41 Commando - Chosin Reservoir Korea November/ December 1950 - Task Force Drysdale
Updated: Dec 11, 2021
Unit/ Formation: 41 Cdo RM
Period/ Conflict: Korean War
Date/s: 27 November 1950
I’m not done with them yet!!
Unknown Royal Marine when asked by a US Marine why he was going back into the Chosin Reservoir
'As Commanding General of the First Marine Division, I desire to take this opportunity to acknowledge the high qualities of leadership, heroism, devotion to duty, and self-sacrifice displayed by officers and men of the 41 Independent Commando of the Royal Marines while serving with this division in North Korea.
I am familiar with the long and glorious history of the Royal Marines. This history records many outstanding feats of heroism, devotion to duty, and self-sacrifice by units and individuals alike. The performance of the 41 Commandos during the drive from Koto-ri to Hagaru-ri, during the defense of Hagaru-ri, and during the advance from Hagaru-ri to the south will, in the perspective of history, take equal rank with the past exploits of the Royal Marines.
I can give you no higher compliment than to state that your conduct and that of your officers and men under your command was worthy of the highest traditions of Marines.'
General O.P. Smith to Lt.Col. Drysdale
Extracted for an article by Ernest P Bond Jr, US Marine Corps Gazette
After conducting various raiding operations up and down the Korean coast 41 Commando under Lt.Col. Drysdale were shipped via sea transport to the port of Hungnam in North Korea to serve with the US First Marine Division. as an additional reconnaissance unit.
Their mission was to locate and destroy enemy forces on the left flank ranging as far as 23 miles west of Koto-ri. It was hoped that the British unit and the Division Reconnaissance Company might flush out the Communist troops beyond the reach of routine infantry patrols.
41 Independent Commando, a small complement of about 200 plus, were based a few miles inland at Hamhung where they remained for several days for fresh supplies, equipment and cold weather clothing. Like many others, 41 Independent Commando joined in the "I'll be home for Christmas" euphoria, and waited. They were ready to go, but vehicles to transport them to Koto-ri evidently were not ready. When days passed and still the vehicles did not appear, it became necessary for the Divisional Service Units to provide the transportation.
The situation was getting more critical by the day. The Communist Chinese forces were furiously pressing their attack at Hagaru-ri and Yudamni. There was only one Marine infantry battalion at Hagaru-ri and it was becoming increasingly more difficult to hold. Reinforcements were an absolute necessity. When 41 Independent Commando finally arrived at Koto-ri, they were greeted with the news that the road to the north was blocked.
Task Force Drysdale was quickly organized to clear the road between Koto-ri and to reinforce Hagaru-ri. It was comprised of about 900 men and was made up of 41 Commando; George Company [G/3/1 USMC], under the command of Carl Sitter; and Baker Company [B/1/31st INF USA], under the command of Charles L. Peckham, which was en route to join Task Force MacLean east of the Chosin Reservoir. Lt.Col. Drysdale said, "Lads, it will not be a walk in the sun-Semper Fi."
On November 29, on a cold, snowy morning, with the temperature hovering near zero, the Task Force set off from Koto-ri to Hagaru-ri on one of the most astonishing rescue operations in military history. Since close air support was delayed because of poor visibility, it was not until 9:00 AM before they could get underway. The plan was that 41 Commando would take the first hill to the east of the road; George Company would take the second hill; and Baker Company would remain on the road to parallel the progress of the two units as they secured the high ground. It was not long before they came to realize that there were huge numbers of Communist troops ahead, attacking in all different directions and destroying everything-and everyone-in their path. The master plan of the enemy had been put into place-to annihilate the First Marine Division. In the words of General Sung Shin-lin, ". . . Kill these Marines as you would snakes in your homes."
The day before, three Communist Chinese divisions hit the 5th and 7th Marines at Yudam-ni. Other elements struck Fox Company holding Toktong Pass. The main supply route was cut in several places. At Hagaru-ri the Marines and soldiers were completely surrounded and there was no place to turn.
The Task Force made up a convoy about 2 miles long and included 100 vehicles and 12 tanks. They leapfrogged their way north with little opposition until suddenly the Communist Chinese opened fire from the right front. Fighting back from exposed positions along the road, they soon came to realize that the enemy was in far greater numbers than they had anticipated. There were Chinese in front of them and in back of them as they pushed on slowly around roadblocks and other obstacles. Halfway to Hagaruri, they reached Hell Fire Valley, a long alpine valley in the middle of a mountainous range with a frozen creek winding through. They were being bombarded everywhere. Three hours passed and they had advanced only two miles. Four hours passed, and still no progress. In desperation, Col. Drysdale called for reinforcements. Early that afternoon, eight tanks arrived.
