Forgotten Soldiers of a Long Forgotten War That Still Matters
Military historian Patrick O’Donnell provides a moment of reflection on the who and why of the brutal Korean war, which never really ended and is still haunting us today.
“What would you want if you could have any wish?” asked the photojournalist of the haggard, bloodied Marine before him. The Marine gaped at his interviewer. The photographer snapped his picture, which became the iconic Korean War image.
Finally, the soldier revealed his wish: “Give me tomorrow,” he said at last.
In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Jeff Schechtman talks with military historian Patrick O’Donnell, who wrote a book about the war almost a decade ago, entitled “Give Me Tomorrow,” a deeply personal look at those who served amid the extreme brutality of the Korean War. That war, fought almost 70 years ago, still echoes today.
O’Donnell tells Schechtman about the war, particularly of the horrors suffered by George Company — a group of men untrained for what they would face in the bloody Chosin Reservoir campaign. O’Donnell explains how the battle went right up to the Chinese border, and how aggressive and brutal the Chinese were in fighting alongside North Korea. He further explains how the North Korean army was in tatters, and that the Americans underestimated the possibility of a Chinese intervention. Eventually, the Chinese massed over 150,000 men near the Chosin Reservoir.
O’Donnell touches on the other epic battles of the war, and why those who came home have always been reluctant to talk about their experiences, which felt so small in the shadow of the Greatest Generation.
He explains how unprepared the US was to fight this war. How budget cuts and demilitarization after WWII left the soldiers with inferior equipment that cost many lives.
O’Donnell makes it clear that the soldiers of George Company, and particularly their performance at Chosin Reservoir, define the very essence of what we honor on Memorial Day.
Patrick O’Donnell is the author of The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America’s Unknown Soldier and WWI’s Most Decorated Heroes Who Brought Him Home (Atlantic Monthly Press, May 22, 2018).
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|Jeff Schechtman:||Thanks for joining us here at Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.|
|This Memorial Day, as we always do, we mark the sacrifice and bravery of our nation’s soldiers. But this year, especially given the events that have been and are still taking place in Korea and the reminders of the Korean War, it’s worth taking a look at the often-forgotten brutality of that war and acknowledging those who sacrificed so much.|
|An untold story of that war is the story of George Company. Established to answer the call in 1950, they would find themselves at the tip of the proverbial spear in one of the most horrendous battles of that war. To help remind us of these little known and seldom remembered heroes of the war itself, a war that is now part of American foreign policy in the 21st century, I’m joined by longtime military historian, Patrick O’Donnell.|
|Years ago, O’Donnell wrote a book entitled Give Me Tomorrow about George Company and their efforts, and it is my pleasure to welcome Patrick O’Donnell here to Radio WhoWhatWhy.|
|Patrick, thanks so much for joining us.|
|Patrick O’Donnell:||Jeff, it’s always a pleasure.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||It is always so interesting to think about the Korean War and how little has been written about it, relatively since, and really how we have forgotten so much of it.|
|Patrick O’Donnell:||That is certainly the case with the men that I talked to. I’ve done 3,000 interviews with World War II veterans and veterans from World War I, all the way through Afghanistan and Iraq, and I’d never encountered more reticence than the veterans I’ve interviewed with the Korean War.|
|These men really never talked about it to anyone, including their families. And it was even more so than the World War II veterans that I talked to. And that sort of just ties into, I think, this forgotten war, as you say.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Why do you think there is such reluctance to talk about it on the part of those who fought in it?|
|Patrick O’Donnell:||I think there’s a lot of factors. One, it’s not like World War II where these men came home to parades and everything else. This is America’s first limited war. It’s a lot like some of the conflicts we’re fighting now in Afghanistan and Iraq. These men came home and nobody cared, basically. They had to fight the demons of the war and, for many of these guys, the way that they fought those demons was to bury them and they basically forgot the war and moved on.|
|Some of the most epic battles in history were fought here, in South Korea and North Korea, in 1950 through 1953 and I focused in on sort of the grunt view of this Marine company and their boots on the ground kind of foxhole view of the war. And it’s largely in their own words. I spent the last five years interviewing over 50 members of the company, the survivors, about what they went through.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||How much of the reluctance do you think of the soldiers to talk about this war and talk about their experience is that it was at the time in the shadow of the heroics of World War II?|
