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Osprey -- The Frozen Chosen: The 1st Marine Division and the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir

ISBN Number:
978-1-4728-2488-2
Published:
Thursday, November 16, 2017
Publisher:
Osprey Publishing
Retail Price:
$15
Reviewed By:
John Ratzenberger

The Frozen Chosen
The 1st Marine Division and the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir
by
Thomas McKelvey Cleaver

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Overview

This is not the familiar Osprey book of 48-96 pages most of us are used to; the review copy, in soft cover, is in 5 x 7-3/4 format, with 392+28 pages. Hard-cover and e-book formats are available. Please note that any page references I make are to this edition only and may vary from hard-cover or electronic format.

The book leads off with a contents page, a list of maps (6), a list of illustrations (53), an 8-page prologue, and a 6-page introduction. The 53 pictures, all captioned, are grouped in the center of the book on 28 glossy, but unnumbered, pages. The book closes with a 4-page bibliography, an 8-page index, and a brief resume of the author.

By the title, one would expect the book to be focused on the 1st Marine Division and Chosin Reservoir, but that is barely the case -- and the author, at the end of his introduction, so states it is a 'bigger picture' book.

The prologue is unremarkable. The author's introduction is short, providing his rationale and goals for writing the book and an explanation of the "Frozen Chosen" title. I will come back to the introduction in my conclusion.

The first 5 chapters total 178 pages. Somewhat distractingly, chapter 1, 8 pages, leaps forward in time to 4 December to describe the only Medal of Honor awarded to a member of the US Navy in the Korean War. More on this later. Until the last 20 pages of chapter 5, the book covers a brief history of Korea and its neighbors, the background to the war, the North Korean invasion, Pusan, Inch'on, and then preparation to cross the 38th Parallel and drive to the Yalu with perhaps a couple dozen pages on the 1st Marine Division. The last 20 pages of chapter 5 are about the 1st Marine Division in early November as it positions itself for the advance to the Chosin Reservoir and beyond, and is attacked by the Chinese around Sudong. While the provision of some context on either side of the Yalu/Chosin Reservoir campaign is essential to set the stage and then close it out, I thought the 5 chapters of lead-in to be overly long and unfocused in both time and space.

Chapters 6-11, 143 pages, mostly focus on X Corps and the 1st Marine Division's attack toward the Chosin Reservoir, the Chinese attack, the famous "attack in the opposite direction", and culminate with the evacuation of UN forces from the port of Hungnam. The story of the Army's 31st Regimental Combat Team (aka Task Force MacLean/Faith) is fully integrated and there is enough about other adjacent 8th Army formations to provide context. However, the excruciating operational and tactical detail without maps, the non-standard and inconsistent naming of characters and units, and other issues discussed later make this tedious reading.

Chapter 12, 35 pages and aptly titled "Aftermath", takes us on a brief but broad and well-written summary of the changes in 8th Army, the military and political impacts, the relief of MacArthur, the rest of the war, and the longer term national and global impacts and implications of the Korean War. This is by far the best chapter of the book.

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Some particular problems

Organization:  Many of the chapters have no 'breaks', making for difficult reading. For example, chapter 3 is 64 pages, chapter 4 is 40, chapter 5 is 41, chapters 6-8 are 30 pages each, and the rest somewhat less -- not in itself bad, but there are no internal section breaks, for example a blank line, to signal that the reader should expect a change in time, place, or subject. It soon becomes very difficult to read and at times unreadable.

Maps:  There are 6 maps, 4 of which are in the "intro" chapters 3-4. The maps are grey-scale and pretty much one-over-the-peninsula. The difference between US Army and ROK units is the thickness of the unit symbol border; the Chinese units symbols are a light grey with white border and the arrows showing direction of attack are even lighter, almost fading into the terrain background. 

I have shown below the only two maps included in the 1st Marine Division / Chosin section of the book. It is impossible to follow a battalion level fight on these maps, not to mention platoons and companies. The text contains numerous references to named terrain features and hill numbers from Japanese occupation maps as well as names given by the Marines (North Ridge and the other four around Yudam-ni for example) but one cannot follow them with the maps provided.

