On Desperate Ground

"On Desperate Ground: The Marines at the Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle" by Hampton Sides.

ON DESPERATE GROUND: The Marines at the Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle. By Hampton Sides. Doubleday. 416 pages. $30.

In his new book, “On Desperate Ground,” best-selling author and historian Hampton Sides has delivered a combat thriller, focusing on the hellish 1950 Battle for Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War.

Sides is one of the nation’s top narrative nonfiction writers. He tackled the incredible World War II rescue of Bataan Death March survivors in his haunting book “Ghost Soldiers.”

He later chronicled the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in “Hellhound on His Trail,” tracing the collision course of murderer James Earl Ray with the civil rights icon.

More recently, Sides focused on the ill-fated 1879 expedition to the North Pole of the USS Jeanette in his book “In the Kingdom of Ice,” an amazing story in which ice-stranded sailors were forced to hike a thousand miles out of the Arctic.

In his latest narrative, Sides drops readers on the frontline of the Korean War. There, Gen. Douglas MacArthur commanded United Nations forces battling Communist leader Kim Il-Sung of North Korea, whose troops had invaded the South in June 1950. By September, Communist forces had nearly overrun South Korea.

The book opens with the Sept. 15 amphibious landing at Inchon, a bold and surprising move by MacArthur that allowed U.N. forces, most of whom were American, to successfully seize the capital of Seoul and repel North Korean forces.

With the tide now in his favor, MacArthur turns his troops north, convinced he can quickly defeat Communist forces and have his troops home by Christmas.

Chinese leader Mao Zedong, however, is not willing to let neighboring North Korea fall so easily, ordering 300,000 troops south to fight. Those forces set a trap high in the snowy mountains around a massive man-made lake called the Chosin Reservoir.

“In this desolate country,” Sides writes, “there were no airstrips, no functioning rail lines, no other ways to receive reinforcements or evacuate casualties. They had only one road in, and, should anything happen, only one road out.”

Up this winding mountain path, MacArthur’s forces traveled, soon to face an unexpected new adversary, the cold, which Sides describes in powerful detail.

“It stole into the men’s nostrils, took away their breath, froze the phlegm in their sinuses,” he writes. “Fingers stuck to metal. Helicopters refused to rise. Truck engines balked. Rifles seized. Batteries fizzled. The cold seemed to come with only one upside: It had a cauterizing effect on wounds.”

Chinese forces sprang the trap on Nov. 27, beginning a ferocious nighttime battle in which far-outnumbered American Marines struggled to repel wave after wave of enemy troops. Desperate Marines literally resorted to using dead Chinese soldiers as a shield, dubbing the frozen corpses “chop suey sandbags.”

Sides grounds the narrative in a handful of characters, including President Harry Truman and MacArthur, who managed the war largely from Tokyo where he was still overseeing the Japanese occupation that resulted from World War II.

Sides follows Major Generals Edward Almond, MacArthur’s chief of staff and X Corps commander, and Oliver Smith, commander of the First Marine Division and a World War II veteran of Peleliu.

Almond, whom Sides portrays as a MacArthur toady, proved slow to recognize the perilous plight of his troops, ordering them to continue north when the fight began.

Fortunately, the grizzled combat veteran Smith had the foresight to see the reality of the battle, ordering the construction of a primitive 3,000-foot airstrip that would prove a godsend for the trapped Marines.

The cinematic battle scenes make up the heart of this gripping narrative, the result of Sides dogged reporting that involved interviewing more than four dozen veterans in 20 states. In one gruesome scene, Marine officer John Yancey is hit in the face by a bullet, popping his right eye from the socket where it dangled by the nerves. “Yancey, horrified but not knowing what else to do, cradled his eyeball and gently mashed it back into its ragged hole,” Sides writes.

The far-outnumbered Americans had no choice but to fall back to the sea, making the story in many ways reminiscent of the British at Dunkirk during World War II.

Still, the retreat was chaotic and deadly as enemy troops in one case overwhelmed a convoy, slaughtering wounded Americans sprawled out in the backs of trucks. Sides tells the story of Ed Reeves, who could only wait his turn as the Chinese moved from truck to truck, shooting the wounded and setting the vehicles on fire.

“They didn’t beg or cry; they didn’t utter so much as a whimper,” Sides writes. “They looked their executioner in the eye and died with dignity.”

Against all odds, Reeves managed to survive and tell his harrowing story.

A gifted storyteller, Sides once again has crafted an incredible tale, a heart-stopping narrative filled with rich detail and moments of incredible humanity that will appeal to far more than just military readers. This is a book not to be missed.

Reviewer James Scott is the author of “Rampage,” “Target Tokyo,” and “The War Below.” He lives in Mount Pleasant.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Hampton Sides will join reviewer James Scott for a book discussion 6-7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 4, at the Charleston Library Society, 164 King St. Scott will discuss his new book “Rampage: MacArthur, Yamashita, and the Battle of Manila.” Sides will talk about “On Desperate Ground." James D. Hornfischer, author of several books about the U.S. Navy in World War II, will moderate the discussion. For information and tickets, go to http://charlestonlibrarysociety.org.