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Cold Weather Injuries

(photo at left) Floyd Jaros, Virginia, Minnesota, knows the misery of a cold Korean winter, and understands full well what kind of injuries can result from exposure to sub-zero weather. He served as a Navy corpsman with Easy Company, 1st Medical Battalion, 1st Marines and F-2-7 Marines from August 1951 to March of 1952.

 

Table of Contents:

Introduction
Video - Cold Injury
Medicine - LIFE magazine
Cold in the Chosin
Walker Symptoms


Introduction

Thousands of American veterans (in fact, more than 5,300 in just the first winter of the war) suffered frostbite during the extreme cold temperatures in Korea during the war years. Many of them were evacuated and received treatment in a timely fashion. Unfortunately, however, too many others did not have that chance due to the battle conditions they were in at the time. The latter lost fingers and/or hands, toes and/or feet, and had to endure the anguish of frostbitten noses and ears. Decades later, these Korean War casualties are still experiencing the after effects of frostbite. Some receive medical assistance and compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs, but there are still thousands of Korean War veterans who either don’t know they are eligible for disability benefits based on their cold weather injuries, or they can’t get anyone in the VA to believe that their current health problems are service-related. This page of the Korean War Educator is devoted to the issue of cold weather injuries in the Korean War. If any of our readers have cold weather-related materials to add to this page, they are encouraged to contact Lynnita.


Video - Cold Injury

Robert Speights of Austin, Texas is a Korean War veteran who served with the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade soon after the war broke out. Speights suffers from cold weather injury, having no feeling from the knees down as a result of his exposure to the cold during his time in Korea. In the process of applying for disability benefits, he discovered an excellent, VA-produced video called, "Cold Injury: What to Look For." It is a 70-minute tape which was created to show doctors what to look for with regards to cold injury symptoms. Bob has high praise for this video. He said, "Some doctors who have made an unfavorable decision regarding a veteran’s injury have reversed their decision after looking at this video. Cold weather injuries often have the same symptoms as non-weather related ailments, and consequently veterans fail to receive compensation which they deserve to receive." The video, "Cold Injury: What to Look For", is available for purchase from Speights at P.O. Box 140733, Austin, TX 78714-0733 (ph. 1-512-836-0458). The cost (which includes shipping and handling) is $5.00.


Medicine - LIFE Magazine

Vol. 30, Issue No. 6, February 5, 1951, pp. 82-84
New Treatments for Frostbite
They Save Limbs of Korean Casualties

In the military hospitals of Japan and the U.S. there are several thousand casualties of the Korean War who bear no scars from enemy weapons. These men are victims of frostbite, a trivial-sounding but terrible affliction in which the flesh freezes solid, then dies and decays.

Frostbite is caused by cold but almost never by cold alone. The 25-below-zero temperature in the North Korean mountains did little harm to the U.N. troops as they moved northward in an orderly advance. But when the same men turned in desperate retreat through the same ice-bound region the Korean winter struck them down by the hundreds. They were often immobilized, pinned down by enemy fire. There were no replacements. The wounded lay too long on the frozen ground. It was the military situation rather than the harsh climate that produced most of the 5,300 frostbite casualties listed so far for the U.S. Army and Marines.

In World War II most of the so-called "frostbite" cases treated during the Battle of the Bulge were really trench-foot cases. When the Korean War began, the Army was inexperienced in dealing with true frostbite under combat conditions. Yet Army doctors have now set up an efficient program to cope with it. Along the fighting front itself GI’s with frozen hands and feet are hurried to aid stations where the hard, white flesh is slowly thawed out at room temperature. At the nearest field hospital they usually get injections of procaine to deaden their pain and, if they are not otherwise wounded, shots of an anticoagulant called heparin which prevents the clotting of blood in the injured parts. Within a few days the patients are flown to a special hospital in Osaka, Japan. There, with bed rest and constant medication, the milder cases are cured and discharged. Most of the seriously injured are treated for three or four weeks. Then, if they are well enough, they are flown back to Percy Jones General Hospital in Battle Creek, Michigan, to complete their recovery.

The main objective of the doctors at Percy Jones is to save the black and gangrenous limbs of their patients from the amputations that would have been almost automatic during World War II. In the great majority of cases they have been successful. They concentrate on maintaining circulation in the damaged part with drugs which speed the flow of blood. In most cases new flesh grows again and dead flesh peels away. Where whole hands would once have been amputated, fingertips are now removed. Men whose entire feet were black and mummified have walked out of Percy Jones without a limp.

Symptoms of Frostbite

First Stage

First stage of frostbite is the frozen state in which the flesh is white and hard. Blood vessel walls close in so that all circulation is stopped; the hands and feet, most subject to frostbite, are the most difficult for the body to keep warm. Ninety percent of Korea cases are feet, 9 percent are hands. Others are ears, noses.

