the Historic Clash
as American Marines meet Red Chinese Volunteers
in the Korean War
The setting is North Korea in 1950 forthe battle at Sudong-ni, an overlooked yet crucial clash as the opening salvo of
the vicious Chosin Reservoir campaign. Halfway between
North Korea's east coast port of Hungnam and the desolate Taebaek
Plateau, a small valley just south of a tiny nondescript village
called Sudong-ni would host the first-ever meeting
between U.S. Marines and Communist China's People's Liberation
Army. The ChiCom armed forces were represented as
Volunteers coming to the aid of their North Korean
neighbors, which regime had been established by the Soviet Union
at the end of World War II.
To back up a bit, the Marine's baptism of fire in Korea actually
occurred shortly after North Korea's People's Army sudden,
overwhelming invasion of South Korea on 25 June 1950. Though
understrength due to post-WWII cutbacks, with General MacArthur's
urging, a Marine brigade was quickly formed and rushed to Korea.
Dubbed the Fire Brigade, General Craig's brigade helped
stop the enemy juggernaught now deep in South Korea and
threatening the southern -tip port of Pusan. Enduring the
enervating heat of South Korea in July and August, the brigade
immediately deployed as a flying reserve. They were
rushed to quell hot spots and potential breakthroughs as
they flared up all up and down the Pusan perimeter.
Meanwhile, at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, where my Marine
buddies Rex Farler, Willie Greene and I were stationed, an
emergency contingent was being formed for deployment to Korea.
Trained and experienced as radiomen, part of a naval gunfire
spotting team, we all volunteered for Korea as naval gunfire and
air support spotting teams were forming. Despite the traditional
military mantra of "Never volunteer for
anything!", the innocence of youth and the siren-song of
adventure called, so I suppose that's why we foolishly
With the situation in Korea deteriorating, things moved rapidly.
Entrained to California, upon arrival our team was assigned to
the 2nd Battalion. 7th Marines. Consisting
of only half regulars, it was filled-out with Marine reservists
who'd been called up to active duty.
Soon we were at sea on our way to take part in September's Inchon
end-run surprise assault landing. By the end of
September, the division had secured Inchon and liberated Seoul,
South Korea's Capitol. During these actions, our spotting team,
sent to Kimpo Peninsula, west of Seoul, had the thrill and
excitement of calling in fire missions from the 16-inch guns of
the battleship Missouri, the renown Mighty Mo
of WWII fame. I can still remember the ponderous rumble of those
massive shells passing overhead and still see those huge black
and red earth-rending explosions in my mind's eye ... so powerful
and destructive, but on our side, and for a good cause.
The Inchon/Seoul victories quickly altered the dynamics and
course of the war. Now caught deep in South Korea, and in danger
of entrapment, the communist forces abandoned the Pusan perimeter
and began fleeing north.
Returning to Inchon, the 1st Marine Division re-formed, re-supplied, and began shipping out for North Korea. This
time scheduled to land unopposed at Wonsan, on North Korea's east
coast. With the 1st Marine Division now attached to
the Army under General Almond's X Corps, the 7th
Marines received orders in mid-October to jump-off ahead of the
division, and drive deep into the northeast Taebaek Mountains,
and thence to the Chosin Reservoir.
With the war seemingly winding down, rumors were rampant. During
chow one afternoon Willie Greene came up with some scuttlebutt,
"Listen guys, I just heard that we'll all be home by Christmas!"
We jumped-off early in the morning on October 31st.
After a day-long trek climbing a narrow, dirt mountain road,
Colonel Litzenberg picked a small valley just south of
Sudong-ni to bivouac the regiment for the night. The
rock-strewn valley was bordered by a dry stony riverbed and that
was encircled by steeply-rising hills, climbing 1,000 to 1,500
feet higher, and dominating the valley floor.
Lieutenant Colonels Davis and Lockwood set up their
1st and 2nd Battalion Command Posts in the
valley, and dug-in their rifle companies among the hills. Colonel
Litzenberg set up his regimental C.P. along with Lieutenant
Colonel Bill Harris' 3rd Battalion around a bend in
the road, about 100 yards or so to the rear.
Our team sergeant ordered us to park our radio Jeep beside the
riverbed, and head for evening chow. Later we heard a rumor that
Colonel Litzenberg had once declared, "The only Marines I want in
my outfit are Purple Heart Marines!" Being fairly new to war and
its horrors, we didn't quite know what to make of his words.
