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The Korean War Battle of Chosin, How Military Medics Saved the ‘Chosin Frozen’

Image of Exhausted and frostbitten U.S. Marines on the road South of Hagaru-ri, December 1950, waiting for a roadblock to be cleared during the Chosin Reservoir campaign November to December 1950. More than 8,000 men suffered frostbite in the subzero conditions, but new treatments and rapid transport to care saved many of their limbs from amputation. (From the Oliver P. Smith Collection, U.S. Marine Corps Archives and Special Collections). Exhausted and frostbitten U.S. Marines on the road South of Hagaru-ri, December 1950, waiting for a roadblock to be cleared during the Chosin Reservoir campaign November to December 1950. More than 8,000 men suffered frostbite in the subzero conditions, but new treatments and rapid transport to care saved many of their limbs from amputation. (From the Oliver P. Smith Collection, U.S. Marine Corps Archives and Special Collections)

Survivors of the Korean War’s Chosin Reservoir campaign near the Manchurian border are now mostly in their 90s but will never forget the brutal battle 73 years ago that lasted 17 days and ended on Dec. 13, 1950. It cost many of them fingers and toes and still impacts their health today.

In an interview recounting the battle, retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Raymond Davis said, “The snow came. The temperature dropped to 40 below zero … faces covered with ice, food frozen, water frozen.”

The U.S. Marines and U.S. Army fought in sub-zero conditions—hovering in the minus 30’s—and often in hand-to-hand combat. Survivors call themselves the “Chosin Frozen,” and Marines who fought there are known as the “Chosin Few.”

Nearly 2,500 in the U.S. forces died—some froze to death—the wounded tallied 5,000, and, tellingly, 8,000 suffered frostbite. Experts say everyone suffered a cold injury to some degree. Many also suffered from shock, hunger, and dehydration.

frostbite casualties of the embattled 1st Marine Division and 7th Infantry Division during the Chosin Reservoir campaign near the Manchurian border These frostbite casualties of the embattled 1st Marine Division and 7th Infantry Division wait Dec. 15, 1950, with set expressions on their faces for pick up by planes of the U.S. Air Force during the Chosin Reservoir campaign near the Manchurian border for quick transport to Japan for healthcare. (Photo from the National Archives and Records Administration)

The battle began after 120,000 Chinese communist forces poured into North Korea and, in terrifying nighttime attacks, encircled 30,000 allied soldiers and Marines, whom they outnumbered four-to-one.

U.S. Marine Gunnery Sergeant at Chosin 

Chosin veteran Billy Gene Devasher was with the 7th Marines Regiment, 1st Marines Division from Inchon up to near the Yalu River. “The plan was to get to the Yalu River, get on a ship and go home” for Christmas, he said. His unit advanced to five miles south of the Yalu when winter came early, and the temperatures plummeted.

They were cut off for five days and six nights when surprised by the Chinese attack, enduring temperatures that reached “minus 50.”

“We went from 236 down to 30 men who were not frozen or wounded,” Devasher recalled. Their guns froze, they couldn’t dig foxholes because the ground was “solid ice,” and they were surrounded by thousands of Chinese “firing on us all the time.” When the U.S Navy Corsairs dropped napalm and bombs on the enemy, “we stacked them up like cordwood for protection.”

Nurses Recall Events at Chosin and Beyond 

Transport to Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals, or MASH units, saved many at Chosin. Allied forces used air transport to quickly send the wounded to a MASH unit by helicopter, or by Jeep or truck, and then transported them via plane to nearby Japan to the Osaka Army Hospital.

“The stretchers were brought in, we put them on [saw] horses; we didn't have operating room tables,” said U.S. Army nurse Regina Schiffman, recounting her experience as part of the Library of Congress Veterans History project. Schiffman served with the 8063rd MASH.

“We’d work [in the operating room for 16 or 18 hours] until you were ready to flop, really, and then somebody else would take over and work until there were ready to flop,” she said.

The winter conditions were harsh. “Our enlisted personnel were really great, and they devised an actual scrub sink,” Schiffman said. “They had a big tank outside where they heated water and we could actually scrub with not ice-cold water for surgery.”

