in: Character, Military, Podcast

• Last updated: September 30, 2021

Podcast #510: The Greatest Battle of the Korean War

The Korean War is often overlooked by Americans. But this forgotten war played a big role in shaping the world order in the second half of the 20th century. What’s more, one of the most heroic and harrowing military operations in U.S. history took place deep in the snowy and bitterly cold mountains of North Korea, creating a legendary group of fighters who became known as the “Frozen Chosin.” 

My guest today has written a book that captures this event in military history. His name is Hampton Sides and his book is On Desperate Ground: The Marines at the Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle. Hampton and I begin our discussion exploring why the Korean War is the forgotten war in American history and how the United States got involved in a conflict on the Korean peninsula in the first place. Hampton then talks about General Douglas MacArthur and how his unbridled ambition and hubris, as well as other glaring failures among military brass, led American troops into a frozen trap set by the Chinese. Hampton and I then discuss the epic Battle of the Chosin Reservoir and how 20,000 Marines fended off annihilation at the hands of over 300,000 Chinese soldiers in weather conditions that dropped to 20 degrees below zero. We end our conversation discussing the legacy of the Chosin Reservoir campaign. 

Show Highlights

  • Why is the Korean War known as “the forgotten war”
  • How the Korean War started, and how the US got involved 
  • General MacArthur’s hubris in Korea 
  • The heroism of Field General Oliver P. Smith 
  • The relationship between MarArthur, Almond, and Smith 
  • Mao’s role in the Korean War 
  • The dramatic environment and winter conditions at Chosin Reservoir
  • The epic battle at Chosin Reservoir, and the successful withdrawal of the soldiers 
  • The amazing engineering story of the battle 
  • What the legacy of the Frozen Chosin can teach us today 

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Soldiers in a line presenting Hampton Sides book on desperate ground.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to a new addition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. The Korean War is often overlooked by Americans but this forgotten war played a big role in shaping the world order in the second half of the 20th century. What’s more, one of the most heroic and harrowing Military operations in US history took place deep in the snowy and bitterly cold mountains in North Korea. Pretty legendary group of fighters who became known as the “Frozen Chosin.”

My guest today has written a book that captures this even in Military history. His name is Hampton Sides and his book is On Desperate Ground: The Marines at The Reservoir. The Korean War’s Greatest Battle.

Hampton and I begin our discussion exploring why the Korean War was the forgotten war in American history and how the United States got involved in a conflict on the Korean Peninsula in the first place. Hampton then talks General Douglas MacArthur and how his unbridled ambition and hubris as well as other glaring failures among Military brass led American troops into a frozen trap set by the Chinese. Hampton and I then discuss the epic battle at Chosin Reservoir and how 20,000 Marines fended off annihilation at the hands of over 300,000 Chinese soldiers in weather conditions that dropped to 20 degrees below 0. And we end our conversation discussing the legacy of The Battle of The Chosin Reservoir.

After the show’s over, check out our show notes at

And Hampton joins me now via telephone. Hampton Sides, welcome to the show.

Hampton Sides: Great to be with you.

Brett McKay: So you just published a new Military history book. It’s about the Korean War. On Desperate Ground: The Marines at the Reservoir. The Korean War’s Greatest Battle. It’s about The Battle of The Chosin Reservoir.

The thing about the Korean War is it’s often the overlooked war in American history. People know about World War II. Then there’s the Korean War happened and then there’s Vietnam and there’s lots of movies and books about Vietnam. Why do you think the Korean War gets overlooked?

Hampton Sides: Lots of reasons. I think one of them is that it’s sometimes perceived as kind of an addendum to World War II. You know it’s just sort of unfinished business having to do with World War II that kind of … Kind of an afterthought or something like that. I think it’s also perceived by some people as not being truly a war. That’s, you know sometimes it was called a police action, a UN police action. A conflict but not a war.

