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"Before the [Chosin] campaign was over, almost every man in my reinforced platoon had been killed or wounded by enemy action, and/or lost due to severe frostbite."
- James Stemple
The following summarizes events in North Korea in November and December 1950 which caused severe frostbite and associated injury to then Private First Class Vincent J. Yeasted, U.S. Marine Corps. I, James W. Stemple, then a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps, commanded the 3d rifle platoon in Company "A", First Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. During November and December, our 7th Marine Regiment, as part of the 1st Marine Division, was engaged in fighting Chinese Communist Forces (CCF) in and around the Chosin Reservoir in mountainous central North Korea near the Manchurian border.
On or about 11 November, Pfc Yeasted was a Browning Automatic Rifleman (BARman) in the third squad of my three-squad reinforced rifle platoon. The platoon was returning from an arduous day-long combat patrol several miles to the west of the Korean village of Koto-ri. It was just getting dark as we approached friendly lines. By radio, I was ordered not to return to our company positions several miles to the east, but to stop and establish a roadblock across a valley to the west of the friendly positions, and that we could expect an enemy attack from the direction that night. Also, that because of the distance from our company command post (CP), we would not be receiving either our packs or a re-supply of rations that night.
Temperatures that night dropped to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. To this point in the campaign, we had not yet been issued cold weather gear and were still wearing ankle-length leather shoes and canvas leggings with brass hooks and eyelets, and legging laces. As we dug our foxholes, and we were reinforced by a 2-gun section of 75mm recoilless rifles and a 2-gun section of heavy machine guns. We stayed in our foxholes all that night and shivered. Because we had been on patrol since early morning, we were wearing only M-1943 field jackets over our utility clothing.
The next morning, and over the next several days, my platoon members began complaining that their hands and feet were hurting from the cold, and I lost my first Marines to frostbite, mostly new replacements.
The entire 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, including my first platoon, continued aggressive day-long patrolling, engaging the enemy as we encountered them. There were no tents or shelter from the elements of any kind for the rifle platoons. The rifle platoons were generally on long patrols all day, returning to their company positions at about dark. No warming fires were permitted in our front line positions. We just went to our foxholes, ate our evening meal of "C" rations, often as not frozen solid, and established 50% watches for the night. The action was repeated day after day.
On November 14, our company advanced north along the road from Koto-ri toward Hagaru-ri located at the southern tip of the Chosin Reservoir, a major objective of our 7gth Regiment. At about noon we halted our advance, and I was ordered to use my platoon to construct a footbridge over the Changjin River which flowed north to Hagaru-ri along our route of advance. (The bridge location was in the vicinity of Army Map Series (AMS) Korea, Sheet 663511, approximate grid coordinates 556614.)
The footbridge was to be used the next day to enable another infantry battalion, the 2d battalion, 7th Marines, to have a "dry-foot" crossing of the river before advancing to Hagaru-ri along the high ground across the river. The Changjin River at that location was about 100 feet across and 6-to-12 inches deep. A tumbling mountain stream, it flowed fairly swiftly over a rock-strewn bottom. A narrow gauge railroad track ran parallel along the east side of the river.
The weather that day was below freezing all day, and the river banks and surrounding hills were covered with 4-to-8 inches of dry powdered snow. We worked building the bridge until nightfall. We used rocks and smaller boulders, pulled with our hands from the riverbed and from along the banks of the river, to build "cribs," upon which we placed railroad ties that we could loosen with our entrenching tools and logs and other debris from the woods along the west side of the river. The building of the bridge involved wading into the stream, pulling up and carrying rocks in our bare hands and building the "cribs" upon which we laid the timbers. The water was so cold in the stream that it was frozen where it pooled naturally, and would freeze quickly where our rock-piling caused it to pool. Pfc. Yeasted was the largest and strongest Marine in my platoon. Because of his size and unusual strength, he spent most of the day going in and out of the water, lifting rocks, positioning them, and carrying and positioning timbers for the bridge.
When we completed our work, I was ordered to dig in for the night in the vicinity of my present position, extending my platoon from the right edge of the river, eastward across the railroad track and across the road. My platoon was the most advanced unit of any toward the enemy that night. It took us well over an hour to chip and dig our foxholes for our night defensive positions. It was hard work and we were extremely tired and cold. Because of our forward positions, again there could be no warming fires.
Our socks, shoes, leggings and trousers were frozen to our legs and feet. Our jacket sleeves where they were wet were frozen around our lower arms and hands. The temperature that night dropped to minus 8 degrees Fahrenheit.
At about 9:00 p.m. that night, I was ordered to send my troops back about 500 yards to the rear in order to exchange our leather shoes and canvas leggings for new cold weather footwear called "shoe-pacs." It was my understanding that the "shoe-pacs" had just been received in the rear that day. It took several hours to accomplish the exchange for the entire reinforced platoon.
For those who are not familiar with them, the "shoe-pac" was a leather boot top with lacing and with a rubber foot, like a heavy conventional "rubber." It was very poorly designed for cold weather operations. Two pairs of one-half inch thick flat felt inserts, or soles, were issued with each pair of boots; one pair of the inserts was to be placed on the bottoms in each boot, and the other pair was to be placed next to the skin, generally one under each armpit, along with a pair of wool socks. The felt inserts in the boot were supposed to capture the moisture from foot perspiration, and at the end of the day the wet inserts and the wet socks worn that day were to be exchanged with the dry items under the armpits. Body heat would dry the wet inserts and socks over the next twenty-four hours.
