man in gray coat standing near green trees during daytime

Sergeant Willard Campbell was not a typ­i­cal Marine.

He was twen­ty-two when he joined the corps in 1947 and had just fin­ished col­lege, major­ing in human­i­ties. However, upon leav­ing col­lege, he felt some­what at loose ends and, real­iz­ing that he could prob­a­bly find a teach­ing job pret­ty eas­i­ly, also real­ized that his life was, well, unfulfilled. 

The last two years of World War II had found Campbell in col­lege and he won­dered then and now why he had not been draft­ed into the ser­vice like so many oth­er young men of his age. Some strange fate had allowed him to stay in and fin­ish col­lege, but he was nagged by a feel­ing of unwor­thi­ness, of hav­ing shirked some respon­si­bil­i­ty, even though he could have vol­un­tar­i­ly enlist­ed any time.

In the month or so fol­low­ing his final term at school, while liv­ing back at home with his par­ents and con­tem­plat­ing his next move, he reached the unlike­ly deci­sion to join the Marines. Unlikely for him because there was no his­to­ry of mil­i­tary ser­vice in his fam­i­ly. He had a cou­ple of uncles who had served dur­ing the pre­vi­ous war, but they had sim­ply ful­filled their enlist­ment and left when their terms were up. No one in his fam­i­ly had ever voiced great feal­ty for mil­i­tary service.

Although it seemed to be a snap deci­sion, Campbell had been mulling it over for some time and did­n’t think he was being rash, even though both his par­ents had expressed some reser­va­tions. He had assuaged their con­cerns to some extent by not­ing that he present­ly did not have any job offers, was cer­tain­ly not going to live off his par­ents any longer than nec­es­sary and, once his hitch was up, he could use the G.I. Bill to get his mas­ter’s degree which would make his job prospects much better.

All these argu­ments were quite ratio­nal and he had even­tu­al­ly won the grudg­ing acqui­es­cence of his par­ents who under­stood that they had no lever­age to stop him from enlist­ing if he had def­i­nite­ly made up his mind to do so.

And so, in July 1947, Willard W. Campbell was sworn into the US Marine Corps at the local recruit­ing office and, with­in two weeks found him­self on a train head­ed south­east with a final des­ti­na­tion of Parris Island, South Carolina — where he would spend the next twelve weeks hav­ing the civil­ian worked out of him and ‘Marine’ embed­ded into his psy­che and body. To be fol­lowed by an addi­tion­al twelve weeks of advanced infantry train­ing to famil­iar­ize him with the many weapons avail­able to the typ­i­cal Marine rifle­man, and learn­ing small-unit tac­tics and sur­vival techniques.

Near the end of his six-month train­ing peri­od, his com­pa­ny com­man­der had attempt­ed to get Campbell to apply for Officer Candidate School, due to his edu­ca­tion and exem­plary per­for­mance dur­ing his training. 

But Campbell had declined, cit­ing his desire to work his way up the enlist­ed ranks and test­ing him­self to see if he real­ly had lead­er­ship qual­i­ties — after which he might choose OCS if he decid­ed to stay in the Corps.

Though his cap­tain was dis­ap­point­ed, he also admired Campbell’s plans and ded­i­ca­tion. By the time he was ready to be assigned to a divi­sion, he had made PFC and was assured that cor­po­ral would like­ly be com­ing along with­in the next six months.

On June 25, 1950, forces of the North Korean army crossed the thir­ty-eighth par­al­lel of the divid­ed penin­su­la of Korea, attack­ing Republic of Korea (ROK) forces and achiev­ing vic­to­ry after vic­to­ry against an unpre­pared ene­my as they pushed southward. 

The first US troops to answer South Korea’s calls for help were army forces sta­tioned in Japan, the 24th Infantry Division. After less than five years, the United States was in anoth­er shoot­ing war and there was lit­tle doubt that marines would be in it as well.

The first ele­ments of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade went ashore in Korea on August 2nd, 1950 and it would not be long before the entire First Marine Division would be join­ing the brigade, includ­ing now-sergeant Willard Campbell. 

August 2nd, 1950 was just five days shy of being exact­ly eight years since this same divi­sion invad­ed Guadalcanal in the first American land assault of World War II.

Sergeant Campbell was the 2nd squad leader of the 1st pla­toon of Charlie Company, First Battalion, Fifth Marines and was with the ele­ments of the divi­sion that went into Inchon on September 15th. He was in action con­tin­u­al­ly from that point on.

Campbell led his twelve-man squad as it helped recap­ture Seoul and he and his men began the long slog north, chas­ing the retreat­ing North Koreans back into their own neck of the woods, push­ing, always push­ing the ene­my and wag­ing a war of attri­tion that was sap­ping the ene­my of the abil­i­ty to effec­tive­ly wage war.