We assure it, it was a war and it was a brutal and devastating war and one that we’re really feeling the consequences of still today. I think a third reason why it’s kind of forgotten is that it ended in a stalemate. It ended more or less where it began which was at the 38th Parallel. The line separating North and South Korea. And Americans, we like to think we win wars. Vietnam was an exception, a war that we lost. But a stalemate is a hard narrative to get your head around. They say, “We died for a tie.” And they being the veterans of this battle and of this war. And I get that. It’s kind of a messy narrative. Complicated, unsettling narrative to understand. So those are certainly some of the reasons.

Brett McKay: And we’re technically still at war, correct? And there’s just been a armistice. Like we’re just kind of like, it’s been put off for a bit.

Hampton Sides: Yeah. Yeah, and that too maybe might be a reason why it’s kind of a forgotten war is that it ended with this armistice that left so many of the questions unanswered. We’re still kind of poised on the brink of war. It’s a scary place. DMZ is a very scary place and flashpoint that could erupt at any moment. And most of our wars that we’ve fought have a very clear and definitive ending and it’s got bookends and you understand what that was and it’s over now. Korea is still kind of a cliffhanger. There’s still all these questions that need to be resolved. And that certainly contributes to this provisional quality I guess that the whole war has in our national consciousness. You know it’s like, “It isn’t over yet.”

Brett McKay: Well because it’s overlooked, it’s the forgotten war. I think a lot of Americans don’t even understand how we got involved in it. So can you kind of just a thumbnail sketch of how we ended up in Korea?

Hampton Sides: Yeah. Yeah, it’s a complicated thing and I’ll try to do the one-on-one kind of version of it. Okay, so after World War II, the allied powers were tasked with the responsibility of deciding what to do with the spoils of the Japanese Empire. And Korea had been a colony of Japan, Imperial Japan. And the Japanese had just brutally mistreated the Koreans but it was their colony.

So the Soviets kind of got into that theater of the war very late in the game, were very interested in the Northern part of Korea. And we were interested in the Southern part of Korea. And we decided to draw a line right down the middle, the waist of the country, the 38th Parallel. We would take the South, temporarily. The Soviets would take the North, temporarily. But the idea was that we would have an election and the country would be reunited and decide its own fate.

Well that never happened. Very quickly the North became shaped in the image of its Custodian Nation, Soviet Union, under Stalin. In fact, Kim, the grandfather of the current Kim, studied at the knee of the master, Stalin himself in terms of authoritarian dictatorship and occult of personality and all that sort of stuff. He built up his Army with Soviet tanks and Soviet Artillery. Meanwhile, in the South, we were the custodian nation but we really didn’t arm South Korea very well. And we were interested in South Korea partly because we were rebuilding Japan and Korea was right there, so close to Japan, that it was important to have a relationship with the South Korea.

Well on June 25th, 1950, Kim Il-sung surprised everyone by racing across the border and taking Seoul they pushed the South Korean Army almost to the very end of the Peninsula. And the US entered this war to defend the South Koreans and their Munich Army. And we held on for dear life for a few months in the summer of 1950 and then finally got involved in a big way in September of 1950 by invading the Port of Inchon. And we retook Seoul. We pushed Kim Il-sung’s forces all the way back to the 38th Parallel. And if we’d have stopped right there, it would have been a three month war. We would have accomplished all our goals. Millions of lives would have been spared and it would have been actually perceived universally as a great success.

But we got greedy. We pushed beyond the 38th Parallel. We decided to do in reverse what Kim had done which was take all of the Peninsula. At this time, for the South and for the American interests. And we pushed all the way to the Yalu River, the border with Manchuria, and the Chinese got very nervous about that. And Manchuria’s China. So Mao, having recently won his Civil War, the most populous nation on Earth, decided to enter this conflict in a big way. That’s sort of setting the stage for The Battle of Chosin Reservoir.