|Patrick O’Donnell:||I certainly think that that’s a factor. And what’s interesting is that some of the men, some of the most heroic characters, many of the NCOs, the non-commissioned officers that led these men, were World War II veterans. Some of them very decorated veterans. They basically put this company together overnight. It came from all parts of the country but largely men that were just reservist, that had no combat training whatsoever. They never even went to boot camp, hardly even knew how to fire an M1 Garand or throw a grenade. And these NCOs had to put this company together and make them battle worthy.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Explain why there was a need to create George Company.|
|Patrick O’Donnell:||The summer of 1950 is sort of unique. It’s a lot like we have today. It was five years after the war. America went from an 11-million men under arms and a massive defense budget to… it was a little bit over a million men in the armed forces. The Marine Corps had shrunk from a million men and multiple divisions to just one tiny division. And there was a need for bodies, immediately. They were being warm bodies, people that had any kind of combat training were being called up from all over the country because America was demilitarizing. They had chopped their defense budget 93%, all this budget cutting talk of today was very much, very similar to the summer of 1950. They took a meat cleaver to the Pentagon’s budget and slashed away.|
|We were unprepared, we were completely unprepared for the Korean War and we had to basically move quickly. The Marine Corps, thank God, was prepared. They had taken a lot of their amtracks that they’d used in the Pacific War and other equipment and put it in mothballs in Barstow, in Death Valley. So that they were ready to go at a moment’s notice and they assembled the 1st Marine Division practically overnight and George Company was a component of that great division. They brought men from all over the country and assembled them in the summer in August 1950.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Talk a little about the brutality of the war in Korea because that’s one of the things that also gets lost. This was, in many ways, as brutal, if not more so in some respects, than the war in the Pacific in the second World War.|
|Patrick O’Donnell:||I think the best comparison is the Russian Front in World War II. The war in the east is very similar to what we faced in the Chosin Reservoir. Temperature plummeted to nearly 40 below zero. There was hardly any food at times and the men faced overwhelming hordes, 20-1, 30-1 odds, in many cases, of Chinese soldiers that stormed their positions.|
|This is sort of the ultimate survivor’s tale. Men, for two weeks straight, they lived in foxholes and all they had was a sleeping bag. Can you imagine living in Antarctica with nothing more than a sleeping bag? There was no tents, nothing.|
|And that’s how they fought and tried to survive in not only the onslaught of enemy troops and artillery and mortars, but also this unbearable cold that just sapped these men. The guys told me they were fighting like mummies, they were so cold.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||It seems amazing, really, that any of them were able to survive.|
|Patrick O’Donnell:||That’s sort of the test of American combat soldiers and in this case, Marines. It’s about mental toughness and these guys are just extremely mentally tough. I think that’s sort of the overarching story here, it’s just sort of average guys that were faced with an unbelievable challenge. And not only did they break through a Chinese division, but then they held the little mountain top effectively in the Korean War and allowed the 1st Marine Division to build an airfield and bring in supplies and reinforcements.|
|They were sort of at the right place at the right time in history. And they sort of wrote the … George Company fought all the way through 1953 and they had five separate epic stands throughout the war, including the last day of the war on the last battle where an entire Chinese regimen hit them at a place called Boulder City. And the men made an epic stand there and stopped the Chinese from basically making another route into Seoul.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||The ones that you did get to talk about this, tell us a little bit about how they remembered it.|
|Patrick O’Donnell:||I think the most poignant memory that a person that sort of symbolizes many of the men’s stories is a very good friend of mine. He’s a machine gunner. His name is Tom Powers. Every night, Tom Powers fights Chinese. He was in hand to hand combat with a Chinese soldier that jumped on his back and tried to strangle him. And he fights that person, that Chinese soldier, pretty much every night and they basically try to strangle each other.|
|It’s kind of those phantasmal killers that these dreams and nightmares that some of these men remember. But there’s also the happy times, of course, of how the fellowship of men that are under battle, they forged some incredible friendships that have lasted and endured over 60 years.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Talk a little bit about some of the characters, some of the men that were part of this company.|
|Patrick O’Donnell:||There’s several that really stand out. One is Mert Good Eagle, who was a Native American that … Basically right off, his father did Wild Bill pony shows. He was an Indian extra in the shows and Mert was trying to get his Warrior’s Feather.|