“On the first plane that was loaded, there were so many casualties—young kids,” said U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Mary (Weiss) Hester, a flight nurse who flew 760 hours between Japan and Korea with the1st Medical Air Evacuation Squadron.

On that day, “the captain I was with came up behind the pilots and said, ‘You aren’t here to cry, you’re here to work.’ So, I was trained very quickly.”

"You didn't have time really to think about what had happened. It was really about what you could do to help them," said Rose Gibbs, a U.S. Army enlisted service member and telephone operator at Osaka Army Hospital who finished her service in 1956 as a sergeant first class.

She also helped care for patients, recalling the hospital hallways filled with the wounded and dying.

Frostbite and New Treatments

It wasn’t just the frigid temperatures and harsh winds from Siberia that caused frostbite at Chosin. It was the lack of adequate winter boots and absence of winter gloves; banned campfires; frozen C-rations and canteens, and, most often, long exposure to the frozen ground as troops were pinned in open spaces or in shallow foxholes by the withering barrage from Chinese guns and grenades. If evacuated, they could spend hours immobile in transports carrying the wounded out of Chosin or be shot from the roadside.

The Feb. 5, 1951, issue of Life magazine highlighted new treatments that saved the limbs of the Chosin Frozen. 

At field stations, medical personnel treated frostbite by injecting the local anesthetic procaine into the affected limbs to deaden the pain. The wounded also got shots of the blood thinner heparin to slow down the clotting of blood if they didn’t have other injuries, the article says.

Once stabilized, frostbitten service members were transported to the Osaka Army Hospital, where they were treated intravenously with procaine in sugar water and with heparin shots. The more seriously frostbitten were treated for three to four weeks, Life said, and were then flown to the U.S. Army’s Percy Jones General Hospital in Battle Creek, Michigan, to complete their recovery.

Records show that by March 1951, Percy Jones had a patient population of around 1,000, with a large portion of them frostbite cases from Korea. “Ninety percent of Korea cases are feet. Nine percent are hands. Others are ears, noses,” Life said.

The article graphically describes the deteriorating stages and symptoms of frostbite.

The first stage is frozen limbs. The second stage happens when the flesh is thawed out and the limbs swell and expand enormously. Blisters mark the third stage as fluid seeps out from blood vessels, and there is danger of infection. Gangrene is the final stage of frostbite where fingers and feet wither and turn black. Sometimes, even bones and tendons froze.

At Percy-Jones, “the main objective of the doctors … is to save the black and gangrenous limbs of their patients from the amputations that would have been almost automatic during World War II,” Life said. “In the great majority of cases, they have been successful.”

“They concentrate on maintaining circulation in the damaged part with drugs which speed the flow of blood. In most cases, new flesh grows again, and dead flesh peels away. Where whole hands would once have been amputated, fingertips are now removed. Men whose entire feet were black and mummified have walked out of Percy Jones without a limp.”

The article includes the story of Chosin’s U.S. Army Pvt. John Baldwin, who had severe frostbite on his hands and feet and suffered a gunshot wound in his leg. Lying in his hospital bed with blackened fingers and toes, he told Life magazine: “It took them 30 minutes to get my boots off. They were froze[n] stuck to my feet.”

Cold Injuries

Chosin survivors continued to cope with their injuries. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, cold injuries can lead to long-term health problems, including:

  • Changes in muscle, skin, nails, ligaments, and bones
  • Skin cancer in frostbite scars
  • Neurologic injury with symptoms such as bouts of pain in the extremities, hot or cold tingling sensations, and numbness
  • Vascular injury … with symptoms such as extremities becoming painful and white or discolored when cold

By the bitter end of the battle on Dec. 13, the Marines, soldiers, and United Nations forces had broken free from the growing number of encircling Chinese forces, fighting their way to the port of Hungnam, where they evacuated along with more than 91,000 Korean refugees.

It was the largest sea evacuation by the U.S. in its military history, involving some 105,000 military personnel.

U.S. Marine and U.S. Air Force transports airlifted out another 3,600 troops, according to an article published with permission by the Naval History and Heritage Command.

Once recovered, many men were sent back to the front to fight in what has been called “The Forgotten War.” Chosin survivors will never forget.

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Last Updated: December 20, 2023
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