Chosin Reservoir: How The Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar Dropped A Bridge To Save Trapped Troops (2024)

Summary

  • Warfare's outcome hangs on minor details, and a 16-foot gap in a bridge could alter history.
  • Chosin Reservoir was a brutal battle that highlighted the power of a joint force.
  • American innovation saves the day as unprecedented use of airdrops and teamwork bridge crucial gaps.

Warfare, then and now, hinges upon the most ostensibly inconsequential circ*mstances. Whether it’s the proverbial “want of a horseshoe nail” that dooms a kingdom or a fateful morning of fog on an otherwise clear day, it feels genuinely unfair that the lives of millions and the delicate work of years can be so easily derailed by something so minor.

In December 1950, for the 14,000 United Nations troops trapped at 4-to-1 odds in the most dramatic counteroffensive of the Korean War, it was a 16-foot gap in a road bridge that threatened to derail the best-laid plans. Overcoming that comparatively small obstacle would take a groundbreaking effort from every military service, incalculable bravery, and out-of-the-box thinking; it would also save thousands of lives and go down in military history.

Chosin Reservoir: How The Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar Dropped A Bridge To Save Trapped Troops (1)

Photo: Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections

Ebbing and flowing: the advance north

By late 1950, the North Korean momentum that had nearly pushed American troops off the peninsula had halted. American amphibious landings at Inchon and the Eighth Army breakout from Busan on the southeastern coast allowed United Nations forces to move northward with a purpose.

On the mountainous Korean peninsula, this advance required parallel efforts divided by central north-south mountain ranges. Allied planners hoped to push north to the Yalu River, reunite the fragmented Korean peninsula, and end the war.

To that end, on 30 October, the 1st Marine Division, under the US Army X Corps, began the journey north from coastal Hungnam past the Chosin Reservoir. Over the next three weeks, tens of thousands of United Nations troops joined the advance north on a single mountain road through nearly impassable terrain.

The advance quickly slowed. Along with omnipresent traffic jams, the force also encountered a new enemy: General Song Shilun’s 9th Army of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (PVA), which had mobilized into the country that very month and was pouring into the Chosin area with alarming speed.

The noose tightens

By the evening of 10 November, air temperatures had fallen below zero Fahrenheit and would remain there. Gusty winds whipped both sides, neither fully prepared for a prolonged battle in such elements. Weapons, warped by severe cold, misfired or malfunctioned constantly; injections of morphine and blood froze solid; radio and vehicle batteries turned to paperweights.

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops moved into the Chosin Valley as running skirmishes turned into weeks of desperate, fixed warfare. By 30 November, X Corps commander Major General Edward Almond ordered a withdrawal.

By this point, however, PVA forces had almost completely encircled the UN presence around the reservoir. Major General Oliver Smith, commanding the 1st Marine Division, took two significant steps to protect his force: he organized a breakout convoy to smash through Chinese lines to the south, and he ordered the construction of cargo-capable airfields within the UN lines, especially at Hagaru-ri, at the south end of the reservoir.

As soon as the airfields were built, US Air Force C-119 Boxcars and C-47 Skytrains began delivering food, ammunition, medicine, and even fresh reinforcements to the beleaguered Marines on the ground. When offered extraction, though, Smith turned it down: he recognized that by extracting the entire division by air, the last remnants on the ground would be overwhelmed, and the force would lose all its equipment.

The entire division must break out on the ground, driving, carrying, pulling, or rolling everything they had brought in.

Hellfire valley

From Hagaru-ri to the south, the single road led into a narrow, 10-mile series of defiles quickly dubbed “Hellfire Valley” by the unfortunate souls who walked it. The cold did not let up. Marines with feet blackened by frostbite continued to stumble through the biting winds, sniper fire, and relentless artillery. Still, they moved on, attempting to link up with an American relief force pushing north through the valley.

F4U Corsairs flew close air support along the columns, pounding Chinese positions and providing moral support to the struggling Marines. Still, their numbers continued to dwindle as the temperature continued to drop.

In Funchilin Pass, south of the small village of Koto-ri, the road narrowly snaked along a cliff, with sheer cliffs rising to the east and dropping almost 1,500 feet off to the west. PVA forces had destroyed a small bridge over a stream and then taken the hill overlooking it, continuing to destroy the replacement bridges laid by American engineers.

Without that single bridge, 10,000 Marines would have to abandon their equipment and their wounded, scrambling out of the valley on foot. Out of bridges and out of options, Smith turned to his chief engineer, Lieutenant Colonel John Partridge.

Bridging the gap

Partridge quickly recognized that the massive American M2 Treadway modular bridge could provide a solution. However, with no ground transport, he requested the only solution available to him: a direct assault on the overlooking hill, combined with the completely unprecedented airdrop of 2,500-lb bridge sections to troops in combat.

Baffled planners at Yunpo, in friendly territory, attempted a test drop of an M2 section from a C-119 that afternoon. It failed dramatically. But as time passed, the Air Force’s 21st Troop Carrier Squadron doubled down, rigging eight bridge sections to the strongest parachutes they could find.

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The C-119 proved to be a successful gunship, providing close ground support.

On the morning of December 7, 1950, eight C-119 Boxcars departed Yunpo. Dodging heavy small arms and anti-aircraft fire, they climbed to their minimum drop altitude and released eight sections of bridge.

One fell into Chinese-held territory. One was damaged as it crashed into the frozen ground. But six bridge sections, more than enough for the task at hand, were recovered by Marines and delivered to a small team of Army engineers.

Chosin Reservoir: How The Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar Dropped A Bridge To Save Trapped Troops (4)

Photo:National Archives|Picryl

By that evening, the bridge was in place and the overlooking hill was in American hands, holding strong despite Chinese counterattacks through the night. The withdrawal resumed. The last UN forces departed Hungnam on a vast armada on the afternoon of 24 December 1950.

Setting the standard: Chosin and the Joint Force

The horrifying, frozen crucible of the Chosin Reservoir immediately entered the consciousness and pride of the US Marine Corps. The “Chosin Few,” as they later called themselves, had maintained a disciplined and well-coordinated withdrawal in the face of well over 100,000 PVA troops and horrific weather.

The events at Chosin Reservoir also highlighted the multiplying power of the joint force. According to a US Air Force history of the breakout, the Air Force had delivered 1,580 tons of supplies and equipment over two weeks and evacuated 4,689 wounded troops. It was the first time in history that a division-sized element had been completely sustained by air for so long.

The US Navy’s VFA-32 flew close air support and defended the withdrawal column for several weeks. Marine Corps helicopters, a fledgling and as-yet-unproven combat technology, extracted wounded Marines who would have died in the frigid conditions without immediate rescue.

The 16-foot gap in the bridge at Funchilin Pass was a comparatively small obstacle for such a massive campaign, with hundreds of thousands of lives, dire strategic implications, and millions of dollars of equipment on the line. Thankfully, the ingenuity and teamwork of American warriors, aviators, and the venerable C-119 Boxcar delivered the solution in a thoroughly unorthodox way.

The US Naval Institute credits the Battle of Chosin Reservoir as the "Birthplace of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force." But thinking even more broadly, without the contributions of Air Force loadmasters, Army engineers, and Navy fighters, the 1st Marine Division would have been trapped in Funchilin Pass for many more days and lost thousands more men.

Chosin Reservoir: How The Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar Dropped A Bridge To Save Trapped Troops (2024)

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