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Marine Air Covers the Breakout

 
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Marine Air Covers the Breakout

Authors - Kenneth W. Condit and Ernest H. Giusti
Reprinted from the August 1952  issue of The Marine Corps Gazette
Reprinted with permission to The Korean War Educator


 

According to the calendar the time was late fall, but in the rugged mountains of North Korea the rage of arctic weather made a mockery of the seasons.

For three days the 1st MAW had been engaged in a desperate effort to furnish badly needed air support to the embattled men of the 1st Marine Division. [See K.W. Condit and E.H. Giusti, Marine Air at the Chosin Reservoir, Marine Corps Gazette, July 1952.] Grimly clinging to four perimeters, the Marines fought two equally vicious enemies—fanatical Chinese Communists and the cold.

In the freezing twilight of 30 November the news was flashed—the Marines are coming out. Withdrawal was dictated by harsh realities, for the “end of the war” offensive launched by UN forces on 24 November had failed when hordes of Chinese Communist troops struck back against the Eighth Army in northwest Korea. The right flank of Eighth Army was overrun, necessitating a rapid withdrawal. Three days later, the Chinese struck X Corps on the east, directing their main attack against the 1st Mar Div. From 80,000 to 100,000 Reds flung themselves in repeated assaults against the Marine perimeters. At Yudam-ni the 5th and 7th Marines held the most advanced position, while single battalions of the 1st Marines defended the strategic towns of Hagaru, Koto-ri, and Chinhung-ni along the MSR. Meanwhile other X Corps units withdrew to more defensible positions.

At Yonpo and Wonsan, and aboard the escort carrier Badoeng Strait, the men of the 1st Marine Air Wing girded for a continuation of the all-out effort, for without maximum close air support it was doubtful that the 1st Division could reach the sea. Fifth Air Force assigned the 1st MAW the exclusive mission of supporting the Marines and soldiers of X Corps in the fighting withdrawal to the sea. Serving to brighten the picture further was the promise that the Navy planes of Carrier Task Force 77 would be available for close support, while Fifth Air Force tactical planes would furnish deep support and the Air Force Combat Cargo Command would provide a substantial part of the logistics requirements.

Never in the memory of the oldest Marine had so much depended on a supporting arm, yet never had circumstances conspired so well to prevent Marine air from carrying out its mission. The low sullen overcast which often hid the peaks rising from the Chosin area plateau was an enemy to be feared more than the Chinese Reds. Altimeters gave no warning of the dark gray mass which lurked in the swirling mist and frequently materialized into the ominous bulk of a mountain side or crest. Above a certain altitude pilots knew they were safe, but to carry out their close support attacks they often had to fly through or under the overcast. Strikes frequently had to be channeled along valleys or ravines, and firing runs had to be initiated from low altitudes with a resulting loss in speed and increased vulnerability.

Added to the burdens of mountainous terrain and overcast skies, the 1st MAW had to overcome staggering maintenance and servicing problems. These difficulties resulted from the decision to abandon Wonsan and concentrate X Corps rear echelon units in the Hamhung-Yonpo-Hungnam area. VMFs-214 and 312 and VMF(N)-542 joined VMF-212 and VMF(N)-513 at the Yonpo field.

The concentration of five squadrons at Yonpo led to operating difficulties unequalled in the history of Marine aviation. Though problems of equipment, maintenance, and supply were anticipated; time, weather, and the tactical situation forced the squadrons to operate under the most adverse conditions. The lack of heated space at Yonpo compelled mechanics to perform delicate engine work without gloves. This often resulted in mild cases of frostbite. Great difficulty was experienced in starting engines, and when oil dilution failed, the Marines resorted to warming up engines every two hours through the night. The lack of transportation, bomb handling equipment, and spare parts often threatened the cancellation of scheduled flights. But somehow the obstacles were overcome even if, on occasion, flights were delayed. All available trucks were operated 24 hours a day, running mostly to the ammunition dump for ordnance and to Hungnam for supplies.

Even the normally swift and easy task of rearming and refueling planes became a struggle. The few available refuelers had to be filled directly from 400-pound, 55-gallon drums. Bombs were often unloaded close to the flight line by simply driving the trucks out from under the loads. After manhandling the bombs onto the bomb trailers, the men pulled the trailers to the planes and by pure physical exertion lifted the ordnance up to the racks.