Brett McKay: All right so let’s … There’s a lot to unpack there. I mean there’s also a lot of personalities going on here which you get into a lot in the book. So sort of the mastermind of this invasion to rappel North Korea was MacArthur who had a controversial career in World War II. But during this time he was kind of … I guess he was like the … Sort of the General Eisenhower of the Pacific, correct?

Hampton Sides: Except a much more dramatic, a much more grandiose form of Eisenhower. You know. He could at this point seemingly do no wrong. He … I don’t think we’ve ever had a commander that had concentrated in his office, in his person, so much power. Because he was the head of the UN forces, he was the head of the Army of the far East. He was running the occupation in Japan. He was essentially functioning as an Emperor. And he kind of had an Imperial personality to begin with. A very dramatic guy. Very old school Military leader who’s command style frankly just doesn’t hold up very well in today’s culture. It was all about him. He loved the vertical pronoun. “I shall return.” It was all about him.

And the way he used media and the way he had an entourage everywhere he went and the way he surrounded himself with yes men who just told him what he wanted to hear. He went a little past his expiration date at this point. He had a long and interesting and amazing career but this was near the very end and I think it had all gone to his head. And he just thought he could just kick ass and just take Korea and it would be super easy and didn’t think the Chinese would intervene and even if they did, it’d be so easy to … You know. And of course, he wanted to use nuclear weapons against China when they did intervene and just blow up Beijing, no problem.

He had by this point become a very, I think a very scary dude in the sense of just being so much power in this one guy. And Truman, of course Truman didn’t really know how to handle him. And the joint chief of staff in Washington didn’t really know how to handle him. It was like a one-man show.

Brett McKay: Well this initial idea of invading or rappelling the Americans coming in and helping the South Koreans, that was MacArthur’s idea, correct?

Hampton Sides: Well no, not just MacArthur. I think everyone agreed that we had pledged in various ways to defend this fledgling Democracy. We certainly didn’t want it to become a communist peninsula. I think history has proven that we were right. That Kim was an unusually malevolent dictator and you only have to go to Korea today to see the difference between South Korea and North Korea and certainly Seoul has become this just amazingly dynamic city. South Korea’s the largest economy in the world.

So I think if you ask veterans of the Korean War today, should we have been there? Were we doing the right thing? Almost invariably they’ll all say yes up to the point where we came to the 38th Parallel. Going beyond the 38th Parallel is where all the problems really begin.

But anyway, yeah. MacArthur wanted to do this but so did Truman and everyone wanted to defend South Korea. It’s just that line. It’s like once you cross that line, you go into a much more complicated narrative.

Brett McKay: And that’s where MacArthur, he kind of was like, “We were successful here. We kicked butt. Why don’t we just keep going?”

Hampton Sides: Yeah. The Inchon Invasion was enormously successful. The pride of North Koreans. Kim was on the run. But he said, “Well we need to pursue Kim into his own territory and destroy the remnants of the Army so he can’t do this again.” Okay, fair enough. But let’s keep going, let’s take Tian Shan, let’s take other cities in North Korea. And then ultimately, let’s get all the way to the border with China.

Well the analogy the Chinese would use is that what if the Chinese had invaded Mexico? And pushed all the way to the Rio Grande? What would we have done? Well, we would have entered the war preemptively and that’s what they did in a big way. And with the beginning of what people feared would be World War III.

Brett McKay: And were there people around MacArthur like other generals and chiefs of staff who were like, “That’s not a good idea. You should not do that.”

Hampton Sides: There were some people who voiced concerns but his immediate staff know that he had surrounded himself with sycophants who told him what he wanted to hear and agreed with him and the foremost front guy, General Ned Almond who is his commander on the ground in Korea. And this is part of the problem, you see. MacArthur was not on the ground in Korea. He would fly over occasionally for a photo op from Tokyo. And it’s said that he never slept a single night on Korean soil during the Korean War. So he’s a class example of an absentee commander. And he just was out of touch with reality and really that’s where a lot of the problems lay. So he didn’t have people disagreeing with him in a vigorous way to adjust his view of things?

