a part of President Trump’s Singapore Summit with Kim Jong Un, North Korea promised the return of 200 caskets of remains. But to date, only 55 of these have actually returned to U.S. soil.
Meanwhile, the identification of remains painstakingly continues. Last week the U.S. Department of Defense announced that in May of 2018 they had conclusively identified one of the recovered bodies (presumably from those recovered prior to 2005.)
Army Corporal DeMaret Marston Kirtley was born on March 5, 1929 in Kaycee, Wyoming. On December 6, 1950 he was serving with approximately 2500 Americans and 700 South Korean soldiers assembled into the 31st Regimental Combat Team. During their fighting retreat on the eastern side of Chosin Reservoir he was cut off from his team. Three years later when he was not listed among the prisoners of North Korea, he was presumed dead. His name is permanently inscribed in the Courts of the Missing at the Honolulu Memorial in Hawaii.
DeMaret’s father, Ura Omer Kirtley, died in 1964 at the age of 86. His mother, Stella (nee’ Webb) lived to be 89 years old and died in 1981. Both are buried in the Kaycee cemetery with DeMaret’s older sibling, S.L., who died at the age of three.
The recovery and identification of DeMaret’s earthly remains gives Wyoming a moment to reflect on the price that we have paid for freedom. Although he died alone and abandoned on a frigid battlefield, his short life was not without meaning.
He was a part of the fighting force that preserved the country of South Korea. Had it not been for him and 326,862 others who fought alongside him, the entire population of South Korea would have been enslaved and brutalized just as North Korea has been for the past seven decades.
Corporal Kirtley was one of nearly 6,000 who died fighting so that 24,000 could live. The pain that his parents felt at the loss of their child can only be imagined. They, too, are not to be forgotten as we count the cost of freedom.
Finally, we should reflect on the fact that so much time, money and political capital is expended to recover the remains of men who died decades ago. This is the ethic of the United States, but it is not an ethic shared by all.
We value the bodies of our fallen heroes in ways that honor their humanity. Other countries use dead bodies as bargaining chips. America does not. Here individuals count. They are not faceless and nameless statistics of war. They are people with histories and families. They are people who loved and were loved.
Corporal DeMaret Kirtley died 68 years ago Thursday. He may have no children and no living parents to welcome him home. But all of Wyoming receives him as part of our own extended family.
Rest in peace, sir.