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05-11-09, 08:06 AM
MILITARY: Remembering the 'Forgotten War'

By MARK WALKER - mlwalker@nctimes.com

VISTA ---- It's known as America's "Forgotten War."

But for the men who served in it, particularly those involved in the Chosin Reservoir Battle in the winter of 1950, the Korean War is never far from memory.

Nearly 60 years ago, then-Marine Sgt. Jean White of Vista was among 30,000 U.S. and Allied troops facing 150,000 Chinese soldiers in a savage, running battle conducted in often subzero temperatures.

White is one of the "Chosin Few," a rapidly dwindling number of combat veterans who were able to overcome the superior forces they faced in what the U.S. Marine Corps considers one of its seminal battles.

The 81-year-old White and several other Chosin Reservoir survivors spent part of Friday reliving their experiences for a documentary being produced by two Iraq war veterans, Marine Reserve Capt. Brian Iglesias and former Marine Capt. Anton Sattler.

"The Korean War isn't forgotten by the people of South Korea," said White, who went on to reach the rank of lieutenant colonel before retiring from the Marine Corps in 1975. "I've been back a couple of times, and I know the people appreciate what we did for them."

The war began in June 1950, when North Korean forces invaded South Korea, prompting the U.S. and United Nations allies to rush to the South's defense.

Four months later, when allied forces had pushed the North back across its border, the Chinese sent in hundreds of thousands of troops and the war went on until 1953.

White spoke of his Korean War experience on camera for about an hour Friday, telling how he and the members of his company took part in a strategic withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir after commanders realized their forces were tremendously outnumbered.

Marine Maj. Gen. O.P. Smith, commander of the 1st Marine Division, had ordered his troops to assault the surrounding Chinese so the withdrawal to safety could take place.

Asked whether the Marines were retreating, Smith famously replied, "Retreat? Hell, we're attacking in a different direction!"

For men such as White, the fighting was intense ---- and often bitterly cold; the wind chill would push the temperature to as much as 30 or more below zero.

White would ultimately wind up with frostbitten feet, but that did not take him out of the fight until U.S. forces reached safety at the end of December 1950.

When the battle was over, the Marines had lost 836 men; an additional 12,000 were wounded or frostbitten.

The Army lost about 2,000 men, with an estimated 1,000 wounded and frostbitten.

Chinese battle deaths were estimated at 35,000.

Many observers had considered the war largely over by October 1950, as most of North Korea had been captured by United Nations and U.S. forces.

But on Oct. 25, China entered the war, pouring wave after wave of troops into the region.

Retired Marine Sgt. Maj. Wayne Knott, also 81, remembers being among two regiments of Marines in a North Korean village in early December 1950, confronted by three divisions of Chinese troops.

"They could have annihilated us if they had known how much they outnumbered us," Knott said. "We were dug in, and I remember hearing the Chinese bugles blowing and them coming at us in a massive attack."

A staff sergeant at the time, the Vista resident was part of a Marine company that had point duty on Dec. 7 when a shell exploded overhead, sending a piece of shrapnel through his helmet and into his skull.

"I was hurt, but I was able to stay with my unit," Knott said. "But from that point on, I wasn't engaged in any more fighting."

Iglesias and Sattler are traveling the U.S. to record the stories of Marines and soldiers who were at the Chosin Reservoir.

It's important to record their recollections for posterity before all are gone, the two filmmakers say.

"On some hills, the ratio of Chinese to U.S. troops was 40-to-1," said Iglesias, who served two tours in Iraq as a Camp Pendleton-based company commander. "Many of these guys have a very nightmarish story to tell."

Sattler, the nephew of former Camp Pendleton I Marine Expeditionary Force Commander Lt. Gen. John Sattler, said the two hope to sell a 90-minute documentary to a television network when the production is complete later this year.

"It's been 50 years since Hollywood has made a movie about the Korean War, and there are only a handful of documentaries," Sattler said. "There's just not a whole lot out there that records what the Marines on the ground faced. That's why we think this is really important."

In the last year, five of the men from the North County chapter the Chosin Few have died. The local group of the battle's veterans now numbers about 40.

"We're fading out," White said.

The Korean War continued until July 27, 1953. To enforce the truce that divides North and South Korea to this day, thousands of U.S. troops are stationed at the border on the 38th parallel.

On Saturday, White and dozens of other Chosin Reservoir veterans and family members from around the region gathered at Naval Base San Diego to greet the guided missile cruiser USS Chosin.

Named in honor of the veterans from that battle, the Hawaii-based ship is making a port call in San Diego.

More about the documentary and clips from some of the veterans' interviews are available at www.frozenchosin.com.

Contact staff writer Mark Walker at (760) 740-3529.