Brett McKay: Well you mentioned Truman didn’t know how to handle MacArthur. You also had Marshall who seemed like he didn’t really know how to handle MacArthur either and he kind of gave him the rubber stamp on this going past the 38th Parallel. Why do you think Marshall did it? He just didn’t know what to do with MacArthur as well, just let him do it?

Hampton Sides: It’s complicated. A lot of different reasons. Certainly people didn’t know how to handle MacArthur’s personality in general and there was of course a political dimension to that which was that it was thought, wildly thought, that MacArthur was gearing up to run for president back in the states after the war. So he was a live wire in essence.

McCarthy had just sort of risen his ugly head that year. McCarthy is a factor in American politics and the Democratic Party and Truman in particular had been accused widely of being soft on communism. So that was another factor that plays into the calculus here. You weren’t up here to be soft on communism so push to the Yalu. Go all the way.

And then the fact is that everybody wanted to unite Korea as a Democratic, capitalistic, pro-American Peninsula. Everybody wanted that. Truman certainly wanted that. It would have been great. I think openly for the North Korean people as we’ve come to see under Kim what has happened. But the intelligence began to trickle in in the fall of 1950 that the Chinese not only were going to enter but had entered. And hundreds of thousands of Chinese and millions were moving to Manchuria to get in place. And MacArthur didn’t want to hear this, didn’t want to believe the intelligence and his lieutenants actively doctored a lot of this evidence. So really, it’s one of the greatest Military intelligence failures in our history and ultimately it’s MacArthur’s fault.

Brett McKay: Yeah. You mentioned a meeting that Truman and MacArthur had and Truman straight up said that, “If the Chinese ever get involved, we’re not doing this anymore.”

Hampton Sides: Right.

Brett McKay: And MacArthur’s like, “Yeah, well it’s not going to happen. We’re looking fine.”

Hampton Sides: Yeah. I mean these two men who’s fates are so closely intertwined actually only met one time. Only once. They flew in opposite directions to this little island in the middle of the Pacific, Wake Island, and had this very strange meeting for a couple hours. They talked about this very question, what to do if the Chinese entered the war. And MacArthur was quite confident. He said, “They will not enter, don’t worry. They’re not going to enter and even if they do, we’ll slaughter them. Basically, they’re just a bamboo Army. They’re just a peasant Army. We’ve got planes, we’ve got tanks. We got monitor communications. We’re going to kick them back across the Yalu very quickly. It’ll be over by Christmas.”

And Truman loved hearing that of course. But what Truman said is, “As soon as you get an inkling that the Chinese really are entering in large numbers, stop. Halt in your tracks and take a position you can hold and go no further.” Well, MacArthur didn’t do that.

Brett McKay: So you mentioned MacArthur as sort of an absentee commander, didn’t sleep in North Korea but there was one guy who was the most involved in the initial invasion and also moving the men past 38th Parallel and that was Major General Oliver Smith. And I never knew about Smith until I read your book. But this guy was amazing. Tell us about him.

Hampton Sides: Yeah. He was kind of … Well not kind of. He was definitively the protagonist of the book. He’s an amazing general that you say you hadn’t heard of. Most people hadn’t heard of him. I hadn’t heard of him until I got into this project. He is the Commander of the 1st Marine Division, the field general. And he’s one of those guys that we need to listen to more often in these battles, in these wars. The field generals on the ground who know what’s happening. And they’ll have a fight at the ground level and care about the fate of their men.

