It’s pronounced “AAAH-boh-leen”

Greetings from Abilene, Texas, home to three (!) conservative religious universities: Abilene Christian University (Church of Christ), Hardin-Simmons University (Baptist), and McMurry University (Methodist). We’re here to visit Chris’s parents. Whenever I take the exit off of I-20, I sing to myself

Abilene, Abilene,
weirdest town I ever seen.

“So, Chris tells me you were in Korea.” Chris and I are with Chris’s parents, enjoying coffee at McDonalds on a Monday morning. Our car is packed, and we’re about to take off. But, first things first: coffee. Chris’s parents always go to McDonald’s every morning for coffee while the staff dotes on them between customers.

“Yes,” says Ray, somewhat reluctantly, although I don’t notice his reluctance. He doesn’t hear too well, and I just assume he’s having trouble hearing me. So like the clueless dolt that I am, I press on.

“Oh, yeah? What outfit were you in?”

“Infantry,” he says. “Marines.”

You’d think that with the single-word answers, I’d take the hint. But like I said: clueless.

“So where in Korea did they send you?”

“Pusan,” he says. “Inchon. None of the bigger cities or anything.” He pauses a bit and mumbles. “Chosin Reservoir.”

Now it’s my turn to wonder if my hearing is right. “Wait. Did you say Chosin?”


My jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe it. If you’ve never heard of the battle at Chosin Reservoir, I’ll let Wikipedia explain:

The battle took place about a month after the People’s Republic of China entered the conflict and sent the People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) 9th Army to infiltrate the northeastern part of North Korea. On 27 November 1950, the Chinese force surprised the US X Corps commanded by Major General Edward Almond at the Chosin Reservoir area. A brutal 17-day battle in freezing weather soon followed. Between 27 November and 13 December, 30,000 United Nations Command troops (later nicknamed “The Chosin Few”) under the field command of Major General Oliver P. Smith were encircled and attacked by about 120,000 Chinese troops under the command of Song Shilun, who had been ordered by Mao Zedong to destroy the UN forces. The UN forces were nevertheless able to break out of the encirclement and to make a fighting withdrawal to the port of Hungnam… The retreat of the US Eighth Army from northwest Korea in the aftermath of the Battle of the Ch’ongch’on River and the evacuation of the X Corps from the port of Hungnam in northeast Korea marked the complete withdrawal of UN troops from North Korea.

Wikipedia doesn’t begin to capture the horror of that battle. And its authorship-by-committee tends to underplay the full magnitude of the disaster. As Wikipedia points out, the survivors were called “the Chosin Few.” That pretty much says it.

“Oh my God! That means you had to fight your way out all the way back to Hungnam?”

“Yeah. That was the only way out,” he says, stating the obvious. Again, Wikipedia:

The US X Corps and the ROK I Corps reported a total of 10,495 battle casualties: 4,385 US Marines, 3,163 US Army personnel, 2,812 South Koreans attached to American formations and 78 British Royal Marines. The 1st Marine Division also reported 7,338 non-battle casualties due to the cold weather, adding up to a total of 17,833 casualties. …The disregard by Far Eastern Command under MacArthur of the initial warnings and diplomatic hints by the PVA almost led the entire United Nations army to disaster at Ch’ongch’on River and Chosin Reservoir.

Ray squirms and leans forward, breaking eye contact. “I don’t like to talk about it.” That’s his signal to change the subject. I don’t blame him. To make sure the subject changes, he launches into a new topic, one that he’s talked about several times before.

Ray served as part of a security detail for a ship — I didn’t catch the ship’s name — that carried a hydrogen bomb from California to Enewetak Atoll in the Pacific. “I actually touched the bomb. Placed my hand on it,” he says as he holds out his arm, palm down. “As soon as the bomb went off, we did this,” and he threw his hands up to cover his face. That was, more or less, the extent of their safety precautions, a point echoed by my uncle who, coincidently, also happened to be at Ewenetak with the Air Force.

“They didn’t know what they were doing. That bomb ended up being three times more powerful than they thought it would be.” Ray has had several cancers, which the VA has finally recognized as being connected with Ewenetak.

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