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Bob Mitchell; Christmas Eve, 67 years ago
’Twas the night before Christmas in 1950, but it certainly wasn’t a time for much rejoicing among the fleet of ships, which virtually all the Navy could assemble off North Korea!
The occasion was the evacuation of Hungnam, after we had our butts kicked by the Chinese, which in many opinions, didn’t have to happen.
United Nations forces had pushed the North Koreans to the far north and threatened the region adjoining the Yalo River, the border with China. The ego of the UN’s high command put this reality into action, ignoring the possibility of a war intervention by the Chinese.
First Marine Division
America’s First Marine Division was the point on this drive, with commands thinking bombed bridges over the border river would prohibit any movement across the water. What they forgot was the extremely cold weather that permitted moving even heavy equipment across the hard-frozen stream.
When the time was right, Chinese forces swarmed into the fight as Army units pulled back, leaving the Marines cut-off from friendly forces. Their subsequent pull-back was to the Chosen Reservoir area. It was here their commanders denyed a retreat, instead insisted fighting in a different direction. While they were fighting through the enemy and extreme weather conditions, a perimeter was being established at Hungnam to provide the Marines a point to exit the area.
Every available ship in the Far East Command was on hand. Some transports were converted to hospital ships to care for the horrible cases of frost bite and other injuries. Cold was so extreme to require roll film cameras had to be held under coats when not in use or the film would snap when put in use. Sheet film cameras had to be used very carefully.
Destroyed many goods
Plans of the evacuation were to remove only what vehicles that could be loaded, heavy weapons and naturally, all personnel. Anything else, train loads all kinds of goods were either burned or blown to bits, piled on the inner harbor or seawall warehouses to be demolished by explosives planted by UDT units of the Navy.
Some foodstuffs that might be hidden by the Koreans were given them, with youngsters, clad very thinly in the cold, carrying 110-pound sacks of flour on their heads.
The seawall warehouses, about two stories tall and packed with goods, food, clothing, ammunition, etc., were all to be demolished.
The entire area of the perimeter was coordinated for complete destruction by Navy gunners should a breakthrough be attempted by the Chinese. The armada included a number of destroyers, rocket ships, two cruisers and the battleship USS Missouri out in deeper water. Any attempt by the enemy to approach the established ring being held for the arrival of the Marines was blown apart by accurate fire.
The finale of this effort to remove the beleaguered Marines was not a pretty sight. We were on the beach to record the event as landing craft were beached in preparation to transport them to a waiting ship. The wounded and frostbite cases were the first off the beach, many in typical Marine fashion giving a “thumbs up” signaling they had made a “successful fighting in reverse” over some of the most difficult territory in that country.
This was a special Christmas Eve for those Marines and for the demolition teams assigned to the area. The Marines were rushed to waiting ships where everything possible for their convenience had been assembled. Those demolition people were included in some of the final boats to leave the beach in addition to the photo units that had been there to record the process, what was one of the most horrible sights most of us had ever witnessed!
As a fitting finish to the operation, about 20 minutes after we left the beach, it was top side on the ship to photograph on of the most tremendous explosions known as the entire area of the harbor and areas to be destroyed were changed to dust leaving little or nothing for the enemy.
Didn’t have to happen
Had it not been for the ego of McArthur in ordering what amounted to an encouragement of an intervention of the Chinese into the Korean War, the issue could have been solved weeks earlier. As many stated or have theorized later, if Truman had fired McArthur earlier, those people who suffered so severely in this action would have been spared.
The process of the evacuation was completed in the afternoon with the quick departure by the armada. Our flagship, the USS Mt. McKinley, was the last to depart, giving her gunners a shot at the surrounding hills.
Excuse this approach to a Christmas greeting, but it’s so important to this writer to pass along the story, since you get to enjoy the season because of the actions of those involved in the Hungnam evacuation!
Bob Mitchell is the former editor and publisher of the Cassville Democrat. He is a 2017 inductee to both the Missouri Press Association Hall of Fame and Missouri Southern State University’s Regional Media Hall of Fame.