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One of the sources in the bibliography is the website, koreanwar.org, and I highly recommend selecting the "Maps" tab, then the "US Marine Corps in Korea" link and scrolling down to the "Chosin Reservoir Campaign" section -- here is the direct link (https://www.koreanwar.org/html/maps_marines.html ) but you might want to look around at some of the other maps and references available. The book does not make the effort to point the reader there. Do note the book and these maps aren't always synchronized.

Order of Battle and Unit Naming:  In this book, units of the North & South Koreans, the Chinese, the U.S. Army and Marines, and the British are featured. A few simple orders-of-battle, or charts, would have been very helpful and saved a lot of words and confusion. Absent that, the reader has to build his/her own picture from the text.  Orders-of-battle would have been a good place, particularly for the Army and Marine units that are taken to lowest levels, to establish and explain a standard naming convention to be used throughout the book.

For example, the 1st Marine Division -- divisions have regiments, regiments have battalions, battalions have companies. Regiments are named nth Marine Regiment, shortened to the nth Marines -- in the 1st Marine Division, the Infantry regiments were the 1st, 5th, and 7th Marines. Within (for example) the 7th Marines are numbered battalions, for example 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, shortened to 1/7 Marines or just 1/7. Within battalions are lettered companies, also referred to by the phonetic alphabet, so for example "F" ("Fox") Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, or more likely shortened to F-2/7 (or Fox 2/7) and within the battalion itself as "F Company" or "Fox Company" or just plain "F" or "Fox".

The problem is that the book has almost completely ignored time-honored standard usage which is not hard to understand if just explained up front. What we have throughout the book, and it gets really tedious in the Chosin section, are (for example) "Fox Company 2/7 Battalion" or "Fox 2/7 Battalion" instead of Fox Company 2/7 or just Fox 2/7, and "2/7 Battalion" instead of just 2/7. The worst case is a totally odd construct "Fox 2/7 Company". It seems someone, not understanding the regimental system, was told to be sure unit size was part of the name, but it isn't consistent by any stretch and multiple variations can be found.

For some reason references to battalions of the 1st Marines are almost uniformly reversed, such as 1/2 instead of 2/1 (2nd Battalion, 1st Marines) and 1/3 instead of 3/1. I'll give 1/1 the benefit of the doubt.

Individual names and ranks:  Much like units, a consistent standard hasn't been adopted and the book is all over the place. While people are usually introduced with the rank/title, full-name, and position, it is usual to then adopt a less formal convention of rank/title and last name, or even last name from then on, only varying to prevent confusion among similar ones. It's also usual to adopt traditional conventions, such as "Colonel" for "Lieutenant Colonel", "1st Lt" or "1st Lieutenant" for "First Lieutenant", etc. There probably no hard and fast rule, but readability and common usage counts.

In the book, there is any combination -- last-name, rank & last-name, full-rank vs conventional, even within a couple sentences of each other. Sometimes the name is associated with a unit, but then it's odd to keep mentioning that so-and-so is commander, we know that.

Lastly are those I have to call the "favorites" -- Don Faith (31st RCT, TF Faith), Ray Murray (5th Marines), and Ray Davis (1/7 Marines) -- who all referred to by the familiar first-last name, whereas as others are not. Admittedly, I might have missed a few.

Bibliography and footnotes: There is a bibliography, 4 pages, divided into books (26), articles (4), websites (2), and interviews (9) by the author. There are no footnotes, end notes, source notes, whatever you want to call them, of any form. There are people and incidents mentioned in the text that cannot be traced back to any particular source. There are other people, places, incidents mentioned that have no direct correlation to the sources listed in the bibliography. In far too many cases, there are direct quotes, statements of fact, or opinions rendered with no source to substantiate them. 

The reader is thus unable to follow-up for further information. I will simply say it is my habit to read a book with a note pad handy and let that book take me on branches and sequels.

