Event Pays Tribute to ‘The Chosin Few’
By Elaine Wilson
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 16, 2010 Fang Woo walked into a room, walls adorned with Navy history memorabilia, and made a beeline for a young Marine reservist across the room.
Fang Woo speaks with Anton Sattler about Marine Corps life and history during a Chosin Reservoir commemoration event hosted by the Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C., Dec. 15, 2010. Woo is a Korean War veteran who fought in the Chosin campaign, and Sattler is the producer of a documentary about that battle called “Chosin.” DOD photo by Elaine Wilson
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The 78-year-old retired Marine was eager to meet one of the men responsible for what is believed to be the first full-length documentary about the Chosin Reservoir campaign, a harrowing 17-day battle during the Korean War marked by crippling losses and incredible triumphs of the human spirit.
Woo has a personal interest in the topic -- he is among “The Chosin Few,” the last living survivors of the battle.
Woo was one of several Korean War veterans who braved chilly temperatures last night to attend a commemoration of the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, which took place 60 years ago this month. A crowd of local history buffs and servicemembers also gathered at the Navy Memorial here for the public event, which featured a viewing of the documentary “Chosin” followed by a panel discussion on the film.
“I twisted his arm to come here, but I know this means a lot to him,” Woo’s son, Conrad, said, while watching his father from across the room. “He doesn’t ask for attention for what he did. My dad never even mentioned what he did in Korea when I was growing up.”
The documentary -- produced, written and directed by Marine Corps reservists Anton Sattler and Brian Iglesias, both former active-duty Marines -- tells the Chosin story through first-person accounts from Korean War veterans the Marines interviewed across the country. They made the movie after they departed active Marine Corps duty, both drawn to a largely overlooked, but highly impactful moment in history.
“We picked this battle because it’s never been done before, and these guys are slowly fading away,” Iglesias said, flanked by two of the Chosin veterans featured in the documentary, Warren Wiedhahn and Dr. Stanley Wolf.
Wiedhahn said the movie offered veterans an opportunity to talk about events that some had never opened up about before. After his kids saw it, they asked him, “Daddy why didn’t you ever talk about it? Why didn’t you tell us this?” One of the reasons, he said, is that it was difficult to share his military past with anyone other than the veterans who shared it.
Still, he and his fellow Chosin veterans opened up in detail on the documentary about the horrific, yet triumphant, events of the Chosin Reservoir battle, also known as the “Frozen Chosin.”
In November 1950, U.N. forces were nearing a successful end to the Korean War. U.N. Forces had chased the North Korean army from near the southern tip of South Korea to the north, near the border with China.
But China had decided to enter the conflict and sent thousands of its troops flooding across the border. In late November, the seasoned Chinese forces launched a surprise attack on about 15,000 U.S. troops from the 1st Marine Division and elements of the 7th Infantry Division in and around the Chosin Reservoir area. By Nov. 27, 120,000 Chinese troops had encircled about 30,000 U.N. troops, and a brutal, 17-day battle in sub-zero temperatures began.
The Chinese troops attacked in human waves each night, sending thousands at a time to overrun the U.N. troops until dawn. The veterans recalled the Chinese coming in relentless fronts, unaffected by the mass casualties piling up around them.
“You thought you were a dead man,” one veteran said in the documentary. Only a relentless “love of life” kept him from giving up, he added.
“I prayed for the first time in my life,” another Chosin veteran said, his voice breaking with emotion. “I said, ‘God, don’t let me die, not here. I just want to see the sun come up one more day.’”
Temperatures dipped to frigid levels and a veteran recalled a “mind-numbing” cold so intense that the troops’ eyeballs would freeze until they put their hands up to warm them. “It was 30-below zero,” Wiedhahn said. “You lived in 30-below temperature, all the time.”
U.N. troops fought valiantly for days and broke out of the encirclement while inflicting huge losses on the Chinese, with an estimated 35,000 Chinese troops killed or wounded.
They fought their way to freedom across miles of rough, mountainous terrain until they reached the port of Hungnam on Dec. 11, where they were evacuated along with thousands of Korean refugees to Pusan.
Of the 15,000 U.S. troops at the battle of Chosin Reservoir, 3,000 were killed, 6,000 were wounded and 12,000 suffered frostbite injuries. For their heroic actions, 17 U.S. servicemembers were awarded the Medal of Honor, making Chosin one of the most decorated battles in U.S. history.
Army Col. David J. Clark, director of the Defense Department’s 60th Anniversary of the Korean War Commemoration Committee, was on hand for the last night’s event. Congress created the committee, he explained, to honor and thank Korean War veterans, celebrate the war’s milestones and ensure the American public has a clear understanding and appreciation of the war.
Clark praised the documentary and the Korean War veterans in the audience. He was honored, he said, “to share the experience with some of the heroes that lived this story, and in the process saved a nation and a people from unspeakable tyranny and oppression.”
“And certainly, the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir was a major part of that,” he continued. “We have come to honor our comrades in arms who persevered through one of the most ferocious battles in the annals of American military history. While vastly outnumbered and fighting in unimaginable conditions, our veterans’ courage, selfless sacrifice and unbendable will evened the odds. In Chosin Reservoir, all that is good about the American fighting spirit was on display.”