Bill Smith was known as a professor. He was not your typical gung-ho Marine, you know macho guy. He was an academic. He was constantly smoking a pipe. He was fluent in French. He’d studied all over the world. He taught classes at Quantico and had … He graduated from Berkeley and he was kind of cerebral guy. But he’d also fought in some of the ferocious battles of World War II including Peleliu and Okinawa. And he was a master of amphibious landings. That was really what he knew the most about. And so consequently, with the Inchon Invasion, he was the guy called in to design the landing. An amphibious landing was a very, very complicated thing. It’s three-dimensional and there’s planes, there’s artillery, there’s ships, men coming in from the seawall. It all has to be timed perfectly and then there’s huge tidal fluctuations at Inchon that had to be figured out.

And he, in the Navy, figured this thing out. It worked brilliantly. They got ashore the first day and they took Inchon very quickly. It surprised the North Koreans. So Smith, I followed Smith through Inchon into Seoul. They take Seoul and very quickly the war’s going to be over they think but then they start going north, into North Korea. His 1st Marine Division actually is brought onto ships again and they go around the Peninsula and then up the East Coast of North Korea and land at a place called Hungnam. And we follow them as they push up this narrow road into the mountains of North Korea toward a man-made lake, a reservoir, the Chosin Reservoir where this battle ultimately takes place.

Brett McKay: And we’re going to talk about this battle because it’s one of the most epic battles and the way you describe it it’s just … It was captivating. But let’s talk about Smith and MacArthur are these two personalities that were almost like polar opposites. How did Smith manage MacArthur? Because there was instances where he’d hear something from MacArthur and it would go through Almond and then Smith would kind of be like, “Yeah, I’m not going to do that.” But still make it look like he was doing it.

Hampton Sides: Yeah. Well there’s always been this rivalry between the Marines and other branches of service and here’s a Marine being told to do something that Smith fundamentally disagrees with. He thinks it’s a trap, it’s a classic ambush situation to push up a narrow mountain round, twisting through this … And it’s the only way to go. There’s only one road. So his Marines are going to disperse along this road and it’s the perfect situation for an encirclement, an entrapment. And by this point, he knew the Chinese were there in large numbers, somewhere in those mountains. But general smith doesn’t want to be accused of insubordination. He can’t really violate the order so he kind of meets halfway. He slows down deliberately and MacArthur is saying, “Go, go, go, as fast as you can go.” But Smith is slowing down. He’s starting to fortify certain towns and create strongholds for battle that he knows is coming. He decides to start building an airstrip up in the mountains in the middle of nowhere. “Why do you need an airstrip up there?” they said. Well, he said, “Well you know, just in case we need to bring in planes for a battle and to bring up the casualties that we’re going to have from a battle.”

It’s almost like all these pieces are coming into place for a major battle that only General Smith seems to be able to see. The others, MacArthur and Almond just didn’t think there’s going to be a battle. Just don’t worry about it. Just go as fast as you can, head long to the Yalu.

And so, you know, their personalities are very different and I spent a lot of time comparing and contrasting Smith’s very cautious personality with the rash and reckless personality of General Almond who’s really just doing the bidding of the ultimate commander, MacArthur.

Brett McKay: And then speaking of the Chinese and their Military strategy, it seems like, yeah, they were setting the Americans up for an ambush. Like Mao was using Sun Tzu and all that. Like he was a big disciple of these guys and he was really thinking hard. I thought that was interesting. I didn’t know that about this part of Military history.

Hampton Sides: Yeah. Well Mao is quite actively involved in the strategy and prided himself on being a great Military strategist and during the Civil War, his prolonged Civil War against the Nationalist Forces under Chiang Kai-shek, Mao had proved to be quite adept. And yeah, he liked to read the classics. He liked to read Sun Tzu and you know using the element of surprise, Guerrilla tactics, marching overland, avoiding the roads. Moving only at night, stealth, flexibility of movement. All these things, he was going to employ in The Battle of Chosin Reservoir as well.

