Bob Mitchell: Christmas Eve 66 years ago

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Christmas Eve 1950 was one of the biggest experiences of my lifetime.

While in the Navy, our flagship -- the USS Mt. McKinley (AGC 7) -- was off the coast of North Korea and just outside the harbor of Hungnam where the command was coordinating an evacuation. The object of the operation was waiting for the First Marine Division to fight their way out of being encircled at the Chosen Reservoir when China entered the Korean War.

Marine forces had been ordered, which was later determined as a mistake, to advance toward the Yalu River, which separated North Korea and Manchuria. This incursion pushed China into their decision to enter the war.

Marines abandoned

Army forces in the area pulled back as the onslaught of Chinese crossed the frozen river at night, out of sight of American forces. When they reached a desired strength level, their attack cut off the Marines, forcing them to consolidate their division in the Chosen area and begin a fight south.

Hungnam was chosen by American forces because of an availability of roads, harbor and an area where a perimeter could be established to wait for the Marines and assemble what material that was to be evacuated. The availability of ships would determine the extent of what would be saved. That which was to be abandoned would be destroyed, with the exception of was foodstuffs the Koreans could hide from the Communist.

Perimeter worked

The perimeter established around Hungnam proved to be an effective one, ringed areas where fire from assembled ships could be directed on any movement of Chinese forces, day or night. A number of destroyers, rocket ships and two cruisers were stationed close to the harbor. Out in deep water was the battleship USS Missouri, adding her big guns to the available firepower as needed.

No enemy ever penetrated the line.

Frozen Marines arrive

It was Dec. 23 when the first elements of the division arrived at the evacuation point. A couple of transport ships had been converted into emergency hospital facilities to handle the frostbite patients. These Marines had suffered much during their "fight in reverse" toward the evacuation areas. Our photo unit was assigned to film the arrival of the Marines, and it was something to witness their faces as they realized they had reached safety.

As an idea of the temperature at the time, we had to frequently place cameras under our parkas to warm them. Failure to do this would result in the film breaking when it was advanced. It was that cold!

Material destroyed

For several days, material from other locations arrived at the harbor. Clothing which could not be given to the people was burned by the boxcar loads. Heavy weapons, vehicles and other material were evacuated to the extent of the ships available to carry them. Anything else was deposited along the inner harbor and warehouses along the outer area.

This ordinance, which included much ammunition and small weapons, was wired with explosives by Navy Frogmen. There were simply not sufficient vessels available to save everything that had been stored ashore to provide service to the troops.

Vehicles that had brought the Marines from their fight from being surrounded in the northern regions of Korea were added to the area that was to be destroyed.

All this was destroyed in the largest explosion many had ever witnessed. A photo of this hangs in my garage.

This is a brief account

This probably isn't the most appropriate column as a pre-Christmas account to recognize the birth of Jesus Christ, but you can bet your bottom dollar those Marines who saw the water where those ships were waiting for them, knew their prayers were answered. Many of them exhibited their religion as they boarded the landing craft for the ride out to a vessel.

This memory for me is one that comes back to me about this time every year. I can still see those Korean children, thinly clad, carrying 110-pound sacks of flour on their heads, heading for a hiding place.

The sights of frostbite and other wounds and hardships suffered by those Marines will always be with me, no matter how many years I exist.

This story isn't intended to shock anyone, but perhaps it can make some realize what suffering others have gone through to make their Christmas a time to recognize the birth of Christ and how His life, too, was full of hardships.

From our family

While winding down this offering, a Merry Christmas to all of you out there from all the Mitchell families is in order. Whether they are in Colorado, Florida, Kansas, North Carolina, Massachusetts or Barry County, the message is the same: A very merry Christmas to all your family!

Bob Mitchell is the former editor and publisher of the Cassville Democrat.

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