A Dream of Cold: Veterans of the Battle of Chosin
In November of 1950, five months after the start of the Korean War, American troops found themselves surrounded by Chinese forces at the Chosin Reservoir. The battle that followed, fought in freezing temperatures, would go down as one of the most harrowing in Marine Corps history and change the lives of the men who lived through it forever.
Text by Cori Brosnahan, Photographs by Lauren Prestileo and Carrie Phillips
They came from everywhere: California, Alabama, Wyoming, and Texas — to name a few. They were 17, 18, 19 when they left for Korea — a country many could not find on a map. They were told they’d be home by Christmas. They were not.
Instead, they found themselves at the Chosin Reservoir, the Frozen Chosin — zero degrees on a good day. They were surrounded; they were attacked. Night after night, they were attacked. They saw their friends die. They saw the enemy die. They wondered if they would die. They couldn’t feel their feet, their hands, their faces. They froze.
They came back… different. They broke off engagements. They drifted away from family. They got married, had kids. They farmed, drove trucks, built planes. They never spoke about what they had seen, what they had done. They wondered why people talked about World War II and Vietnam with no mention of Korea. They watched the world forget about their war.
Now they are 85, 86, 87, and they all have the same dream. Their wives wake to find them shivering under heavy covers. A dream of a distant country, a dream of a wintry battle, a dream of cold.
This is what they remember.
“Now where do you want me to start?”
How did you feel when you were called up?
“We were at Camp Lejeune. Everybody said, well, where in the world is Korea?”
~ Dwayne Trowbridge, Marines
“This captain, I can’t remember his name, but he was from Louisiana and he emulated Douglas MacArthur in dress. He wore cowboy boots, his hat low down, and green aviator shades. He was telling us that General Almond did not want any colored troops because in World War II he had colored troops and they weren’t reliable — they didn’t know how to fight — so we would not be a fighting unit, we were going to become truck drivers. They brought in these two-and-a-half ton trucks to teach us how to drive them. Most of us knew how to drive — all except me — I didn’t have a driver’s license!”
~ Harrison “Joe” Ager, Army
“I never did go to boot camp — my boot camp was when we landed at Inchon.”
Did you feel prepared?
“I was dumb enough and young enough, I didn’t care, you’know, I didn’t think about it — I’d seen them John Wayne movies.”
~ Linus Chism, Marines
“We went up to the Yalu River at night. You could see the Manchurian Mountains looking way out on the horizon in China. I took some beautiful pictures of that and used them as Christmas cards. Beautiful. And cold. It was cold.”
~ George Barber, Navy
“We came in to Gimpo Airport and we set up there. During the night, I heard something. I didn’t know what it was. I thought it was a Chinaman or something. So I got my 45 out and then I see something move. I went over and I turned a lantern on. Here was a big, beautiful rabbit. He had a pink nose, pink ears, blue eyes. I sent guys around to ask the Koreans who owned the rabbit. But nobody said anything. So we built him a little cage and took him with us. We took him into the Chosin Reservoir. The colonel was complaining — ‘That goddamn rabbit gets better care than I do!’”
Did you keep him?
“When we got up to Yudam-ni, we had to throw away anything we didn’t need to keep. And the old colonel says, ‘That goddamn rabbit’s got to go. Get rid of his house, too.’ I said, ‘I can’t kick him out on the loose! He’ll starve to death, he’ll die out here. That pink skin wouldn’t stand up in 32 below zero.’ He said, ‘I don’t give a damn, you’ve got to get rid of it!’ I said, ‘Alright.’ There was an encampment of North Koreans down to the side of our camp. They had come with us, they were following us to freedom. So I said, ‘Well, I’ll take him down there. I knew as soon as I did they were going to eat him. So I took him down there and I said, ‘Don’t tell me what you’re going to do, just take care of him. Don’t let him suffer.’”
Did you miss him?
“I suffered. I’m an animal lover. I was a cowboy, so I spent a lot of time riding them. I hated to let that rabbit go.”
~ John Farritor, Marines
“We were at the reservoir November 27th, which was my birthday. The Chinese entered the war that night and we got clobbered. And my squad leader, Bob Devins — he was one of my best friends — he got killed that night. He died in my arms. He was covered in blood. We tried to hold his head together, but we couldn’t do it. That was the hardest part of the whole war, that one night.”
~John Parkinson, Marines
“The day the Chinese entered the war, I was sure he was dead. I started crying. I couldn’t stop. And the admiral came in to give me some papers — he had something he wanted me to do. He came into the room and he said to the other girl, ‘What’s the matter with her?’ Because I was typing and crying. And she said, ‘Well she’s sure her fiancé is dead.’ He says, ‘It’s worse than you imagine. Come with me to the war room.’ They had a war room on the top floor with a map of the world and pins in the walls that told where each unit was. He said, ‘Now what unit is he with?’ I told him and he went up there and he looked at the pin and it showed that they were surrounded by Chinese. And he went to a desk and he got out a box of Kleenex, and he said, ‘Here honey, cry all you want if you think it will help.’”
~ Leona and Charles Stern, Marines
Leona Stern was working as a conference secretary for an admiral while her fiancé, Charles Stern, was fighting in Korea.
“It was always a somewhat unusual feeling when you woke up in the morning and you had to dig holes to push bodies of dead guys in and cover them up because the next night it was going to happen again. You had some feeling about it.”
A bad feeling?
