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.