Book Review: East of Chosin

East of Chosin: Entrapment and Breakout in Korea, 1950 by Roy E. Appleman

Paperback cover of East of Chosin: Entrapment and Breakout in Korea, 1950 by Roy E. Appleman

In his 1987 work East of Chosin: Entrapment and Breakout in Korea, 1950 military historian Roy Appleman chronicled the ordeals of the United States Army’s 31st Regimental Combat Team (RCT), otherwise known as Task Force Faith, during the Chosin Reservoir Campaign. In the course of which the 80th Division, Chinese Communist Forces (CCF), surrounded and annihilated elements of the 31st RCT. In addition to providing an excellent account of the Army units that were cut off in the fighting, the author analysed the situations and decisions that led to their destruction. He also contends that the CCF 80th Division would have participated in the 28 November 1950 attack at Hagaru-ri but was delayed by their efforts to destroy Task Force Faith, thereby relieving pressure on that vital staging area from which the 1st Marine Division (1st MARDIV) launched their fighting retreat to the port of Hungnam. Appleman speculates that had the CCF 80th Division joined the CCF 58th Division attack on Hagaru-ri, it is likely that the Marines there would have met a similar fate. The author’s last two assertions are questionable and deserve closer scrutiny.

Appleman’s goal in researching and writing the book was to “salvage in a credible way” a “segment of our history that was on the verge of being lost forever.”[1] Due to the fact that most of the 31st RCT officers became casualties, no accurate after action reports or unit histories were produced. Appleman’s work on the subject is invaluable in that it fills in the missing blanks as much as is possible, given the existing sources at the time of its writing, and accurately depicts the action that took place on the east shore of the Chosin Reservoir between 27 November and 1 December, 1950.

By combining numerous eyewitness accounts of Task Force Faith veterans with official records the author pieced together a play-by-play account in which two battalions of the 31st RCT and supporting units, approximately 3,000 men, were rushed up the east side of the Chosin Reservoir with the purpose of screening the right flank of the 1st MARDIV advance to the Yalu River.[2] However before all components of the RCT were in place three CCF armies, at least eleven divisions, launched a surprise offensive designed to destroy the 1st MARDIV.[3] The Chinese attack on the night of 27 November took the 31st RCT by surprise. After the initial attack, the 31st RCT battalions east of Chosin linked up at the Pungnyuri inlet where they held out for two more days against overwhelming enemy forces. With casualties mounting, supplies dwindling, and no possibility of rescue acting 31st RCT commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Don Faith, ordered a fighting withdrawal to the Marine perimeter at Hagaru-ri. In the ensuing breakout and fighting, all of Faith’s vehicles were destroyed or captured while individual soldiers and groups of survivors made their south to Hagaru-ri. Most officers and NCOs, including Col. Faith, were killed in action.

Step by step sequence of Task Force Faith/31st RCT breakout.

Based on the evidence, Appleman correctly identifies several factors that led to the destruction of the 31st RCT. Chief among these are: inadequate communications, lack of adequate resupply by air, lack of intelligence, a short daylight period and frigid weather, a poorly planned and executed breakout plan, high casualties among leadership, and bad high command decisions.[4]

While the author’s timeline and analysis are very detailed and likely an accurate history of the 31st RCT at Chosin, his theories regarding the CCF 80th Division are not entirely rooted in fact. He suggests that the CCF 80th Division would have participated in the attack at Hagaru-ri had it destroyed or bypassed Task Force Faith on 27 November, and that if it had the Marines there probably would have also been overrun.[5] The implication being that had Hagaru-ri fallen, the famous Marine withdrawal may not have been possible and therefore the 31st RCT may have saved the 1st MARDIV from destruction. It is true that the far outnumbered Task Force Faith tied down and inflicted severe casualties on an entire CCF division for three days, however it is most likely that the CCF 80th Division intended to secure area east of Chosin and not bypass it for Hagaru-ri because the 5th Marines were present in the area until 25 November when they were relieved by 1st Battalion, 31st RCT.[6]

The author also exaggerated the precariousness of the situation of the Marines at Hagaru-ri on 28-29 November, stating that portions of the perimeter were held by service troops while other areas were not covered at all.[7] While it is true that some service troops were in the line, Appleman failed to mention that the only area of the Hagaru-ri perimeter not manned was a low lying 400 yard span of frozen marshland covered by lethal interlocking fields of fire from both flanks – an area where the defenders would have welcomed an attack.[8] The author also omitted the fact that Lt. Col. Thomas Ridge, the commander at Hagaru-ri, benefitted immensely from information gathered by the 181st Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC). Throughout the campaign Korean CIC members roamed the countryside with surprising ease and mingled with CCF and North Korean troops.[9] On 28 November CIC agents reconnoitered in all directions from the Hagaru-ri perimeter and brought back word that the CCF 58th Division was massing five miles to the southwest and would attack from that direction during the night in divisional strength.[10] This allowed Ridge to place his strongest combat units in position to meet the brunt of the CCF attack in well prepared positions with a front that “bristled with concertinas, trip flares, booby traps, and five gallon cans rigged with thermite bombs.”[11] They were backed by two batteries of 105mm howitzers, 4.2 inch, and 81mm mortars – all with a virtually endless supply of ammunition. Given these facts it is not likely that the CCF would have been able to overrun the Marines at Hagaru-ri even if elements of the CCF 80th Division were able to participate. Another fact that the author failed to recognize was the CCF’s apparent inability to effectively exploit a penetration in enemy defenses. This fact not only saved the 1st Battalion, 31st RCT from destruction on 27-28 November, the Marines at Hagaru-ri and Yudam-ni also benefited from it.

These points notwithstanding, Appleman has produced a work worthy to stand beside the official Marine Corps history of the Chosin Reservoir Campaign, one he was eminently qualified to write given the fact that he served as a Lt. Col. with the X Corps during the fighting there.[12] His work is a great tribute to the valor of the forgotten men who fought and died east of the Chosin in the closing days of 1950. It is well worth the read and belongs on the shelf in any serious Korean War library.

[1] Roy E. Appleman, East of Chosin: Entrapment and Breakout in Korea, 1950 (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press. Kindle Edition, 1987), Kindle Locations 101-103.

[2] Ibid. Kindle Location 3877.

[3] Lynn Montross, Capt. Nicholas A. Canzona, and K. Jack Bauer, U.S. Marine Operations in Korea 1950-1953, vol. III, The Chosin Reservoir Campaign (Washington, DC: Historical Branch, G-3, Headquarters United States Marine Corps, 1957), 352-353.

[4] Appleman, East of Chosin, Kindle Locations 3941-3945.

[5] Ibid. Kindle Locations 4281-4283, 4302-4304.

[6] Montross et al., U.S. Marine Operations in Korea, 158.

[7] Appleman, East of Chosin, Kindle Locations 4268-4272.

[8] Montross et al., U.S. Marine Operations in Korea, 204.

[9] Ibid. 204.

[10] Ibid. 204-205.

[11] Ibid. 208.

[12] “National Park Service: Biography (Roy E. Appleman),” National Parks Service, December 1, 2000, accessed June 20, 2018,