However, they would soon hit home. After those disquieting
comments, the fast-darkening hills seemed to take on a sinister
aspect as they merged into a starless night.
Breaking out our sleeping bags for the night, the usual Marine
bitching began. One was, "What idiot thought up this
stupid idea of sending sea-going Marines into these goddamn
mountains anyway!" That prophetic curse would be widely echoed.
Strains of Goodnight Irene filtered into the night air as
one of my buddies began pulling in the Armed Forces Radio
broadcast from Tokyo. Remembering our Marine band's dockside
serenade as we shipped out from San Diego, I had a tug of
nostalgia for home ... remember, you volunteered for all
As we hit the welcome warmth of our sleeping bags, a sharp chill
in the air seemed to be a harbinger of a frigid winter soon to be
howling down from Manchuria. In the desolate mountains of the
Taebaek Plateau, overnight winter temperatures of -20 to -30
degrees were not uncommon. The starless night found the road-tired Marines in the sack and the valley fell silent.
"Here they come!"
Jolted awake by the unexpected shouts, a shiver of fear knifed
through my system as we scrambled from our bags. Rifle and
machine-gun fire began breaking out to our front. Crouching
around our radio Jeep, we broke out our weapons and ammo,
steeling ourselves for the sudden onslaught.
Suddenly an eerie blare of bugles began, harshly discordant,
echoing and re-echoing from hill to hill above. Shadowy forms
loomed from the riverbed to our left. We let go with a fusillade
of .45 pistol and .30 caliber carbine fire, and the forms eerily
melted into the gloom. In a night action, everything is uncertain
and confused by vague forms and blinding flashes. You never know
if you hit anyone, or the right someone.
Parachute flares exploded overhead, bathing the tiny valley in a
ghostly aura. I marveled at the courage of our battalion officers
standing tall, fully exposed in the glow of the slowly-descending
flares, directing their men into a defensive line. Rising volumes
of rifle fire was interspersed with the staccato rattle of
machine-guns rose to a hellish din, transforming the once-quiet
vale into a vortex of chaotic fury.
As mountain rivulets unleashed by a spring thaw, form, multiply,
then rush downhill seeking paths of least resistance – so
too came the Red Chinese. Breaking past and veering around strong
points, relentless bands of quilt-garbed Orientals cascaded into,
through, and around the hill positions swarming the valley below
in a classic double-envelopment.
"One of you – come with me!" shouted a non-com rushing over
to our position. Tossing a quick "Let's go – over there!"
he motioned across the valley to our right. Marine discipline
kicked in, and I took off in a low, crouching run. Though only
forty yards or so, it seemed like a hundred as too many red and
green tracers wildly criss-crossed the night.
Making it across untouched, I tumbled into the shadows behind a
low stone wall at the base of a darkened hill mass. Readying for
fast and furious shooting, I checked my
.45 automatic for a full ammo clip and laid an extra clip on the
wall's ledge. Surprisingly, the initial fear was subsiding into
an almost calm resolve.
When the burst struck I never saw my assailant, never clearly
heard the shots. Sound, feeling, disbelief; were all jumbled
together in a disjointed sensation as I realized that I was hit
– and badly! Warm wetness began closing around my left side
and arm. As the bloody flow gathered under my parka, a sickening,
overwhelming weakness took hold.
"Corpsman!" I tried to shout, but tiring
rapidly, only a murmur emerged. Fellow Marines nearby took up the
call as I slumped to the rocky earth. Fading rapidly, Colonel
Litzenberg's words – 'only Purple Heart Marines in my
outfit' – passed through my ebbing consciousness.
Reviving sometime later, a shadowy form hovered in the still-enveloping darkness. A fellow Marine – a corpsman –
or an enemy? Quiet, firmly-enunciated words broke the chill night
air: "In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti,
amen." I then realized that the shadowed form was our
regiment's chaplain pronouncing the Last Rites of the
Church! Growing up Catholic back home in Pittsburgh, I knew full
well their somber implication. Murmuring "Am I dying Father?" I
faded again – never hearing the response.
Awakening to daylight in a medical tent with other stretcher-bound wounded under the care of a Navy surgeon and corpsmen, it
felt reassuring to be still among the living. My relief was
short-lived however. Crack! Crack! Dirt began
kicking up in the tent's floor. "Sniper!" yelled
a corpsman. Quickly they began putting helmets on the helpless
wounded to afford some semblance of protection as the desultory
fire continued. Foolishly, our surgeon opened the tent's flap to
look around. Crack! "Ugh!" he bent over in pain
as a slug slammed into his thigh! Soon though, the firing ceased
as Fox Company was dispatched to clear the threatening snipers
from a nearby hill.
