Lt. Jerry McCabe was wounded and unconscious, riding in the back of a freezing Army truck, when he was awakened by the coming slaughter.
For four days and five nights 50 years ago at North Korea's Chosin Reservoir, an Army force of more than 2,500 soldiers had faced a relentless Chinese onslaught, fending off terrifying night attacks in hand-to-hand combat. Now, as the Army troops withdrew, the Chinese had blocked the convoy, turning the road into a killing zone.
Around him, McCabe could hear screams as Chinese troops attacked the convoy, shooting wounded soldiers in the backs of trucks. "I slithered out of the truck," said McCabe, 74, a resident of St. Mary's County. "I hobbled and crawled. We were just sitting ducks for the Chinese."
Severely frostbitten, McCabe linked up in the dark with several other soldiers, and they fought and staggered on foot across the bleak frozen landscape for miles before reaching U.S. lines the next day.
Many others were not so lucky. About 1,500 Army troops were lost, many of them slaughtered in trucks, taken prisoner or left to die in the cold. When it ended in December 1950, only 385 of the soldiers were combat able.
The fate of Task Force Faith, as the Army force is known, was one on the cruelest to befall U.S. troops in any war. Its story was little noted, and to the extent that it was, the Army force on the east side of the reservoir was said to have disgraced itself. There were claims that U.S. soldiers had thrown down their weapons and run or feigned injuries.
But tomorrow, when hundreds of veterans gather at the Navy Memorial in Washington for a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of Chosin, survivors of Task Force Faith will be among them, having finally achieved redemption that had been denied them for half a century.
Task Force Faith earlier this year was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation, a high honor given in 1952 to the Marines but turned down at the time for the Army.
For Marines, Chosin has become legend, one of the proudest campaigns in Corps history.
The 1st Marine Division fought its way out, carrying its wounded and dead, after being surrounded by Chinese forces on the west side of the reservoir.
But a number of historians and some Marine veterans of Chosin now believe that the 1st Marine Division might have been destroyed had the poorly armed, ill-trained soldiers of Task Force Faith not brought time by keeping the Chinese from sweeping south. Chinese papers reviewed in recent years by military scholars have shown that the Army task force fought a significantly larger enemy force than commonly understood.
"Up to that tine, a lot of people just thought the Army folks collapsed, they were overrun and didn't hold themselves up well," said retired Marine Col. Robert Parrott, a Fairfax County resident who served at Chosin. After being convinced that Task Force Faith has been unjustly treated, Parrott led an effort by Marine and Army veterans of Chosin to push the Pentagon to award the citation.
"Maybe I'm talking to you now because of what the Army did," said Parrott, who was wounded in the fighting.
.... The Chinese were attacking the Army positions with 20,000 troops, a force eight times larger than the Army task force, Chinese papers show. To worsen matters, an early Siberian winter sent temperatures plummeting to 35 degrees below zero, so cold that the metal plates cracked on the mortars fired by McCabe's company.
Terror was a nice word, "McCabe said. "it was prevalent. Notwithstanding terror, we did our job."
The first night's assault was staved off, but it grew worse on the succeeding nights, as the Chinese launched human wave attacks to break though the U.S. defensive perimeter, with desperate hand-to-hand combat ensuing.
"I learned the value of the old Army-issued 45's, because if you hit something, it goes down," McCabe said. "The picture of it is a blur. You only have snapshots of the square foot of ground you were on.
"There were dead Chinese lying all around us, and they were frozen in place. They thought they would get into the perimeter and destroy us. For two nights, that didn't happen. They had taken horrible casualties. We stopped them and bloodied them so badly they couldn't encircle the Marines."
But by the time the order came Dec 1 to withdraw to Hagaru-ri at the southern tip of the reservoir, the Army task force was itself reeling from heavy casualties and dwindling ammunition. Tanks sent to rescue the task force failed to break through, while ammunition parachuted to the troops floated into Chinese lines.
Late in the afternoon, as McCabe directed fire, he was hit in the arm and leg by a Chinese mortar. He lay unconscious in the snow for several hours before a soldier found him and put him in a truck.
The cohesion that the Army units had fought to maintain was disintegrating into an every-man-for-himself panic.
The commanding officer, Col. Alan MacLean, had been lost in the fighting, the highest-ranking U.S. officer killed in action during the Korean War. His replacement, Lt. Col. Don Faith, would also be killed and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his efforts to get his men out alive.
As the convoy wound down the road carrying 600 wounded soldiers, the Chinese blew up bridges, leaving the trucks trapped about five miles from Hagaru-ri. From the hills overlooking the road, they rained fire on the task force.
"I woke up pretty quickly", McCabe said. "Somehow I got out of the truck. It was pitch black, and the convoy had stopped. There was fighting all around me."
Many wounded soldiers were abandoned, some to be bayoneted by the Chinese, others taken prisoner and other freezing to death in the darkness.
McCabe, who had no feeling in his feet, crawled into a ravine. Teaming up with several other soldiers, they made a break for Marine lines at Hagaru-ri. "I would die before I was taken prisoner," McCabe said.
During the night they took fire several times and returned it until they spent their last rounds of ammunition. Shortly before dawn, they reached the Marines. McCabe's feet were so so black from frostbite that he was evacuated on a plane to Japan to have his toes amputated. Doctors managed to save them, though they remain numb to this day.
"Its hallmarks were misery, soul-crushing cold, privation, exhaustion, heroism, sacrifice, leadership of high merit at times, but finally, unit and individual disaster," historian Roy Appleman wrote of the Army's experience at Chosin.
"It would be hard to find a more nearly hopeless or more tragic story in American military history," Appleman wrote.
Press bulletins had kept the world hanging on the fate of the Marines, but little attention was given to Task Force Faith. "The first reports were they were a bunch of cowards who ran, or were stupid and inept,"said Merrill Needham Jr., a Rockville scholar who has researched the battle east of Chosin.