It was obvious that the hill-by-hill attack was not working. Consequently, it was decided that they should depend on the tanks and close air support to keep the flanks clear while the Task Force pushed through on trucks as rapidly as possible. The column moved out again and was hit immediately by enemy fire. The tanks halted. Casualties were being taken.
Meanwhile, George Company assumed the lead in the column. The tanks pushed on up the road using a by-pass around a destroyed bridge. The column continued northward-first George Company, then 41 Commando, then Baker Company, and finally the transport vehicles. Heavy mortar fire continued, and once again the column had to stop. Casualties continued to mount, and Lt.Col. Drysdale himself was wounded in the fray. Radio communications were knocked out, and it was now starting to get dark.
During daylight hours, American Corsair fighters mercilessly attacked the Chinese. When darkness descended, they were forced to return to their carriers leaving the convoy completely on their own.
Amid a continuous stream of bullets, grenades, and a fire inferno, the column again formed to leapfrog their way through. With the tanks in the lead, George Company could see the lights at the Hagaru-ri airstrip where American engineers were working feverishly. They kept going somehow, even through an ambush that destroyed a number of ammunition trucks. One writer described the scene-". . . the whole area glowed and flamed in the melted snow as though under some astonishing midnight sun." After ten hours and an average of one mile an hour, they reached the Hagaru-ri perimeter where they dug in the frozen earth and continued to fight off the constant Chinese barrages.
41 Commando, the next in line to try to reach Hagaru-ri alive, took a blast when a mortar shell hit an ammunition truck at the end of the Commando column. The blast formed a road-block and 41 Commando was now cut off from Baker Company following behind. The Chinese went in for the kill. Despite severe casualties, the Royal Marines pushed their way through three more roadblocks. About 1:30 in the morning, they dragged themselves into Hagaru-ri. It was a bloody battle, but in the end, about 150 men, including Lt.Col. Drysdale, broke through to Hagaru-ri.
There was mass confusion for Baker Company when the ammunition truck exploded in the rear of the 41 Independent Commando. The explosion forced Baker Company and the long train of vehicles to come to a halt. There was a mad scramble as the troops took up defensive positions. Some officers and NCOs, unable to take control, acted independently and hurriedly set up defensive lines. All in all, it was a terrible ordeal which continued throughout most of the night. Of the three companies, Baker Company was the hardest hit. In the end, one officer and 69 men found their way back to Koto-ri and 140 were missing in action.
General MacArthur, now facing a totally different situation, radioed Washington:
All hope of localization of the Korean conflict to enemy forces composed of North Korean troops with alien token elements can now be completely abandoned. . . . We face an entirely new war ... Our present strength of force is not sufficient to meet this undeclared war by the Chinese.... This command had done everything humanly possible within its capabilities but now is faced with conditions beyond its control and its strength.
General MacArthur was going over to the defensive, and Washington had no choice but to concur.
General O.P. Smith was left with only one option and that was to fight his way out. When he made his famous "Retreat, Hell" decision at Hagaru-ri, 41 Independent Commando was very much a strong presence despite having lost 50 percent of their original number.
The breakout southward from Hagaru-ri began early on the morning of December 6. The 7th Marines was ordered to take the lead, followed by the 5th Marines, with 41 Commando and the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines attached. It was cold and the wind was vicious. The road was jammed with trucks, jeeps and tanks. Destroyed vehicles and trash were everywhere, and there seemed to be nothing but death all around them. It took 38 hours to travel 11 miles. Despite the cold, despite their painful, aching, tired bodies, all they could do was keep walking.
The 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines was the first to arrive at Koto-ri. The Chinese were still attacking the main column from both flanks and they were pouring in everything they had. The Marines retaliated in kind.
The last elements of the First Marine Division arrived in Koto-ri around midnight on December 7-8 and they all had had it. More than 14,000 men were crammed into this small village. Tired, dirty, hungry and cold, all they wanted to do was collapse. But before they knew it, they were receiving orders to resume the attack the next morning through the Funchilin Pass to Chinhung-ni. One Royal Marine said, "Cheer up, lads, we'll get out of this mess." His tone of voice inspired renewed courage and confidence to go on.
The long column continued in a seemingly endless procession only to encounter still another roadblock-a huge chasm where a bridge was supposed to be. The column could climb down one side and up the other side to get to the road ahead, but there was no way they could get their equipment through, plus their dead and wounded. There was nothing to do but rebuild the bridge! It was nothing short of a miracle when the flood of people, vehicles and equipment stretching back to Koto-ri resumed their crossing throughout the night. It was now just a matter of putting one frozen foot ahead of another.
All of the fight was out of the Chinese and the troops were encountering less and less resistance. By 9:00 PM December 11, all units arrived in Hungnam. The armored tanks rolled in at midnight. Hot food, water, showers, warm stoves, and R&R were waiting for them. As soon as the necessary preparations were made, they were moved to the safety of waiting ships. The disastrous Chosin Reservoir campaign was over.
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