“No, you didn’t feel bad. I’m not a very religious person — I wasn’t at that time anyway because I couldn’t be a hypocrite — serve God in one way and do things on my own in another way. I guess I kind of lived with something I heard as a kid: ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.’”
~ John Schoenfeld, Marines
“The corpsman said, ‘For god’s sake, you’ve got a bullet in your stomach? Wiggle your toes or they’ll freeze!’ The corpsman was a smart one — he said, ‘wiggle, wiggle, wiggle,’ and look at me — I can do it now!”
~ Robert Henderson, Marines
“We had to determine which ones would fly out. If a person had half their face shot away or a sucking chest wound, you knew he was going to die. But this other guy, if he can get to a hospital ship or get to Japan, he’s got a chance of living. So we had to put some guys aside. That was the most difficult thing of all. It haunted me for years — choosing who would live and would die. How the hell would I know?”
~ Stanley Wolf, Navy
“She always had her makeup done — lipstick and her hair in a chignon. The lipstick was a big thing. She felt like she represented back home to them. Here they are in a foreign place — terrified. She represented their mother, their sister, their sweetheart, that’s how it was. And for them to look at her and just feel sort of like they were going to be okay — it was a comfort to them.”
~ Adrianne Whitmore
Adrianne Whitmore’s mother, Lillian Kinkella Keil, was an Air Force nurse who flew 175 evacuation flights during the Korean War. Before she passed away in 2005, Keil always attended reunions of The Chosin Few. Veterans who knew her mother still do a double-take when they see Whitmore.
“It’s really hard to describe. It’s total shock. The cold was numbing — you can’t describe that kind of cold. And the fear. They said there was a dead marine in this hole and they wanted me to go down there and take his place. It was the morning after when we first got trapped. It was a bright day, no shots were being fired. So I jumped up, started running my zig-zag path to get where he told me to go. Then it seemed like the whole Chinese army opened up, you could hear them whizzing by, and there was no hole. I fell to the ground and started rolling, and I rolled right into a hole, but the hole had a marine in it, and he was definitely alive, and the platoon commander was waving at me to come back. I get back to where he was and he said, ‘I told you the wrong place!’ He moved me over and said, ‘Try here!’ Same thing happened and I couldn’t find the hole because of the brush and the snow. I was just rolling and I rolled right into the hole I was supposed to be in, luckily — act of God, I guess.
“My experience there — I can’t really describe what it was like. I had a marine about 8–10 yards on each side of me for a while, and we could communicate somewhat. The Chinese attacked with all these concussion hand grenades, and eventually I was out there by myself — nobody on either side of me. You can’t explain what it’s like. I’d tell myself, the marines don’t leave you, so I’m not by myself, somebody’s back there. This went on I don’t know how long. Quite frankly, I have no recollection of getting out of that hole. I don’t know when I lost it, or if I ever had it. It’s kind of scary when you think about it.”
~ Bill Mills, Marines
“We were fox-hole buddies. I was his Sergeant.”
“When your actual life depends on the people around you, they tend to mean something to you.”
~ Felix Del Giudice, Marines, and Myron “Jack” Leistler, Marines
“When we were coming down from the Chosin Reservoir, we came down with a whole lot of refugees — I mean thousands, maybe. And it was kind of dark. And there was a family and there was a little girl… I’m going to cry… I went over to her and I said, ‘I want to give you some food.’ And she said no. I said, ‘Please, I want to give you some food.’ So I walked away. And a little bit later she walks over to me and she gives me this thing to trade for food. She gave that to me. I gave them all I had.”
~ Barry McLean, Marines
“I got home at suppertime. I walked from the train station downtown, carrying my sea bag. I looked around and it was just like the Lubbock, Texas I’d gone away from four years earlier — everything just kind of cooling off. It was late September. My parents didn’t know I was on my way. There was a taxicab company, so I went to them and said, I’m going to Avenue S and 21st Street. He said, ‘get in.’ Never said a word to me. I’ve got my greens and ribbons on. The driver never said, ‘What’s happened to you?’ or ‘Where have you been?’ I thought well, maybe he can’t see. He let me off in front of the house. I went in, I opened the front door. They were all sitting at the dinner table. I walked in and dropped my sea bag and then everybody looked up. My dad jumped up and ran around the table to hug me. My mother was crying.”
~ Bob Atkins, Marines
“I came back and I never even told my kids. I got married and lived thirty years before they ever knew.”
Why didn’t you want to tell them?
“I just wasn’t ready. I didn’t know what their reaction would be. I think what changed me was the Veterans of Foreign Wars. I joined that program and got involved. The more you can talk about it, the easier it gets. But I went to a lot of schools with the VFW and we talked to little kids and the first thing they’d say was, ‘Well how many people did you kill?’ That’s the first thing a child says, and you’ve got to understand it. And we did. It got easier as we went.”
~ Jim Valentine, Army
“He does have a recurring dream.”
“We all have the same dream. All the guys.”
“I know when he’s having it because he does the same thing every time. First, he starts shivering. Then every hair on his body stands straight out. And then he starts running. He runs — and then he stops. He looks around. He does that three or four times. And then the last time he lets out the most bloodcurdling scream I’ve ever heard. As soon as I touch him he calms down.”
~ Arlee and Robert “BJ” Johnson, Marines
All portraits were taken at The Chosin Few reunion in San Diego, California in August of 2016. American Experience thanks these veterans and their families for sharing their stories.