On Desperate Ground: The Marines at the Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle. New York: Doubleday, 2018.
☆☆☆☆☆ Highly Recommended
Hampton Sides’ new book On Desperate Ground: The Marines at the Reservoir, The Korean War’s Greatest Battle, illustrates misery suffered by the First Marine Division from October through December 1950. From the comfort of his headquarters in Tokyo, General Douglas MacArthur tragically ordered the First Marine Division far beyond the 38th Parallel to the Yalu River, the waterway itself a border with China. The First Marine Division found itself surrounded and outnumbered by over 200,000 Chinese troops at the Chosin Reservoir. MacArthur’s strategic folly was worsened by the harsh winter in the North Korean mountains; temperatures falling to -20 to -70 degrees making the predicament more challenging for the U.S. Marines.
Sides’ work is not a complete history of the First Marine Division in Korea or at the Chosin Reservoir in 1950, but an overarching historical narrative which highlights individual heroism and struggle experienced by the First Marine Division from the initial landing, fighting trek northward, battle at the Reservoir, to the final desperate pullback to Hamhung and Hungnam and awaiting ships. Despite the narrative’s different format, Side’s new contribution to the history of the Korean War is a must-read. The writing is creative, fresh and brings this history of the legendary First Marine Division to life. On Desperate Ground: The Marines at the Reservoir, The Korean War’s Greatest Battle is highly recommended—I could not put the book down.
The author skillfully interweaves the First Marine Division’s plight within historical context of behind-the-scenes maneuverings in Washington D.C. and China. Notable historical figures include: Major General Oliver Smith, USMC; Navy Cross and Silver Star winner Lt. Chew-Een Lee, USMC; Congressional Medal of Honor winner Private Hector Cafferata Jr., USMC; and Silver Star recipient Private Kenneth Benson USMC.