Swelling

Swelling and reddening of the whole hand comes soon after the frostbitten flesh is thawed out. Blood pours back into the tissues in great quantities as the blood vessels open up once more. The vessels are now enlarged and tightly packed with red cells. Their walls, damaged by the freezing process, begin to leak and fluid escapes into surrounding tissues, forcing them to expand, swell enormously.

Blisters

Blisters mark the development of the third stage. These usually form between 6 and 24 hours after the skin begins to turn red though in the least severe cases they may not appear at all. The blisters occur because of the continuing seepage of fluid out of the engorged blood vessels. When frostbite reaches this point the skin must be kept absolutely clean to avoid the constant danger of infection.

Gangrene

Gangrene is the final stage of frostbite. The fleshy part of the hand returns to normal but the frostbitten fingers become withered and black. Blood vessels are now packed hard with red cells which clot together and lose their form. Bits of clotted blood are also scattered through nearby tissue. In a case as severe as this, the first two joints of the fingers probably would have to be amputated.

Frozen During Hungnam Retreat, A Young GI Recovers in the U.S.

Like most of the young patients slowly recovering under Percy Jones’ intensive treatment, 19-year-old Pvt. John Baldwin came to the hospital with extreme injury to both hands and feet. Like most of them, he got his injury during the early part of the retreat in Korea. Baldridge was cut off with two battalions north of the Changjin reservoir. Supporting artillery had been annihilated, and the men fought for three days with small arms. On the fourth day they began to fight their way south toward the Marines at Hamhung. "We were walking along, firing all the way," Baldridge said. "You could see them on either side of the road and sometimes they’d be right next to you. About noon I got hit in the leg. It didn’t hurt so much but I got weak sometimes. Blood was squirting out the top of my boot. It was about 25 degrees below zero."

At 10 p.m. they hit a road block and the GI’s decided to try to ram through with their trucks. "I held onto the side of the first truck with one hand and held my gun in the other," said Baldridge. As the trucks roared ahead into the darkness he fired with his free hand. "Where my left hand was bent around the post I couldn’t open it. I knew it was freezing," he said. A mortar exploded. Baldridge came to at 4 a.m. just as the Reds were starting their attack and managed to crawl away through heavy machine-gun fire. Next day he draped himself in a Korean sheet and made his way through the enemy lines to the Marines. "It took them 30 minutes to get my boots off," he said. "They were frozen, stuck to my feet." Back in Japan they operated on his leg and told him that he would lose most of both feet. But lying in his bed at Percy Jones, holding up his black, shriveled fingers, Pvt. Baldridge was able to smile. "They’ll cut off my toes," he said, "but they’ll save the balls of my feet. I’m glad of that."


Cold in the Chosin

Colonel James Stemple, former commander of a Marine rifle platoon during the Chosin Reservoir campaign, has strong memories of the sub-zero temperatures in Korea during November/December of 1950, and he knows what prolonged exposure to the cold did to his men. In October of 1994, Stemple wrote an explanatory letter regarding the case of Vincent J. Yeasted, a former U.S. Marine who was seeking compensation for his cold weather-related health problems. Yeasted participated in an in-person interview with Lynnita (founder of the Korean War Educator) in 1999. Following is Stemple’s letter:

" 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, 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, 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 few 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 7th 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. That night, the temperature 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 boots were supposed to capture the moisture from foot perspiration, and at the end of the day the west 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 complaining 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 ice 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 finger tips. 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 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 mile 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, DC. "


Walker Symptoms

Ray Walker, a 1st Provisional Marine Brigade and Chosin Reservoir veteran, currently receives compensation for cold weather-related injuries received in the bitterly cold winter of 1950 in Korea. Receipt of compensation, however, did not come easily. Like so many other veterans, he discovered that it took determination to withstand government apathy regarding his wounds. He describes his symptoms as follows:

"My symptoms were that it feels that I’m putting my feet into a shoe that has a rolled up sock in it. They’re numb, at times ache, burn, itch—not constant, but the numbness is constant. My neurologist found I have idiopathic (unknown cause) neuropathy of the legs and feet. This can also be caused by diabetes, and diabetes can be caused by cold injury also. I mention the Vietnam Veterans Association (VVA). They help Korean vets, too.

In order to get this done [receive compensation], it is imperative that the veteran go through a veteran association service officer. I found the VVA to be the most helpful. Also, if the veteran plans to go to his own doctor, do not mention cold injury, but get a neurological exam. Cold injury generally causes a neuropathy that can be determined by a neurologist. The VA doctors are lax in this area—but when given a neurological objective exam they’ve got to act on it. And do not get discouraged. Be sure to file and appeal, and do it through the VVA service officer. Give the VVA service officer the video. He should take it from there. It takes determination. Discouragement is what they count on. The VA doesn’t want to spend the money, so you have to be patient and persistent."

- Ray Walker, Korea 1950

 

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