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Remembering a ‘forgotten war’

POSTED: November 11, 2013 7:39 p.m.
Photo by Pat Donahue/

Harrell Roberts, a Marine who fought at the Chosin Reservoir in late November-early December 1950, describes the conditions American and allied forces encountered there.

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As a bullet from a Chinese .50-caliber machine gun tore into his wrist, Harrell Roberts rued the end of his wristwatch.

“It broke the best $18.95 PX watch money could buy,” he said.

It also ended his service in the Marine Corps, but there was still danger as Roberts, the rest of the 1st Marine Division and thousands of other United Nations troops were fighting in harsh winter conditions against hundreds of thousands of Chinese and North Korean soldiers near the Chosin Reservoir, not far from the North Korean border with China.

Roberts was the keynote speaker at Monday’s annual Veterans Day observance at Veterans Park, with a tribute paid to those fought in the Korean War. The families of four Effingham soldiers killed in action during the war — William Fulton Jr., Amos Louie Kight, Fred Brinson Rountree and James E. Walsh — also were recognized during the ceremony, though no living relatives of Fulton have been located.

Roberts was part of a Marine Reserve unit in Savannah that was called hastily to duty not long after North Korean forces pushed south across the 38th parallel into South Korea. Overwhelming a small Republic of Korea defense and American units rushed to Korea, the North Koreans had the allied units boxed into the Pusan Perimeter, centered around the southeastern port city of Pusan.

Roberts talked of his friend and fellow Marine Charles Monroe, an Effingham County native who won the Navy Cross for his actions as one of the “Chosin Few,” the name given to the Marines and soldiers who were cut off by advancing Chinese troops but fought their way out in temperatures that plunged to 40 degrees below zero.

Monroe, a rifleman with H Company of 3rd Battalion of the 1st Marine Regiment, was in action near Hagaru-ri and blown from his foxhole by an enemy grenade. PFC Monroe repeatedly refused evacuation, despite his wounds, his citation reads, and medical aid “and fearlessly remained directly in the line of a hostile assault.”

Monroe continued to fire his Browning automatic rifle, or BAR, killing 11 Chinese soldiers before losing consciousness. His regret, Roberts said, was “I ran out of ammunition.”

“What this doesn’t say is he was fighting in minus-40 degree temperatures,” Roberts said of Monroe’s citation. “He wasn’t dug in; you couldn’t dig in, the ground was frozen was so hard.”

Chinese soldiers even took a ring off Monroe’s finger as he lay unconscious, Roberts added.

Roberts was one of 80,000 Marine Reservists called to active duty and at Camp Pendleton, indoctrination that normally would take several days or weeks was whittled down to one day. He was given a new task, going from an infantry company to a weapons company with machine guns and mortars.

When Roberts and the 1st Marine Division reached Korea, on Nov. 11, 1950, the temperature was 20 degrees below zero “which was terribly cold to this cracker boy,” he said. “I had never seen snow before in my life, but I got my fill of it.”

Roberts’ unit, under the command of Marine legend Lewis “Chesty” Puller, had advanced as far as Yudam-ni, west of the Chosin, before retreating to Hagaru-ri, on the southern tip of the reservoir. But the road was narrow, and no one could pass a tank if it was on the path.

Marines fighting at the Chosin had little or no winter weather gear. Their Chinese counterparts were even less prepared, dressed in tennis shoes and uniforms with cotton padding, Roberts said. But, with the defeat of nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-Shek and the Communist takeover of China, their troops had American weapons, along with Russian armament.

“And when they would charge, they would blow these whistles,” Roberts said. “And when they blew the bugles, church was out.”

In the face of overwhelming odds, unforgiving terrain and bitter cold, the Marines, soldiers and British Royal Commandos had help from above, the close air support provided by Marine F4U Corsairs. The propeller-driven planes fired rockets and dropped bombs and napalm on Chinese positions.

“It sucked all the oxygen out of the air,” Roberts said of the napalm, a jellied gasoline that ignites on contact. “But it was warm, and it was appreciated.”

Roberts recalled seeing a Corsair swooping in for an attack, but its napalm tank didn’t discharge from the rack. Instead, it dangled, and the plane flew right over his head, and the canister eventually fell off and landed.

“If you’ve been around napalm, you know it’s hot,” he said. “In that 40 degree weather, it was really some hot stuff.”

He admitted to being scared to death as he entered action for the first time, firing against Chinese forces on a hill in the snow. The sound of gunfire was that of a swarming of bees, he said, and it was followed by the thunk of bullets hitting the snow. He looked over at fellow Savannahiah Neil Cowart, a rifleman in another squad.

“‘Harrell, this ain’t no … John Wayne movie,’” he said his friend told him. “And he was so right.”

Roberts’ platoon sergeant was Gerald Tillman from Tennessee. Once Roberts and his unit joined up with the rest of the Marines, Tillman instructed the arrivals to dispense any extra gloves and socks they had to the original Marines, who had been fighting with no cold weather gear.

Tillman, while kneeling beside Roberts and a sniper, in the deep snow as they approached a Chinese position, was cut down by a bullet that went just under the rim of his helmet.

“That was the first man I ever saw killed,” he said.

By the time American and allied forces fought their way out of the encirclement and made it to the port at Hungnam to be evacuated, more than 1,000 soldiers had been killed, with almost another 4,900 missing, 4,500 wounded and 7,300 the victim of non-battle casualties such as frostbite. Chinese casualties, according to the UN, were 29,800 as a result of battle and more than 20,000 from non-battle origins.

“Every man there was an answer to our prayers,” Roberts said, “and don’t forget all veterans deserve thanks. God bless them all, and God bless America.”


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