Unfortunately, the over­all com­man­der in Korea, General Douglas MacArthur, was in the process of mak­ing a his­toric and trag­ic mis­take. Perhaps the rever­sal of for­tunes of the North Koreans and of the South Koreans and Americans had filled MacArthur with some grandiose notion that the war could be won quick­ly and that the North Koreans would con­tin­ue to give way to the expand­ing might of the American forces and the ROKs.

And so the north­ward move­ment con­tin­ued, and by the begin­ning of November, the Marines had been ordered to move all the way north to the bor­der with China, near the Yalu River and around the perime­ter of the Chosin Reservoir.

Traveling along a sin­gle road, the divi­sion made its way north and had reached Hagaruri at the south­ern tip of the reser­voir by November 15th. Fall had passed and in this part of Korea, win­ter comes slam­ming into the hills with a bit­ter ferocity.

Arriving in the area, the marines were dis­persed as effi­cient­ly as pos­si­ble con­sid­er­ing the amount of ground they would be required to cov­er with the num­ber of troops avail­able. The marines’ com­mand­ing offi­cer, General Oliver Smith, refused to fol­low the spe­cif­ic orders from MacArthur’s head­quar­ters, orders which would have split the Division and opened the marines to piece­meal slaughter.

MacArthur had also expressed his con­fi­dence that the Chinese would not come into the war, despite intel­li­gence warn­ing of a huge buildup of Chinese com­mu­nist forces on the oth­er side of the Yalu.

On November 27th the Chinese unleashed their six­ty thou­sand sol­diers against the marines and a token force of U.S. Army troops.

Added to the resul­tant bat­tles and the car­nage accom­pa­ny­ing them was the wors­en­ing of an already hor­rid weath­er con­di­tion. Temperatures dropped pre­cip­i­tous­ly with night­time lows of minus twen­ty degrees, cou­pled with winds howl­ing across the North Korean hills and blow­ing snow which fell inter­mit­tent­ly — all com­bined to make the lives of men try­ing to sur­vive in unshel­tered fox­holes even more mis­er­able and, in some cas­es, deadly.

As the bat­tles wore on, Campbell and all the oth­er marines began to learn that, as hor­ri­ble as their con­di­tions were, the Chinese were suf­fer­ing even more. They were poor­ly clothed for the win­ter con­di­tions and some were attack­ing with­out weapons, forc­ing them to stop and strip their dead com­rades in order to con­tin­ue the battle.

The nights, dark and long and bit­ter­ly cold, were usu­al­ly the time of attack pre­ced­ed by the blow­ing of bugles and whis­tles, all of which only served to rouse drowsy marines who were con­stant­ly being lulled into sleep by the cold and the end­less peri­ods of alertness.

As the con­stant buzz of the American machine guns cut swaths in the ene­my ranks and rifles cracked in sup­port of the machine guns, the air was filled with hand grenades fly­ing from both sides, at times so thick that the marines used their entrench­ing tools like bats to swat the fly­ing mis­siles back against the approach­ing Chinese.

Both sides even­tu­al­ly exhaust­ed them­selves or ran short of ammu­ni­tion, and with the com­ing dawn, the mus­tard-clad Chinese would slink back to their lines and leave the marines to count their dead and wound­ed, and to evac­u­ate those too seri­ous­ly hurt or too worn out to continue.

The num­ber of marines was being con­tin­u­al­ly whit­tled down, while the Chinese seemed to have inex­haustible num­bers to throw into the mêlée.

On November 30th, orders were passed down the line to begin a ret­ro­grade move­ment that would take the marines back south and east along the sin­gle road to Hungnam on the east coast of North Korea. 

This with­draw­al would last until December 11th, and the Marines would be fight­ing all the way along the eighty-mile cor­ri­dor, refus­ing to be anni­hi­lat­ed and impos­ing con­tin­u­ous loss­es to the Chinese, who har­ried them the whole way.

It’s pos­si­ble that the trek south was even worse than the days spent in direct con­tact with the ene­my despite the fact that the long walk was at least work­ing to help keep the men warm. The worst part of the with­draw­al was when a squad or pla­toon was post­ed as flank guards, where they had to slog through deep snow and up and down the flank­ing hills try­ing to keep up with the col­umn mov­ing along the road. These flank guards were also more like­ly to encounter ene­my forces and to engage in fire­fights in an effort to keep them from get­ting to the more vul­ner­a­ble col­umn of men and machines.

Read the con­clu­sion of this sto­ry.

  • Chuck Witt

    Chuck is a retired archi­tect, a for­mer news­pa­per colum­nist, and a life­long res­i­dent of Winchester.