Of particular concern to engineering sections was the shortage of spare parts. And it was no wonder that engineering crews prayed that if a plane had to crash, it crashed close to the field where crews could cannibalize the remains. On one occasion when a Corsair was shot down 30 miles north of Yonpo, an officer, two ordnance men, and two mechanics took a jeep to the scene through guerrilla territory to scavenge for vitally needed parts.

Before the 5th and 7th Marines could commence movement along the Yudam-ni-Hagaru road as a coordinated body, units had to be redeployed from the valley extending east from Yudam-ni to the valley running south toward Hagaru. In joint conference, Col. Homer L. Litzenberg, CO 7th Marines and LTCol. Raymond L. Murray, CO 5th Marines, decided to redeploy by day rather than by night. Certain obvious advantages would have occurred from a movement in the dark but the Marine commanders were willing to forego these, for daylight promised a sky full of Corsairs and better observation.

Plans for 1 December called for all squadrons to furnish close air support flights at dawn. Following the first strikes of the day, planes of the Wonsan squadrons were to land at Yonpo and continue operations from the advanced air base. At Wonsan the snow was light and the first strike, four Corsairs of VMF-214, was winging toward the reservoir by 0645. Aboard the Badoeng-Strait, VMF-323 was able to get its first light airborne by 0845. But at Yonpo six inches of snow coated the runway. Lacking snow-removal equipment, Marines substituted makeshift plows and muscle to clear a narrow space on the strip. At daybreak the weather began to lift. By 1000 they had gained enough space to permit the 0645 VMF-214 flight to come aboard, but it was 1215 before VMF-212 could get the first Yonpo strike into the air. In spite of the weather 1st MAW planes flew 118 sorties during the day, almost all in support of the 1st MarDiv and U.S. Army units east of the reservoir.

As the Marines of Yudam-ni began their redeployment on the morning of 1 December, first priority for close support planes went to the 5th Marines holding the perimeter positions north and west of the town. It is a maxim of warfare that an aggressive enemy makes it easy to engage, but difficult to disengage. And that morning the Chinese Reds were proving the truth of the maxim. Both 1/5 and 3/5 were forced to break off fights in order to stick to the redeployment schedule. And air played an important part in the successful execution of their movements. Four Corsairs of VMF-214 were prowling overhead when at 0810 3/5 began to withdraw its companies. First H Co came, then I Co pulled back. Finally came the turn of G Co, but as the unit withdrew the enemy threatened to attack. At once the forward air controller summoned the Corsairs, and in a few moments they were snarling down to hit the Chinese with rockets, 500-pound bombs, and 20mm shells. As the planes pressed their attacks with repeated runs, artillery and mortar fire joined with air to screen the company. Any aggressive intentions the enemy may have harbored were quickly dissipated, and G Co moved to new positions with no further trouble.

Meanwhile another flight of four VMF-214 planes arrived on the scene and relieved the Corsairs on station just as the two engaged companies of 1/5 prepared to execute their withdrawal. Contact between the air and ground was quickly established, and the FAC briefed the flight leader on tactical dispositions, target location, and time and direction of attack. As a result, the planes struck the enemy frontline positions just as C Co moved back. Accurate bomb drops and rocket fire kept the enemy off balance until C Co reached its assigned position.

The withdrawal of B Co, however, is another story, and one which graphically illustrates the importance of close support. B Co experienced no difficulty in pulling back to the base of Hill 1240, but at this crucial point a breakdown in communications deprived it of air support. Without positive control, planes could not be used to strike in close proximity to friendly lines. To make matters worse, artillery too could not be reached, and the Reds had occupied the company’s former position on Hill 1240. The company commander had no recourse but to employ leapfrogging machine gun sections for covering fire as the riflemen spurted across the open ground. During this maneuver the Marines were subjected to a withering fire from their previous position on Hill 1240, and casualties were taken. However, vengeance was exacted. When communication was again established, four Corsairs of VMF-312 were unleashed on the Chinese positions, and they hit the area with four 500-pound bombs, 27 rockets, and 3,000 20mm shells.