This design was not suitable for the combat infantryman’s use, particularly for the conditions we were exposed to during November and December 1950 in the Chosin Reservoir campaign.
Rifle platoons were the eyes and ears, and fingers, of the larger units, constantly patrolling, looking and feeling for the enemy. For example, not a day passed between 10 November and 7 December when I was evacuated that my platoon was not involved in a lengthy patrol action, frequently involving contact and combat with our Chinese enemy. The weather was extremely cold, most days below zero degrees Fahrenheit. Between 26 November and 7 December temperatures dropped to 20 to 30 degrees below Fahrenheit. We walked up and down rugged mountains, not too unlike the higher Alleghenies in West Virginia and Pennsylvania in the deep winter. The ground was covered with snow twelve to twenty inches deep.
During combat patrols or in movement to contact operations, our feet would perspire profusely in our rubber-bottomed boots as we walked. Then, for combat, we would be forced to stop, lie on the snow-covered ground, engage in combat and then get up and move again, repeating this activity many times over during the day, and often times, nights and around the clock. During stopped periods our bodies and our feet would be immobilized, and one could actually feel the inserts freezing in the boots. Under these conditions, wiggling the toes in the boots did little to restore circulation, or prevent further freezing. This type of activity resulted in a cycle of repeated freezing and thawing of the feet within the boot.
Quite frequently after stopping for the night and preparing our night defensive positions, we would remove our boots and literally "peel" the frozen inserts from our boots like pulling cheesecloth from a round of cheese. Under these circumstances the daily changing of felt inserts and socks was mostly ineffective, particularly for the Marine infantryman in the rifle platoon.
The morning of November 15 following the bridge-building episode, my platoon was ordered to proceed in advance and to "screen" for the forward elements of the 2d Battalion, 7th Marines in its advance to Hagaru-ri along the road. This resulted in a six-mile forced march for my platoon over the snow-covered, hard-packed road, while wearing the oft-times ill-fitting new footwear. The previous night’s shoe-fitting had been done hurriedly and poorly by dim kerosene lantern in a dark tent. As a result, nearly every Marine in my platoon, including Pfc Yeasted, reached Hagaru complained of bloody, blistered feet, as well as the cold.
Over the next several days, I began to lose my Marines, including some of my best NCOs, to the medical evacuation process due to frostbite. In addition to the problems with frozen feet, almost every Marine in the platoon also suffered cold injury to their hands from the icy river and handling the cold stones with bare hands. After a few days we experienced first pain, and then splitting of the skin on our fingertips. The skin would partially heal, but the numbness remained, enabling many of us to handle and retrieve hot rations cans from fire without feeling pain from the heat. Pfc. Yeasted was one of those who suffered both the frozen, blistered feet and the splitting fingers. As the platoon was now reduced in strength below 50%, he, like many others, would not go to the battalion aid station for relief. He was concerned that if he did, he would be evacuated, as he had seen happen to other platoon members. Parenthetically, every Marine still alive today who served in my platoon in Korea in the period described above, complains about painful feet and hands in wet and/or cold weather, and a tingling sensation and coldness in the feet almost constantly. Pfc. Yeasted is no exception. Before the campaign was over, almost every man in my reinforced platoon had been killed or wounded by enemy action, and/or lost due to severe frostbite.
During the period from about November 17 to November 22 prior to the battalion commencing the advance North from Hagaru to Yudam-ni, my platoon was assigned to the mission as a platoon-sized combat outpost located some 2 miles to the northwest of the remainder of the battalion in Hagaru and in the vicinity of the geographic region of P’eygouk. The position was on a cold, fully exposed snow-covered hilltop. It snowed frequently during this period and the platoon, including Pfc. Yeasted, patrolled out from the outpost to the west and northwest daily, moving five to six miles over the frozen mountainous terrain each day, seeking contact with the enemy. The 2d platoon of "A" Company manned a similar outpost several miles to the northeast of my position and under the same conditions.
Pfc Yeasted was wounded seriously in action on December 3 when he was shot in the shoulder and chest. Because of his wounds, he was placed aboard a truck, along with dead Marines and other non-ambulatory wounded for movement along the evacuation route. The supply column of trucks, jeeps, and artillery, moved along a road, surrounded by attacking Chinese Army units until the 1st Marine Division was able to withdraw back to Hagaru from the vicinity of Yudam-ni, some fifteen miles to the northwest of Hagaru. An expeditionary airfield had been constructed at Hagaru for medical evacuation purposes. Thus, while wounded on 3 December, Pfc Yeasted’s cold injuries were further aggravated by being immobilized aboard the truck in sub-zero temperatures for four more days before he was evacuated from Hagaru to a hospital in Japan on 7 December.
Substantiating information concerning environmental and topographical conditions, temperature extremes, and the nature of the combat that Pfc Yeasted encountered in November and December of 1950 during the Chosin Reservoir campaign where he received his cold injuries, are well documented in official Marine Corps history and can be obtained by writing to the U.S. Marine Corps Historical Branch, U.S. Marine Corps Headquarters, Washington, D.C.