The reader is also unable to confirm statements or facts offered and that leads me to my "More about this later" remark about chapter 1, above. I hit the end of chapter 1, page 30 in this edition, and the last sentence "His [LTJG Thomas J Hudner, Jr. (who died at age 93 while I was writing this)] award was one of 14 Medals of Honor awarded for heroism during the Chosin campaign, more than have been awarded for any other American battle." OK, right off the bat, the Medal of Honor is awarded for valor - that might sound like semantics but in these days of instant media "heroes", it's somehow important. More important is the fact that 27 Medals of Honor were awarded for Iwo Jima, 5 to the Navy (4 Corpsmen), and 22 to Marines. Now I suppose one might also quibble about whether Iwo Jima was a campaign or a battle, just like whether one could quibble about Chosin Reservoir being one or the other, but the author uses "campaign" and "battle" in the same sentence. Thirty pages into the book, I had run into what I knew to be and considered a major error and no, repeat no, sources or footnotes for me to track back. I continued reading because I had to complete the review, but I was then suspicious of everything and less inclined to give credit to some of the assertions and opinions rendered.

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Conclusion

Going back to the Introduction, specifically pages 20-23, the author discusses that "the road to involvement in Korea was the direct result of complete ignorance of the history of Korea, combined with a total misunderstanding of the nature of the Communist countries, leading to a failure to understand that they would act in defense of their perceived national interests as would any other country." 

Well, yes -- that's the American way of war and has been since at least 1776. Korea is just a particularly noxious example, but mitigated/magnified by the very short reset/recovery time since WW2. The author continues in the introduction and through chapter 5 to make this point and draw inferences about Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the whole Global War on Terror -- this places the conclusion before the event in some regards and is disconcerting. Much of this could have been moved to an Afterword, as lessons to be, or that should be learned.

Continuing the Introduction, he states "the battle of the Chosin Reservoir in 1950 has assumed mythological status in the national memory", citing the Marine Corps official history The Chosin Campaign that "It was the Corps' finest hour".

The Marine Corps certainly earned their remembrance of the Chosin Reservoir; I'm not sure about the "national memory" if Korea is indeed the "Forgotten War".  As an Army guy 20-plus years later, once we started rebuilding the post-Vietnam Army, the phrase "No more Task Force Smiths" was the watchword -- learning from failure.

From there he goes on offer his goal, a "hope that the reader will come to the end of the book with an understanding of how the Chosin Reservoir campaign, which really does fit all the requirements for being considered a mythic event, was the direct result of American failure to understand the past in Korea, which led to misunderstanding of the present in 1950, with all the danger such failure and resultant misunderstanding involved."

This is where I believe the author took on too much and muddied the waters. The story of Chosin Reservoir softens the impact or the lesson, so to speak -- we really screwed up, but look how well we handled things, sort of like "Dunkirk". Pusan and Inch'on are similar examples and the collapse of 8th Army on the west/left is more germane to the author's "big picture" point than Chosin.


Summary

I have to admit I started disappointed as I was expecting one of the Osprey Campaign Series (they have one on Inch'on 1950 already) and still hope they produce one.

But that disappointment aside, I then became disappointed that barely half of the book was on the 1st Marine Division at Chosin. I am unsure of the target audience. At best it is "popular history", but even then I doubt anyone without an overarching interest is going to slog through the difficult-to-read formatting, the excruciating operational and tactical detail without maps, and the non-standard and inconsistent naming of characters and units. Those with a scholarly interest have to also get past the scanty bibliography and the complete lack of footnotes or source notes.

Any book is the work of the author, the editor, and the publisher. I'm not sure who exactly to blame for this one, so just assume my remarks are spread equally among them all.

Recommended with reservations. I would never tell anyone not to read a book and form their own opinion, yours may differ from mine. I will state categorically that it is not a modeler's reference.

I would like to sincerely thank Osprey Publishing for providing the review sample to AMPS.

Reviewed by John Ratzenberger, AMPS Eastern Carolina Plastic Modelers and AMPS/Central Virginia

 

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