During the day Marine close support strikes were not limited to helping units withdraw, for 3/7, the depleted 1/7, and 3/5 attacked south from Yudam-ni to seize high ground along the road to Hagaru. Repeatedly, air was called in to hit strong points showing up the advance, and by nightfall the Marines had taken a long step toward “Objective Hagaru.”

While the 1st MarDiv received 36 close support sorties during the daylight hours of 1 December, the greatest effort was made in behalf of three Army battalions, 3/31, 1/32, and 57th Field Artillery. A total of 46 sorties were flown in support of these units. For three days these men had fought a grim battle for survival against heavy odds. Moving along the road by day and defending perimeters by night they had advanced within eight to ten miles of Hagaru when disaster struck.

Dawn on the morning of 1 December found the Army units preparing to move out towards Hagaru. Vehicles and guns which could not be taken along were destroyed and wounded were loaded aboard trucks. The convoy was formed and Capt. Edward P. Stamford, USMC, who was attached to 1/32 as forward air controller, took his post 20 yards behind the point. Corsairs of VMF(N)-513 and Hedron-12 were on station when the column moved out shortly after 1000. It was fortunate that they were, for just as the convoy started Chinese Reds launched a fierce attack against the head of the column with small arms fire and closed to within grenade range. For a few moments the fighting was touch and go, but Captain Stamford, himself under fire, closely directed the planes in repeated napalm, bomb, rocket, and strafing runs. A rocket from one of the planes was actually fired into a gully only 20 yards from friendly troops, and struck among the grenade-throwing Chinese.

The assorted ordnance dropped by the Corsairs soon proved too strong a dish for enemy stomachs. The Reds broke off their attack and fled for better cover. Marine pilots estimated that approximately 2,000 enemy troops launched the initial assault, and it is doubtful that even half of these escaped unscathed.

By late afternoon every squadron of the 1st MAW had flights hitting the Chinese hordes. All day the pattern was repeated with Marine air striking enemy formations on both flanks, to the rear and in front of the column. Owing to close air support, the progress of the convoy, though slow, was steady, for during daylight the enemy never succeeded in mounting a decisive assault.

At dusk, unfortunately, the column was stopped by a heavily defended roadblock. Dark came on fast, and air support dwindled, then became non-existent. In the black hours of the night the enemy finally overwhelmed the Army battalions. For the next two days flights of Marine planes occasionally located and supported isolated groups of Army troops attempting to reach Hagaru. Many did, but the three battalions as such had ceased to exist. [Captain Stamford was captured during the night, but escaped and made his way to Hagaru the next morning.] Though darkness chained the majority of Marine planes to the ground, the tired and cold men fighting at the reservoir knew they still could depend on limited, but effective, air support from specially equipped night fighters.

At Yonpo the first night heckler flight was off the deck at 2000. Through the night Tigercats of VMF(N)-542 and Corsairs of VMF(N)-513 were constantly on station over the scattered fighting fronts. The Marines had learned that Chinese artillery and automatic weapons fire dropped off sharply when the hecklers were overhead. Gun flashes revealed the enemy’s guns, and Marine night fighters had proved that they could knock them out. In addition, Marine FACs had the means of directing these planes in strikes close to friendly lines.

The night of 1-2 December was typical. Outside Hagaru Tigercats struck a Red troop concentration, knocked out a howitzer, and halted an enemy jump-off in the southern sector of the perimeter. At Yudam-ni both the 5th and 7th Marines utilized Tigercats to subdue enemy fire. Corsairs struck troop concentrations at Yudam-ni, Hagaru, and Koto-ri. With one exception, the strikes of both night flying squadrons were positively controlled by FACs.

Dawn on the morning of 2 December was clear with unlimited visibility. By 0705 flights from both Badoeng Strait and Yonpo were pointing toward the Yudam-ni area, for 2 December as to be the crucial day of the march to Hagaru. Just south of Yudam-ni the convoy of the 5th and 7th Marines, loaded with equipment and wounded, was preparing to move out. Before it lay 14 to 16 miles of tortuous and icy roads through mountainous terrain swarming with Chinese Reds. The key terrain feature along the route was 4,000-foot Sinhung-ni Pass midway between Yudam-ni and Hagaru. Wisely, Col. Litzenberg had placed F Co 2/7 at the pass even before the Chinese of 27 November. For five days this company with the aid of close support had beaten off every enemy attempt to seize this strategic point. By 2 December it had suffered 140 casualties, but still clung to the vital piece of real estate, and 1/7, after an epic night march, was approaching the pass as relief.

