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Vets Issues

Wisconsin veterans remember a frozen nightmare at Chosen Reservoir

By Meg Jones and Meg Jones of the Journal Sentinel

Dec. 2, 2010

Korean War vets bone chilling battle

Remembering deadly 1950 battle in Korea

Pretty much everything froze – water, weapons, food, Jeeps, men.

Ask a survivor of the Battle of Chosin Reservoir what he remembers and the first thing he says is the cold: 30 below, stiff winds, deep snow, no tents or shelter of any kind. Marines and soldiers fell asleep in their sleeping bags on the frozen ground and in the morning they were dead.

They couldn't start fires, the enemy would see them. Not much to burn anyway. This went on for 17 days.

Sixty years ago this week, China's 9th Army sneaked into northwestern Korea, surprising U.S. and United Nations troops at the Chosin Reservoir. For Wisconsin's sons, it was a particularly deadly week – the three worst days of the war in terms of casualties. The anniversary of one of the worst battles of the Korean War highlights how much and how little has changed in the region where 50,000 Americans died.

The Chosin Reservoir battle was fierce, with men on both sides dying in the thousands either by enemy fire or the elements. When the war ended in a stalemate more than 2 ½ years later, the uneasy truce didn't fool Korean War veterans. They knew tensions could flare at any moment, whether it would come in the sinking of a South Korean naval ship last summer or in the bombing of South Korean civilians last week.

"I think they want to see how much they can push everybody," said Richard Bahr, 81, of Oconomowoc, a Marine whose steel helmet took the brunt of a .50-caliber machine gun round that left him without a scratch. "It would be too bad if our young men have to go back there."

On Wednesday, three days of U.S.-South Korean drills involving a nuclear-powered super carrier in western waters south of the disputed border ended. The drills were largely aimed at testing communications systems and didn't involve live fire, but North Korea expressed its fury over them. South Korea's military is also deploying short-range surface-to-air missiles in Yeonpyeong Island to bolster its defense. The Nov. 23 attack hit civilian areas on Yeonpyeong, killing four people and marking a new level of hostility along the contested line dividing the two Koreas.

That contested line was the result, in essence, of both sides blinking after three years of bloodshed.

Among the 54,200 American deaths during the Korean War were more than 800 from Wisconsin, killed between June 1950 and July 1953.

On Nov. 28, 1950, 14 Wisconsinites died; another 14 were killed on Nov. 30. And on Dec. 2, 16 Wisconsinites would lose their lives in a country whose weather was similar to what they knew growing up – hot, humid summers, brutally cold and snowy winters. Six decades ago this week, telegrams bearing horrible news were delivered to Milwaukee, Janesville and Superior, Appleton, Richland Center and Green Bay, large cities and small hamlets.
New book looks at war

Oak Creek author and journalist Tom Mueller recently published a book, "Heart of the Century 1949 to 1951," which uses newspaper headlines and stories during the middle of the 20th century to focus on the Korean War and other tensions of that era. In his book, he interviewed 15 Korean War veterans and explored the lives of six men killed there. Mueller's research showed, through the daily deaths of Wisconsinites, why the Chosin Reservoir was such a deadly and decisive battle.

"That was the week the Chinese really poured into the war," said Mueller, a former newsroom editor for the Milwaukee Sentinel. "Would one day (of heavy casualties from Wisconsin) have been a surprise with the massive entry of China? No. But three days that week and the Army's top general killed? Yes."

On Dec. 2, 1950, 12 of the 16 dead from Wisconsin served in the Army's 7th Infantry Division. On Nov. 30, 11 of the 14 Wisconsinites killed were from the Army's 2nd Infantry Division. Of the 14 who died on Nov. 28, half were in the 1st Marine Division.

Bahr served with the 1st Marines at the Chosin Reservoir, a manmade lake in northwestern Korea connected by a 78-mile-long road to Hungnam. It was this area where roughly 30,000 American and U.N. troops were outnumbered two to one by Chinese and North Korean troops.
Battling the elements

"The snow was awful deep in a lot of places. Everything froze that you didn't wear under your clothing, like food. A lot of times (food) never even got to us because the snow was so deep and because we were on the move so much. What we did get, we couldn't hardly eat because it was frozen and you had to chip it out of the can," Bahr said.

Although the American troops wore winter clothing, Bahr remembered the frigid wind going through his clothes. Guys put World War I-era canned chocolate on the ground, used their rifle butts to break it into pieces and then sucked on it for the calories.

Bill Schaub was only 18 when his unit, part of the Army's 7th Division, was attacked by the Chinese north of the Chosin Reservoir. He recalls the enemy hiding in the mountains and hitting his field artillery unit at night. Many of the soldiers didn't have food or ammunition until air drops brought in supplies.

One soldier in his unit was killed by a Siberian tiger, others were bayoneted to death while zipped up into their sleeping bags, their breath freezing the zippers, Schaub said.

"So we were told to sleep with our arms outside our sleeping bags," said Schaub, now 78 and living in Fond du Lac. "A lot of us didn't have a winter sleeping bag. We would put two summer bags together. If somebody had a winter sleeping bag and they got killed, we put him in a summer sleeping bag and kept the winter sleeping bag."

The violence in the region now isn't a surprise to Wisconsin veterans of Korea.

"Well, the war has never been over, if you think about it. It was a truce, is all it was," said Bob Kachel, 80, of La Crosse. "When we went in there, we should have went in to win instead of leaving it up to the politicians. Hopefully, we won't get into another shooting war."

Rudy Anich, 82, spent 14 months in Korea, serving in the 1st Marine Ordnance Battalion.

"The North Koreans are still strutting their stuff," said Anich, of West Allis. "That's part of the reason why I think the North Koreans are doing this attacking, because they know we won't do anything."

Of the 6.8 million Americans who served during the Korean War, about one-third are still living, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates.

Dick Kamnetz, 79, visited South Korea in September with other Korean War veterans and was amazed at how cosmopolitan the country has become compared with the mud huts and primitive infrastructure he saw 60 years ago.

The Muskego man, who was a truck driver in the 1st Marines, was impressed with the booming economy and the large number of construction cranes. He also visited the demilitarized zone, where he looked over the border into North Korea.

South Korea has "20 million people jammed in within 30 miles of the DMZ and if North Korea wanted to make more trouble, they could kill a lot of people in a hurry," Kamnetz said.

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