Mao is following these movements from afar. He’s in Beijing at this point, of course. But his generals are in close contact with him and the Chinese … And this is, I have to say that, in fairness to MacArthur, the Chinese were very difficult to spot from the air. And one of the reasons for this intelligence failure was that in the first month or so, they were almost impossible to detect. They came across the Yalu, they moved only at night. They slept during the day. They foraged off the land. They didn’t build fires that could be spotted from the air. And so, consequently, they didn’t move into place very surreptitiously and they were just really good at what they did. They didn’t have great weapons, they didn’t have great communications. They didn’t have a Modern Army or vehicles of any sort. But they had the element of surprise and they had overwhelming numbers and that’s sort of setting the stage for the battle.

Brett McKay: Just to reiterate, they went undetected and there’s like hundreds of thousands of them which is mind-boggling.

Hampton Sides: It’s mind-boggling that we still didn’t know that they were there. And we started to find out. We had skirmishes and we captured some of these guys and they would say very frankly, “We’re from China. We’re Chinese. We’re Mao’s troops. There’s hundreds of thousands of us.” They had actually been trained to attack Taiwan and were almost to the point of getting on ships to go to Taiwan when they got this other order. “No, we’re going to go North to Manchuria and we’re going to cross through Yalu and we’re going to defend Kim and his communist forces and we’re going to attack the Imperialist American.” That’s what they did. They were very frank about all this and the Marine intelligence folks would send it up the food chain to Tokyo and MacArthur’s guys would look at this and say, “No, these aren’t Chinese. They can’t be Chinese. Chinese aren’t there. They’re volunteers. They must be North Koreans who speak Chinese. Or Manchurian volunteers who’ve just come across the border for their own, just to help their brethren. They aren’t Mao’s troops. Don’t worry about it.”

And that’s where it just … It ceases to be an intelligence failure and it becomes a leadership failure, I think. It’s just willful ignorance.

Brett McKay: All right so the Marines, they head up, they get near The Chosin Reservoir. Like summer through September in North Korea, it’s warm, pretty temperate. But then like November hits and the weather changes dramatically. Tell us about the conditions at The Chosin Reservoir.

Hampton Sides: Yeah. Yeah, I just don’t think that any of us realized then and still today, I don’t think people realize how cold it gets in North Korea. Bitter, bitter, bitter cold. Suddenly in November, winter fell and it got down to 20 below 0. And the winds were just howling out of the steps of Manchuria. We just weren’t prepared for it. Our equipment wasn’t prepared for it. Guns wouldn’t fire properly. The artillery wouldn’t register properly. Vehicles shut down. It just took people’s breath away. And people started freezing to death and hypothermia and it effects your decision-making. The cold became this third combatant. There was the Chinese, there was Americans and there was this old man winter that just affected everybody. It affected the Chinese even more profoundly than the Americans. They really were not equipped. Many of them didn’t have gloves. They were wearing these sort of tennis shoes, the Chinese were, that they slipped on. They didn’t have socks. It was just devastating to them and people began to freeze to death.

And these guys, the Marines who were there, called themselves the Frozen Chosin because this was a battle that was just fought under these incredible winter conditions for 17 days. Consequently, a huge percentage of them, about 85% of them suffered some form of frostbite. They lost fingers and toes and parts of their face and after the war, they … So many of the ones I interviewed, they all settled in places like Florida and Southern California because they just really could not deal with the cold.

So yeah, it’s a big factor of this battle and in the old days, when Armies encountered this kind of whether, they would kind of shake hands and agree to meet in the Spring and go to some place like Valley Forge. But here, they just kept going. And with devastating results.

Brett McKay: Yeah, talk about what it was like. So there was hundreds of thousands of Chinese. How many Marines were there at The Chosin Reservoir?

Hampton Sides: There was about 13,000 right there around the shores of this lake which is by this point, frozen solid. In fact, some of the battle happens out on the ice which is kind of amazing. And there’s another 7 or 8000 Marines down in the Valley, by the sea supporting them. But they’re surrounded by 10 to 1 in many parts of the battle field by the Chinese who had, to their credit, very successfully lured the Marines up into this area and then they surrounded them, truly surrounded them and then they finally attack and force on the night of November 27th. And they only attacked at night because they were terrified of American airpower. So they couldn’t be spotted at night and of course the planes couldn’t fly at night. So they’d come around midnight and it’d be this sort of cacophony of bells and whistles and drums. And they’d come over the hills in waves.