The first day-fighters aloft on 2 December were those of VMF-323 and VMF-312. Both flights were passed to the control of 2/5 which, acting as rearguard for the column, was engaged in a bitter and important fight. Strongly entrenched Chinese troops on Hill 1276 west of the MSR overlooked the Marine train and posed a threat to its movement. An attack by F Co 2/5 supported only by 4.2 mortars had failed to gain the hill top. At 0730 however, Corsairs were directed to hit the enemy positions with napalm. The napalm fell short, but the attack was continued with rocket and strafing runs as F Co renewed its assault.

The company reached the crest of the hill quickly, but heavy machine gun fire from the reverse slope made the position untenable. The Marines withdrew a safe distance and requested another air strike using napalm and 500-pound bombs. A new VMF-323 flight of four planes carrying the requested ordnance was made available immediately. In a matter of minutes the FAC oriented the flight and pinpointed the enemy position. This time the heavy ordnance was right on target. Blasted and burned by the bombs and napalm, the terrified enemy deserted his positions, as the Corsairs continued their attack with rocket and 20mm strafing runs.

While this fight was in progress, the column had moved out. By the time the Marine planes finished their runs, the train had advanced to a point where possession of Hill 1276 no longer had tactical value. Therefore, 2/5 withdrew to its next selected rear guard position. Meanwhile the anxiously awaited news had arrived—1/7 had reached the vital pass.

Moving slowly, the roadbound column was in constant danger of heavy attack. But if vehicles and heavy supporting weapons were committed to the road, Marine infantry was not. Progress was achieved by rifle units seizing the high ground on both sides of the road, while other units attacked astride the road and defended the rear. Thus, the vehicle train actually advanced as the center of a moving perimeter.

During daylight, air support was constantly available 360 degrees around the perimeter. It was frequently needed, and when requested, always provided. On the march FACs moved with infantry units to the front and rear, on the flanks, and in the column itself. Attack on any target within 2,000 yards of the road was under the positive control of the FACs. Beyond 2,000 yards enemy troops and positions were attacked as targets of opportunity. In this way enemy not already in position along the MSR had first to contend with the devastating attacks of the fighter planes. The Chinese Reds who survived these strikes and penetrated to positions close to the column invariably came under attack by Marine air and ground elements protecting the train. Never was the enemy able to mount an attack in force against the column.

So well did this system work that the enemy found himself more often the defender than the aggressor. This was the case when a heavily defended roadblock stopped the column in the late afternoon. Twenty-two planes, including Navy aircraft, were used to help break through the enemy resistance. Following artillery and 81mm preparation fires, Marine and Navy planes pounded the enemy position with bombs and blanketed it with the searing fire of napalm tanks. Close on the heels of the last strike the Marines jumped off in assault, and those Chinese who survived the aerial attack were disposed of by bayonet-wielding infantrymen while still huddled in their foxholes.

Throughout the day the men of the 5th and 7th Marines had been treated to an amazing spectacle of concentrated and varied air activities. With as many as 40 to 60 tactical planes circling, diving, and climbing in the limited air space, heavily laden C-119s dropped supplies, observation aircraft scurried back and forth through the welter of cargo chutes, and helicopters fluttered down to evacuate the seriously wounded.

With the coming of darkness however the sky was soon empty of planes and the Marines were left largely to their own resources.

Night was the favorite Chinese line of attack, for during the dark hours they were free to mass their troops and move close to friendly lines without paying an exorbitant price to Marine air. The night hours passed anxiously as the column and its protective screen of infantry units slowly advanced toward the pass. But it soon became clear that the enemy had been so badly mangled in the day-long fighting of 2 December, that he was unable to mount an assault strong enough to threaten the column.

On the morning of 3 December a low overcast again delayed take-off from Yonpo and the Badoeng Strait, but by 1000 the ceiling had lifted enough to permit Marine planes sky room for close support. Throughout the day the pattern of 2 December was repeated. The Marines fought their way up through the pass, employing the deadly combination of air and ground attack to overcome enemy resistance. Contact with 1/7 was made in the early afternoon, and the worst was over.