|I met him in 2006 at one of the reunions and, he talked about how on East Hill, he was going down to get extra ammunition for the machine guns that were working all night. The barrels on the guns literally were glowing like a neon light because so many rounds went through them. Thousands of Chinese soldiers hit George Company’s position of just 200 men and overran portions of it, of the line. And Good Eagle was in one of those positions that was overrun and he found himself confronted by two Chinese soldiers and he talked about how he took the ammo box that was in his hand and slammed it against one of the faces of the Chinese soldiers. And in the other, he grabbed his knife, or his bayonet I should say, and stabbed the other man and ran up the hill as fast as he could. He looked down, and in sort of an iconical moment, he wet his pants because he was just so frightened by what he’d just encountered.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||How important was the Chosin Reservoir campaign to the overall war?|
|Patrick O’Donnell:||What happened is in the winter of 1950, Douglas MacArthur was charging headlong north into North Korea. The North Korean army was in tatters, it was destroyed, effectively. MacArthur basically underestimated the possibility of a Chinese intervention. The Chinese had massed over 150,000 men near the Chosin Reservoir. They had surrounded the 1st Marine Division, as well as Army units. Had they been able to successfully destroy the 1st Marine Division and those Army units, they would have potentially won the war.|
|So, this battle was one of the seminal battles of the entire war. And George Company was in position to make a decisive effort in that battle because they were the last reserve unit at the time and they had to be rushed into a place called East Hill, which overlooked the main supply base that the Marine Corps had at Hagaru-ri. They broke through a Chinese division to get to the hill and then they were put on the hill for three days. Had the Chinese taken the hill, they would have probably taken Hagaru-ri. And had they done that, the 1st Marine Division would have ceased to exist.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||What did we learn from a military perspective, from this battle?|
|Patrick O’Donnell:||I think a lot of things. One, you need to be prepared in terms of equipment and everything. Sadly, these men were very poorly equipped. They were given the same equipment that our troops had received during the Battle of the Bulge, which caused massive amounts of frostbite. The VA doesn’t … If anybody fought in the Chosin Reservoir, they’re called the veterans of the frozen Chosin, is sort of the nickname. The VA automatically assumes that they have frostbite and it’s largely because of the shoddy equipment that they received.|
|The other thing is, it’s all about intelligence. Intelligence, when it’s ignored, can be absolutely deadly. It almost cost us the war in Korea. Underestimating the strengths and the disposition of China’s forces that were a raid against the Eighth Army and the 1st Marine Division.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||It also says so much about resiliency and courage in these conditions.|
|Patrick O’Donnell:||That’s the thing that I’m drawn to in all my work is the resilience, the fact that men that are under such an extreme stress, these are just the regular Americans, just done some truly amazing and heroic things. Just looking back to places like Korea, it’s very, very inspiring. For me, it’s been a personal journey of sorts. I’ve just gotten to know so many of these men and they’ve been good friends of mine as I’ve interviewed them and they are truly extraordinary Americans.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||The title of your book about this, Give Me Tomorrow, has a very special significance with respect to one of the stories you tell about one of the soldiers that was so courageous, that gave so much in this battle.|
|Patrick O’Donnell:||The title is completely intertwined. On December 9th, David Douglas Duncan, is a very, very famous photographer, who is one of the great photojournalists in history, was accompanying George Company, as well as the 1st Marine Division on their way out of the Chosin Reservoir. They were breaking out, effectively, pushing towards the sea. He was there as the Marines of George Company were making their way back towards the port, fighting their way back. He asked one of the Marines in George Company, “If I could grant you any wish, what would it be?” And this marine had been fighting for nine days straight, hadn’t been well fed, had survived the elements, just kind of paused and he looked at him and he said, “Give me tomorrow.” And at that point, the photojournalist snapped one of the most iconic photos of war, including the Korean War.|
|That night… This wasn’t a trite thing that he said at all. That night, their position was overrun by an entire battalion of Chinese troops. That’s about 500 men. The 3rd Platoon, which this gentleman was part of, their position was overrun and he almost died that night. He almost never received the tomorrow that he asked for.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Patrick O’Donnell, the book is Give Me Tomorrow: The Korean War’s Greatest Untold Story – The Epic Stand of the Marines of George Company.|
|Patrick, it’s always a pleasure. I thank you so much for being with us.|
|Patrick O’Donnell:||Thank you so much for having me, Jeff. It’s always a pleasure, as well.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Thank you.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||And thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.|
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Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Marines at Chosin (USMC / Wikimedia).