Evacuation followed the next night to division hospital at
Hamhung. Then Weeks of slow recovery began under the care of
Naval surgeons and corpsmen. A brief stop-over to Oak Knoll Naval
Hospital in California, then on to Philadelphia's Navy Yard
hospital. Now 24 December 1950, I received a 30-day R&R leave
back home. I returned to serve seventeen months of light duty at
the Marine Air Station radio room in Quantico, Virginia. My
exciting four-year enlistment concluded with an honorable
discharge in June of 1952.
Years later, while searching Sudong-ni battle records, I
learned happily that our unfortunate surgeon had survived his
wound. Still further, I discovered that my attending chaplain,
Father Cornelius "Connie" Griffin, was seriously wounded during
the division's heroic breakout from the Chosin encirclement by
the Red Chinese. Chaplain Griffin was comforting his young
wounded and dying Marines in a medical panel truck when sheets of
ChiCom gunfire riddled the vehicle, though it was clearly marked
with huge red crosses. Bullets tore through Griffin's cheek and
jaw and his assistant was killed instantly. Happily Griffin
survived his ordeal and later evacuated.
Thirty-five years later, now a civilian, and living in the San
Francisco Bay Area, I learned of a reunion of the Chosin
Few, as the survivors of the Chosin campaign were dubbed. I
was eager to go, hoping to run into some wartime buddies and get
to fill in some gaps, having lost all contact after being
evacuated from North Korea.
At the reunion we had two or three Chosin Medal of Honor
recipients in attendance, but the loudest ovation was accorded
our brave Navy corpsmen, and rightly so. We all knew that were it
not for their courage under fire, many of us wouldn't be here.
Sadly, I had confirmation that our team sergeant was killed at
Sudong-ni and that our team officer had been severely
At the next evening's dinner, a group of our comrades were
honored on stage. A white-collared vet, clad in black was
introduced. After thirty-five years I found myself in the
presence of my wartime comforter, Chaplain "Connie" Griffin. He
was about 55 years old or so, with thinning graying hair; and his
deep-set eyes seemed to project an aloof sadness. Introducing
myself, we shook hands as I thanked him profusely. Father Griffin
was reluctant to talk much, and as I think about it, I'm sure
that somber memories of Korea were roiling his mind. His scarred,
emaciated face bore stark evidence of his painful Chosin
Reservoir ordeal, borne long ago.
Years later, I sometimes think of Chaplain Griffin and his impact
at the reunion. He bravely faced his dark Korean memories then,
as he had unflinchingly attended to and comforted his young
Marines in 1950 North Korea. His ordeal and unflagging devotion
has inspired me to finally realize that my long-sought closure
from war's trauma and it's mental residue may yet be found
Though the Sudong-ni toll on the Marines was sixty KIA
and over three-hundred WIA, Litzenberg's out-numbered regiment
made the ChiComs pay a stiff price. More than two days of heavy
combat found China's decimated 124th Infantry Division
fleeing north, rendered hors de combat for the balance
of the war.
Prior to the Sudong-ni clash, Colonel Litzenberg had
impressed on his officers the importance of inflicting a telling
defeat on the Red Chinese in their first meeting. Apparently the
impact of the Sudong-ni defeat did cause the Chinese to
change tactics. In the ensuing Chosin Reservoir actions, rather
than sporadic piecemeal attacks, they craftily allowed the Marine
division to advance unopposed to the Chosin, then encircled the
division. The Red Chinese leadership had hoped to achieve a
monumental military and political coup by being the first to
utterly destroy a Marine division, America's elite fighting
force. As history shows, the Marines fighting spirit and
leadership prevailed in a memorable breakout through eight to ten
[editorial note: despite the Marine Corps' new
amphibious warfare doctrine, as exemplified in the Pacific
Theater during World War II, President Truman wanted to know "Why
does the Navy need its own army?" during the post-WWII
reorganization, with the implication of its disbandment; but the
sterling performance of the Marines acting as a 'fire brigade' in
the Pusan perimeter convinced him of their worth! ... on the
other hand, General MacArthur denied the recommendation for the
Marines to be awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, saying that
"They already have enough medals!", thus the Marines achieved the
distinction of being the only combat unit to fight in the Korean
War that was not so honored]
by Stanley Modrak
... who is a former Marine combat veteran, now writing freelance;
his work has appeared previously in this periodical.