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Tuesday, September 25, 2007
"The Coldest Winter"

By David Halbertstam
Special to Page 2

Editor's Note: Excerpted with permission from "The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War" by David Halberstam. Copyright 2007 by David Halberstam. Reprinted by permission of Hyperion.


Lieutenant Ben Boyd was the new platoon leader in Baker Company of the Eighth Cavalry's First Battalion. The First Battalion – with its attached unit of tanks and artillery, in reality a battalion task force – was the most exposed of the regiment's three battalions, positioned about four hundred yards north of the town of Unsan. Boyd's battalion commander, Jack Millikin, Jr., had been his tactical officer at West Point, and Boyd thought him a good, steady man. As far as Boyd knew, their battalion was up there alone – they had been the first of the three battalions out of Pyongyang, and he had no idea whether the rest of the regiment was following. That first afternoon, right after they arrived, they registered their mortars on some surrounding targets, and there were even brief exchanges of fire with the enemy, but the action was light, and everyone had assumed it was North Korean stragglers. That night, though, Boyd was called over by his company commander, who had just been briefed at Battalion. The word Boyd got was: "There are twenty thousand laundrymen in the area." Boyd knew what that meant – twenty thousand Chinese near them.

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Then they heard musical instruments, like weird Asian bagpipes. Some of the officers thought for a moment that a British brigade was arriving to help them out. But it was not bagpipes; instead it was an eerie, very foreign sound, perhaps bugles and flutes, a sound many of them would remember for the rest of their lives. It was the sound they would come to recognize as the Chinese about to enter battle, signaling to one another by musical instrument what they were doing, and deliberately striking fear into their enemy as well. Boyd believed his men were in decent positions, though they were not a full platoon in his mind. Nearly half of them were KATUSAs, Korean Augmentation to the U.S. Army, poorly trained Korean soldiers attached to American units who, most American officers believed, could not be relied on if there was a serious fight. They were there to beef up American units, to make the UN forces look larger on paper, if not in battle, than they really were. It was an experiment that no one liked, not the company commanders, not the American troops who fought alongside the Koreans but could not communicate with them, and certainly not the KATUSAs themselves, who more often than not gave every sign of wanting very badly to be almost anywhere else.

At roughly 10:30 p.m., the Chinese struck. It was stunning how quickly something could fall apart, Boyd thought. The American units were so thinly positioned that the Chinese seemed to race right through their fragile lines, almost like a track meet, some of the men later said. What had once been a well organized battalion CP (command post) quickly disintegrated. Some of the survivors from different platoons tried to form a makeshift last-second perimeter, but they were quickly overpowered. There were wounded everywhere. Millikin was handling the growing chaos as best he could, Boyd thought, trying to put together a convoy with about ten deuce-and-a-half trucks and loading as many wounded as possible onto them. At that moment, Boyd ran into Captain Emil Kapaun, an Army chaplain who was tending to a number of wounded. Boyd offered to assign the priest to one of the trucks, but Father Kapaun refused. He planned to stay with the wounded men who would not be able to get out on their own. They would have to surrender, he was sure, but he would do all he could to offer the wounded some modest protection. The battalion had two tanks, and when the convoy finally took off, it was with Millikin aboard the lead tank and the other tank bringing up the rear with Boyd on top of it. About a mile south of Unsan, the road split, one branch veering southeast, the other in a southwesterly direction, through the edge of the Third Battalion position and over the bridge that Bill Richardson and his weapons section were guarding. Millikin blindly headed them southeast. That any of the men made it out at all came from that choice.

The Chinese had set up a formidable force on both sides of the road, waiting to ambush them. It was hard to measure distance or time in those moments when the enemy was striking with such force, but Boyd thought his convoy got about five or six hundred yards down the road before the Chinese opened up. Their firepower was overwhelming, and the convoy, with so many wounded, had almost no means of fighting back. In the confusion – the vehicles all had their lights off – the driver of Boyd's tank panicked and began to rotate his turret wildly. The dozen or so men on top were all knocked off, and Boyd promptly found himself sprawled in a ditch. Later, he would decide that he survived only by the grace of God.

He could hear the Chinese approaching. His only chance was to play dead. Soon, they started beating on him with their rifle butts and kicking him. Luckily, no one used a bayonet. Finally, they rummaged through his pockets, took his watch and his ring, and left. He waited for what seemed an eternity, hours at least, and then slowly started to crawl away, totally disoriented, suffering from a concussion, among other wounds. In the distance, he could hear artillery fire, and, assuming it was the Americans, he headed that way. He hobbled across a stream, probably the Nammyon, and discovered that his leg was in terrible pain. He realized that he had been badly burned, probably from the white phosphorous the Chinese were firing.

Boyd moved cautiously in the next few days, at night, hiding as best he could during the day. He was out there at least a week, maybe ten days, trying to work his way back to American lines, in constant pain and voraciously hungry. He was helped by one Korean farmer, who fed him and, using primitive hand signals, directed him toward the American positions. He was sure he would not have made it without the farmer's help. Around November 15, after a trek of almost two weeks, Boyd reached an American unit. He was immediately sent to a series of hospitals – his burns were serious indeed. His Korean War was over. He was one of the lucky ones. He had no idea how many of his platoon had died, only that the company commander had been killed. He never saw any of them again.