The Marines are holding on for dear life trying to absorb this attack all through the night. Then by dawn, the attacks would relent and they would sort of disappear into the hills and you wouldn’t see them until the next night. Well this goes on for over a week of just trying to absorb these incredible attacks until the Marines can figure out what to do next.

Brett McKay: No and the carnage, I mean it Homeric, it was biblical. I mean just bodies, thousands of bodies just heaped on each other. It was … You know war is bad but you never … I never read anything like this before.

Hampton Sides: Yeah. Well the Chinese were either incredibly brave or they were just incredibly driven by their commanders and Mao treated his men like cannon fire. And just, we’ll make more. We’ll just send in more and more and more people and he was willing to sustain casualties that we would consider obscene. And so these waves would come and the Marines had to resort very quickly to hand-to-hand combat. A lot of this combat happened with shovels and bayonets and knives and pistols in the dead of night, in 20 below 0 weather beneath the glare of these flares, against the light of the snow, the light coming off the snow. So it was a very eerie environment to have to fight in and as you said, the corpses would just pile up.

The Marines really couldn’t dig foxholes because the soil was frozen solid so they ended up using these corpses as windbreaks, as sandbags almost. And they’d just pile them up and they’d hide behind the corpses and keep fighting through the night.

So you know, he talked to his Marines, they talked about a lot of things and had a lot of nightmares about a lot of different aspects of this but they talk a lot about that. It was just like corpses everywhere. And they froze solid in the shape that they had fallen in. So it’s really quite ghastly and these corpses just lying around for all 17 days of the battle. It’s quite ghoulish really. And just one of many extreme aspects of this battle.

Brett McKay: So the battle started end of November. It lasted 17 days. There’s a point where the Americans decided like, we have to retreat. They didn’t call it that, but that’s effectively what it was. At what point did the Americans decide they had to get out of The Chosin Reservoir?

Hampton Sides: Well you know it was pretty apparent even after the first night that they had to regroup in some way. That they weren’t going to be marching to the Yalu anymore. It took MacArthur several more days to finally agree we can’t march. Hell, we can’t even defend where we are. We’re certainly not going to march to the Yalu. But how you do that is a very tricky thing. It’s probably the trickiest thing in warfare is how do you successfully march out? How do you retreat? The Marines hate to use the word retreat and of course there was a lot of euphemisms for retreat. Advance to the rear, retrograde maneuver. It was General Smith who famously said, “We’re not retreating, we’re simply attacking in another direction.” Which I love.

But what he really meant by that was that if you are surrounded by overwhelming numbers of the enemy who are trying to kill you, movement in any direction is an attack. You’re going to fight your way out. He knew it would be a fight and if they had to march 70 miles to the sea where there was this court, Hungnam, where they could regroup, hold the port and stage an evacuation like Dunkirk. Which is what they did, of course. But that becomes the rest of the story. The rest of the book is this incredibly well choreographed fighting withdrawal down this one mountain road. The same road they’d marched up, they now have to march out of. And they do it with airpower. They do it with artillery, they build this airfield and get their casualties out. They bring in supplies and they kind of systematically break down these enclaves and move towards the coast in an organized fashion.

They didn’t want to just turn and run. They wanted to fight their way out in a systematic way and that’s exactly what they did and that’s why this battle is so widely embraced and studied by the Marines as a perfect of a fighting withdrawal. And they got out of there intact with their equipment. They got their casualties out of there and they got to the coast and lived to fight another day. Within another few months they’re fighting again in the Korean War, the 1st Marine Division. And yet, just a few weeks earlier they were really on the brink of possibly being annihilated. The newspapers back home said as much. That they were a doomed legion, lost legion. There was just no way they were going to get out of this trap.