By 1900 on 3 December the head of the column had reached Hagaru, but it was the middle of the next afternoon before the rear elements were safely in the town. The Chinese persisted in their small-scale attacks up to the very rim of the perimeter. The last strike was called only three-fourths of a mile from Hagaru. And it was fitting that the last vehicle of the column to enter the perimeter was the jeep of the FAC who directed this strike.

During the day the 1st MAW flew 91 close support sorties, 50 in support of the 1st MarDiv and the remainder in support of other X Corps units.

The arrival of the 5th and 7th Marines made the Hagaru defenses so strong that the Chinese dared not risk attack. They preferred to wait until the Marines were most vulnerable, on the march with their vehicles, equipment and wounded. Through 4 and 5 December the Marines took advantage of the lull in fighting to catch their breaths and prepare for the next leg of the journey to the sea.

But there was no respite for Marine fliers. On 4 and 5 December they flew a total of 297 sorties against enemy positions, vehicles, and troop concentrations throughout the reservoir area.

The next day saw Marine air return to its primary role of close support for ground troops, for on 6 December the 1st Mar Div broke out of Hagaru. Its immediate objective was Koto-ri, where 2/1 and attached Army troops were holding out. The 7th Marines, reinforced by a composite Army battalion, moved out first. Following the tactics used so successfully on the withdrawal from Yudam-ni, the high ground on each side of the road was to be secured by two battalions advancing on the flanks. A third battalion was to be at the head of the column and another was to serve as rear guard. The 5th Marines was to hold the Hagaru perimeter until all other units, supplies, and equipment had been moved out. Then the regiment would withdraw, escorting its own vehicle train and deployed like the 7th Marines.

Air planning was primarily concerned with assuring the maximum support for the moving column. Drawing on experience gained on the breakout from Yudam-ni, Marine commanders spotted FACs at intervals along the column and with each flanking battalion. They were supplemented by two tactical air coordinators (TACs) flying ahead and to the flanks of the column. These coordinators, experienced Marine pilots flying Corsairs, were to seek out enemy forces out of sight of the FACs.

A further step taken to improve control of close air support was the organization of an airborne tactical air direction center. A four-engine R5D transport, hastily equipped with additional communications gear, was provided by VMR-152, and by 6 December the “flying TADC” was ready to begin operations. From its station above the column this control agency was in an excellent position to communicate with all aircraft and ground units. In mountain terrain, where the smaller types of radios were very limited in range, this was an important consideration. Until the 1st MarDiv reached the coast, the airborne TADC controlled all aircraft supporting the division.

While Marine staff officers were perfecting these plans, the air strength with which to carry them out was depleted by the departure of VMF-212 for Japan on 5 December. Assigned to the carrier Bataan, the squadron did not go aboard ship and return to the scene of operations until after the Marines had reached the sea.

However, the four remaining squadrons were determined to increase their efforts. By 0715 on the morning of the 6th the first Marine planes, 18 Corsairs of VMF-214, had reported on station over Hagaru. They were assigned a mission in support of 2/7, and what followed was typical of Marine close support operations. After advancing about 2,000 yards, the column had been stopped by enemy fire from a ravine about 100 yards east of the road. The Army battalion, acting as flank guard on that side, was deployed within 75 to 100 yards of the enemy and was also pinned down.

The 2/7 forward air controller, riding in a jeep immediately behind the lead tank of the column, contacted TAC, briefed him on the situation, and directed him in a dummy run. When he was certain that the TAC had located the target, the FAC ordered a live run with 20mm cannon fire and a napalm tank to mark the spot.

Meanwhile, the other aircraft were monitoring the radio net so that they also were familiar with the target. With the arrival of eight Navy planes from the carrier Leyte, 36 planes were now overhead. They were divided into three flights and orbited at 8,000, 9,000, and 10,000 feet respectively.

The first flight of eight planes was called in and attacked with rockets and proximity-fused 500-pound bombs. They worked over the target but did not silence it, so the second flight was called in. With this flight a different technique was used. In order to conserve ammunition and keep the aircraft on station as long as possible, only every other plane fired. The others made dummy runs. But since the enemy fire was not stopped by this procedure, the pilots were all ordered to fire.

