Valor: The Only Way Out

Nov. 1, 1997

On Sept. 15, 1950, United Nations forces staged a successful landing at Inchon on the west coast of Korea in a drive to outflank the North Korean army. UN forces then advanced rapidly into North Korea.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur predicted that North Korea would be defeated and the war ended by Thanksgiving. He thought there was little likelihood that China would intervene to save its Communist neighbor.

While UN and South Korean forces were advancing, the Chinese were surreptitiously moving more than a hundred thousand troops into position west of the Yalu River. It was one of the most successful clandestine maneuvers of military history. After a few minor feelers by small numbers of “volunteers,” the Chinese struck in force on Nov. 27.

With virtually no support from air, armor, or artillery, some 120,000 Chinese troops overwhelmed the 12,000 Marines of the 1st Marine Division and the four Army battalions numbering about 3,000 men. The human wave attack left thousands of dead Chinese as the UN forces fought a courageous retreat in subzero weather to the vicinity of Hagaru-ri, a small village at the south tip of the Chosin Reservoir. There, they were surrounded by an estimated 70,000 enemy troops. Marines and Navy fighters kept the Chinese at bay.

The Marines and Army gathered their wounded and those suffering severe frostbite, to care for them as best they could. Encumbered by several hundred incapacitated men, there was no way out. The only solution was air evacuation. Under fire from the surrounding hills, the Marines scraped out a 2,500-foot strip from the frozen ground. A dike at the north end made it a two-way strip with landings to the north and takeoffs to the south.

Maj. Gen. William H. Tunner, commander of the Far East Air Forces Combat Cargo Command, assigned the perilous task of evacuation to the 21st Troop Carrier Squadron based at Itazuke, Japan. Eleven of its C-47s, the only available aircraft that could operate from the primitive strip and carry a respectable load, were moved to K-27 on the east coast of Korea. They would haul supplies into Hagaru-ri, then fly the wounded back to K-27 for airlift in C-54s to hospitals in Japan.

Tunner’s C-119s, which could not operate from the strip, dropped additional supplies to the besieged men. Marine and Navy fighter aircraft provided continuous coverage during daylight hours.

Operating from the strip called for skilled, experienced crews. The strip was a bowl, surrounded by mountains. There were no reliable local weather reports, no navigation aids, and unpredictable braking conditions on the frozen runway. The strip could be used only during the few hours of daylight. Approach was over enemy occupied mountains and departure through a narrow valley with hundreds of Chinese snipers concealed in caves.

Most of the C-47s were hit more than once, but none was downed by enemy fire. One pilot had his elevator cables severed by a lucky shot but, by coordinated use of trim tabs and throttles, made it safely back to K-27. One C-47 lost was in a takeoff accident in which there were no serious injuries.

The more or less standard load for evacuation flight was 35 men, compared to 19 or 20 for commercial DC-3s. That standard often was stretched to crowd in a few who otherwise would have to be left in the cold until another flight arrived. One C-47 mushed off the runway with 46 aboard.

One of the many hazards faced by crews was poor winter visibility, especially in the early morning when the strip could be blanketed by smoke and fog. On one morning vertical visibility was fair but forward visibility near zero.

A pilot circling over the strip announced that he could provide a controlled approach if anyone wanted to try it. He then directed the approach of a volunteer, telling him when to turn to final approach, then giving directional corrections on final. It worked until ground visibility improved.

The evacuation continued for six days, with crews often flying several missions a day to the point of exhaustion. When the last of the wounded and dead had been flown out, the tally showed that those 11 C-47 crews of the 21st Troop Carrier Squadron had evacuated 4,608 wounded and 81 dead.

Those totals included some evacuations from Koto-ri, a second strip hacked out to support the able-bodied who fought their way out on foot when the air evacuation was completed. In total, the 1st Marine Division had suffered 8,700 casualties. Army losses were even heavier.

On their inbound flights, the C-47s had delivered 547,000 pounds of supplies, supplemented by air drops from C-119s that could not operate from either strip. The C-119s also parachuted several spans of a bridge to replace one south of Koto-ri that the Chinese had destroyed. The centerpiece of the evacuation was the 21st TCS, however. That squadron was one of the first three units of the war to be awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation for its “conspicuous gallantry and heroism that distinguished it from other units in the Korean campaign.”

Published November 1997. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.