Remembering Chosin

Veterans of epic battle decry country’s ignorance of Korean War


Herald Writer

Pfc. Walter Hammen hunkered down with a companion in a frigid foxhole on top of a promontory of northern Korea called Hill 1282 on U.S. Marine Corps maps.

Hammen’s E Company, a 170-man segment of the 1st Marine Division, was assigned to hold the hill to protect a vulnerable supply route in the valley below.

It was late at night, probably just before midnight, when an overwhelming force of Chinese soldiers attacked. By daylight, all but perhaps 35 members of his company, including then 20-year-old Hammen, were either wounded or dead.

The battle for Chosin Reservoir had begun.

Starting Nov. 27, 1950, one of most fierce battles in U.S. history unfolded on a snowy, subzero battlefield deep in the barren mountains of North Korea.

What irritates Hammen and other Korean War veterans is that the war and its big battles are often ignored when it comes time to talk of military valor and accomplishment.

Hammen and dozens of other Chosin survivors are attending a reunion in San Diego this week commemorating its 50th anniversary. The organization calls itself The Chosin Few.

"Everybody knows about the Battle of the Bulge," Hammen said about a famous World War II battle that turned the face of the war in Europe. "This was much colder … and nobody knows about it."

The retired Everett furniture store owner said the Korean conflict is known as "the forgotten war." People who say that are right, he said.

"You don’t read about the Korean War anyplace," he said. "It’s disgusting."

Of the 25,000 allied service members at Chosin, more than 600 were killed, about 200 were declared missing in action and 3,500 were wounded. Another 7,300 had other nonbattle injuries such as frostbite.

Hammen was shot twice in the leg the first night of the Chosin battle and literally slid down the back side of the mountain to an aid station.

The bullets flew, but the cold was as big an enemy to both sides as the machinery of war.

It approached 20 degrees below zero that night, and reached 40 degrees below zero on subsequent nights through the two-week battle as the first big cold snap of the Korean winter made a miserable war even worse.

"It killed a lot more Chinese than it did Americans," Hammen said. "They had tennis shoes. They were literally like tennis shoes in that cold. Their feet were just caked with ice when they tried to give up."

He spent nearly five days lying wounded in the back of an open truck trying to get out to a hospital.

"You didn’t fall asleep at night because you’re afraid of the Chinese, and you’re afraid of freezing," Hammen said.

Before the attack, the allied forces had been en route across the rugged northern Korean mountains to meet Army forces that had established a position in the west.

They were confronted by perhaps 120,000 Chinese troops near the huge Chosin Reservoir. The allied advance was stopped, and the retreat was sounded. The allied forces, mostly U.S. Marines, had to fight their way out.

Hammen, who earned one Purple Heart at Chosin and a second several months later in Korea, had been managing a men’s shoe department in Minneapolis in July of 1950 when his reserve unit was called up.

A month later, he was in Korea, where he got his basic training, sort of on-the-job-training with people shooting at him.

It wasn’t until 1997 that Korean War veterans won a battle to acquire benefits for frostbite, a condition that still afflicts Hammen today.

When he got out of the service, he came to the Northwest for the scenery and to avoid the bitter Minnesota winters that left frostbitten feet and hands aching.

He said U.S. forces don’t get enough credit for keeping South Korea prosperous and for sending a message to the Soviet Union at the start of the Cold War.

"Maybe it let Russia know the United States isn’t an easy pushover," Hammen said.

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