An hour had passed since the column first halted. Koto-ri was still eight miles away. Precious daylight hours were dwindling, so Col. Litzenberg came forward to confer with the FAC. The 7th Marines’ commander decided to move the column out under the fire of aircraft as they made their runs across the road and parallel to the Army battalion frontline. This put the target within 100 yards of friendly troops in both range and deflection.

The pilots of the next flight, the planes from the Leyte, were informed individually of Col. Litzenberg’s decision and ordered to attack. Followed by four Corsairs of VMF-323, they swooped down. All planes strafed the target with 20mm shells, the projectiles passing about 75 feet over the column. So accurate was the fire that not one Marine or soldier was hit.

While the planes made their runs, the ground troops let go with everything they had. The 81mm mortar shell trajectories were higher than the altitude of the attacking planes, but rather than lose firepower, the gunners were told to aim at the tails of the planes. Using this rule-of-thumb method, the mortarmen lobbed shells between the attacking aircraft. As the column moved down the road, new flights took up the attack, so control of the strikes was passed back along the column from one FAC to another. All day long planes continued to hit this target, keeping it neutralized until the column had passed.

As the Marine column moved toward Koto-ri, other departures from normal procedures cropped up. For example in situations where the FAC was not in a position to control a strike, he sometimes worked through the infantry unit commander. In one instance, when a platoon of F Co., 7th Marines was held up on the left of the road by about 200 Chinese, the platoon commander requested an air strike. Since the FAC was unable to see the target, he had the platoon commander pass the information to him on the regular battalion tactical net. He, in turn, relayed it to the flight leader on his high-frequency set. Thus, by the resourcefulness of the FAC, a close support strike was carried out successfully on a target he could not see.

While FACs on the ground controlled most of the planes flying close support missions, their efforts were supplemented by the TACs. Ranging ahead and to both sides of the column, these pilots directed attacks on enemy out of sight of the controllers on the ground. The TACs were particularly effective in directing strikes against enemy troops massing out of range or sight on the ground troops for assaults on the column. In their bunkers and other dug-in positions, the Chinese had some degree of protection. But troops massing on the barren snow-covered hills were particularly vulnerable. Repeatedly Marine pilots broke up these troop concentrations, compelling the enemy to confine his efforts to the delivery of fire from prepared positions.

Meanwhile, Marine pilots were busy in other parts of the battlefield. Back at Hagaru they supported an attack by the 5th Marines designed to capture high ground east of the town. They also flew missions in support of the other X Corps units, the 3d and 7th U.S. Infantry Divisions and the I ROK Corps. By evening of 7 December, the rear guard of the division was within the 2/1 perimeter at Koto-ri. During the two-day withdrawal from Hagaru to Koto-ri Marine planes had flown a total of 240 sorties in support of X Corps. Of these, 201 were in close support of ground troops. The 1st Mar Div received 138; the 3d Inf Div, 11; the 7th Inf Div, 39; and the I ROK Corps, 12. In addition, the X Corps was supported by 245 sorties flown by Navy carrier planes and 83 sorties by the Air Force. The latter were mostly supply drops, but the Navy devoted most of its efforts to close support.

Combat missions were not the only ones flown by Marine pilots. They also participated in resupply and casualty evacuation flights. Although these jobs were primarily carried out by the Far East Air Force Combat Cargo Command, Marines of VMO-6, VMR-152, and Hedron 1st MAW bore a hand. Air drops were made primarily by C-119s of Combat Cargo Command, reinforced by 5 R5Ds of VMR-152 attached to the Air Force for this purpose. A few air drops were made by the Marine 1st Air Deliver Platoon, using a handful of C-47s and C-119s borrowed from the Air Force and four or five Marine R4Ds.

Casualties were evacuated from Yudam-ni, Hagaru, and Koto-ri under the most hazardous conditions. At Yudam-ni only light observation planes (OYs) and helicopters could land. C-47 strips were constructed at Hagaru and Koto-ri, but both strips were extremely short. At Koto-ri the 2/1 FAC, who was a qualified landing signal officer, guided planes in as though they were landing on a carrier deck. From these strips a total of 4,675 Marine and Army wounded were flown out safely. Air Force C-119s and C-47s, reinforced by a few attached Marine R4Ds, flew out most of these. VMO-6 also helped evacuate casualties. Their OYs and helicopters, reinforced y three TBM aircraft on 7 December, flew out 163 during the first 10 days of December.