So that’s really what the book about. It’s about how they got themselves into a trap and then how they fought their way out.

Brett McKay: And in this, you’re fighting out of this trap, there was lots of amazing stories of ordinary men doing extraordinary things. Is there one that you could maybe share with us that stands out to you?

Hampton Sides: Well one of the cool things about this battle is the extent to which it was an engineering story. Some of the heroes of this battle are engineers. Particularly, the Chief Marine Engineer, a guy named Partridge who had been asked to build this airfield. And we’re not talking about just a little airstrip. They built a huge airfield to bring in these big transport planes in the middle of nowhere, just in the wilderness. And people said it couldn’t be done, didn’t have enough equipment, couldn’t find the exact place to do it. Of course the ground was frozen solid.

And this General Smith gets Partridge in on it, they look at the place, they figure out, “You know maybe we can do it.” They bring in bulldozers and grating equipment which keeps breaking because it’s just like granite the soil is so hard. And then, around the clock, under the glare of these floodlights, they start scraping this airfield. And they barely make it in time but they finally get it built and grated and they still don’t know if it’s going to really work. But the planes start coming in and just in the nick of time and start bringing in all these supplies and ammunition and medical supplies. In the midst of the battle and with these bulldozer operators are scraping the Earth and periodically shutting down their equipment and picking up their rifle and shooting. I mean they’re fighting a battle while operating Earth moving equipment. And it’s kind of amazing.

And then a little later in the battle, Partridge gets asked to do something even more extreme which is the Chinese had blown a bridge at a key choke point that everyone knew, if they blew this bridge, we were in trouble. The Marines are backed up for 10 miles or more and they can’t move because the bridge has been blown. So Partridge gets called in to build a bridge in the middle of a battle. They fly in these huge girders and drop them by parachute and engineers are out kind of like acrobats swinging from this precipice, building this bridge while fighting a battle. And they get it built in a few short hours and hold the bridge long enough for 13,000 Marines to come out. And then they blow the bridge up so the Chinese can’t use it.

So that’s one of the many stories. This is one of the most highly decorated battles in American history and there’s all these little set pieces all over the battlefield like this. People who won Congressional Medal of Honor, people who are in the thick of the fighting. And I guess the hardest part of doing this book for me, was picking and choosing which of those individual stories, stories on the ground level, the grunts, which ones to tell.

Brett McKay: So this was a war with the most decorated battle. But besides that, what do you think of the legacy of the Frozen Chosin is?

Hampton Sides: People who have heard of it just think of it as being, “Okay, we should never fight in these kinds of conditions again. We should never put ourself in these sorts of conditions.” I view this as a sort of tragic collision of forces. Those armies shouldn’t have been up there in that place. It happened because diplomacy failed. It happened because we didn’t do the hard messy work of diplomacy. We didn’t have a relationship with the most populous nation on Earth. We refused to recognize Mao as the legitimate leader of China. We had no back channels of communication. He sent ample signals to us that he was going to intervene. We just kind of ignored those signals.

And so I mean I think of the legacy of this battle being first and foremost, exhibit A of the failure … What happens when diplomacy fails. And the other legacy that I really look at here is just to how important it is to listen to your field commanders. The guys who are on the ground who have intelligence, know what’s happening. Listen to them and keep a channel of communication from the bottom up, not just from the top down. This whole thing could have been avoided if we had listened to what General Smith had to say.

Brett McKay: Well Hampton, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Hampton Sides: Well my website is and the book is published by Double Day anywhere where books are sold you can find it.

Brett McKay: Well Hampton Sides, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Hampton Sides: Thanks so much, I really enjoyed it.

Brett McKay: My guest here was Hampton Sides. He’s the author of the book On Desperate Ground. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information on his work at his website Also check out our show notes at where you can find links to resources, where you delve deeper into this topic.

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