With its arrival at Koto-ri, the 1st Mar Div had completed all but the last leg of its fighting withdrawal. All that remained was to descend the precipitous gorge of Funchilon Pass to the safety of Chinhung-ni on the plain below. At this village, where Army troops of the 3d Inf Div had arrived in strength, the Marines would board trucks for the journey to Hungnam and evacuation by sea.

Marine commanders planned to use the same scheme of maneuver they had used so successfully before. But this time the main body of the division would be assisted by 1/1. From its position at Chinhung-ni, this battalion was to attack up the gorge and seize dominating Hill 1081. The one complication was a blown bridge in the gorge at a spot where it was impossible to bypass. Combat Cargo Command fliers came to the rescue by air-dropping six sections of a Treadway bridge which Marine engineers planned to put in place the next day.

On 8 December, the morning scheduled for the resumption of the attack, foul weather deprived the Marines of all air support. A raging blizzard grounded all planes, delayed the repair at the blown bridge, and bogged down the ground attack so badly that only slight gains were made. But the morning of the 9th was bright and clear. From carriers steaming off shore and from Yonpo, Corsairs took off for a full day of strikes.

By 0715 a two-plane flight from VMF-312 was over the target, attacking positions on both sides of the road. Flights from all the other Marine squadrons followed and kept up a continuous attack. Other Marine planes supported the assault of 1/1 on Hill 1091 and covered Marine engineers putting in the Treadway bridge. As on previous days, aircraft were controlled by the airborne tactical air direction center, which circled the target area and assigned aircraft to various FACs and TACs.

The air effort was continued on the 10th and morning of the 11th, as the Marine division continued to move down through the pass towards Chinhung-ni. Some very effective strikes were directed by the FAC of 1/1 from the top of Hill 1081. He was in an excellent position to observe the action in the gorge below and called strikes on enemy machine gun positions along a railroad embankment and on a hill overlooking the road. One particularly effective strike was made by four Corsairs of VMF-312. After bombing a group of houses along the railroad with 500-pound general purpose and 265-pound fragmentation bombs, the pilots dived down to make strafing runs. About 200 enemy troops were killed as they ran out of the shattered buildings.

Once the Marines had successfully passed over the Treadway bridge, they had little difficulty in closing Chinhung-ni that night. The next morning they began moving to Hungnam by truck, and by 1300 on 11 December the last units had cleared the town.

With the departure of the 1st Marine Division for Hungnam and evacuation by sea, the main task of the 1st MAW was finished. In anticipation of the event, VMR-152 and Combat Cargo Command had begun evacuating supplies and personnel from Yonpo on the 1oth. On 14 December the three land-based fighter squadrons, VMF-312 and VMF(N)s-513 and 542, departed for Japan. Control of all aircraft in the X Corps zone passed to Commander Task Force 90 afloat, on the same day. And by 18 December the evacuation of all equipment and personnel of the 1st MAW had been completed.

The fighting withdrawal was over, and Americans everywhere felt a distinct relief. But as the details of the epic fight unfolded, relief became tinged with awe. A Marine division and a Marine air wing, fighting against seemingly insuperable odds, had severely mangled an enemy vastly superior in strength. Trapped at the Chosin Reservoir miles from the sea, the ground Marines had turned into aggressors and battled their way out despite anything that the enemy, the terrain, or the weather could do to prevent it. Yet they were the first to demand that a large share of credit for the successful withdrawal go to their flying counterparts in the 1st MAW. For in the hour of greatest need, Marine airmen had not faltered. The utmost had been demanded of the 1st Wing and the utmost had been given. MajGen O.P. Smith, Commanding General of the 1st Marine Division, expressed the sentiments of all when he said:

“During the long reaches of the night and in the snow storms many a Marine prayed for the coming of day or clearing weather when he knew he would again hear the welcome roar of your planes as they dealt out destruction to the enemy…. Never in its history has Marine Aviation given more convincing proof of its indispensable value to the ground Marine. A bond of understanding has been established that will never be broken.”


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