Former Marine Sgt. Jim Foster of Blue Heron Pines mobile home park south of Punta Gorda, Fla. was a member of George Battery, 3rd Battalion, 11 Regiment, 1st Marine Division. He marched to the Chosin Reservoir and back in the opening months of the Korean War.
History made him a member of “The Chosin Few.”
The 1st Marine Division, more than 22,000 Leathernecks strong, together with U.S. Army and British forces comprised a 40,000-man United Nation force that appeared to have the North Korean Army on the run. On Nov. 26, 1950, the Marine division began its 80-mile march north to the Chosin Reservoir along the Yalu River separating North Korean from China.
By the time what was left of the 1st Marine Division returned to their waiting landing craft at Hungnam Harbor on Dec. 13, 1950, UN forces had lost 2,500 Marines and soldiers killed and 5,000 wounded. An additional 7,500 were suffering from frostbite.
The Chinese committed 120,000 soldiers to the battle. Their losses included 25,000 killed, 12,500 wounded. An additional 30,000 were frostbite casualties.
“When we started up the single lane narrow dirt road, the weather was pretty nice,” the 77-year-old Marine recalled. “The road was so narrow a six-by or a tank would fill up the whole road. There were steep mountains on one side of the road and a deep drop off to a river several hundred feet or more below on the other.”
At the start of their trek, enemy resistance was light, said Foster, who was a private serving with a 105 mm Howitzer. His gun crew rode in the back of a 2 1/2 ton truck full of artillery rounds that pulled their gun on the way up to Chosin. On the way back what was left of the unit walked with their M-1 rifles in hand.
“I remember one night it had really gotten cold. We were wearing parkas with labels that read: ‘Good for moderately cold weather.’ The boots we wore had rubber bottoms and leather tops. Your feet would sweat after you walked 100 yards, and the sweat would freeze. That’s what caused a lot of frostbite.
“That night our commanding officer came through in the middle of the night and told us to rearrange our cannon that were stretched out in a line,” Foster said. “‘I want your guns pointed in all four directions, he said. “That’s when we knew we were in trouble.'”
They weren’t attacked by Chinese forces until they reached Hagaru-ri located near the reservoir. His battery spent a couple of days there protecting an airstrip. The seriously wounded were flown out and replacement Marines were flown in.
As they started the return trip back to the coast, they were in a line of Marines that stretched as far as the eye could see in both directions. They were headed down the same mountain trail they had come up a few days earlier. They were making little headway and enemy small-arms fire from the mountains above was taking its toll on the Marines forced to stick to the road as they retreated in slow motion.
By this time they had picked up scores of frozen bodies of U.S. Marines as they moved south. They piled the corpses in the back of any open truck along with the wounded.
“The only Marines that didn’t walk couldn’t walk. It was so cold we had to keep our trucks and tanks running day and night. If an engine stopped and we couldn’t get it started we put explosives in the tank or truck and pushed it over the side into the ravine.
“One morning after a couple of days on the return trip the Chinese blew a bridge in front of us. They had to parachute sections of a new bridge into us and put it together across the gorge.
“At daybreak the Chinese attacked, blowing whistles and bugles as they charged. We unhooked our guns, cranked them down and shot straight into them as they as they advanced.
“Most of the time the first wave of Chinese soldiers would be carrying Russian-made AK-47 assault rifles. The second wave would pick up the rifles of the first wave of enemy soldiers who were killed and keep coming,” Foster said.
“In the middle of all the fighting I was carrying a phosphorus 105 mm shell … Enemy small-arms fire and shrapnel was hitting in the snow all around me,” he said. “An enemy bullet went through the fuse of the artillery shell I was carrying. All I could think of at the time was, ‘thank God for Bore Save.'”
“Bore Save” is a process by which an artillery shell is not armed until it makes several revolutions through the barrel of a cannon when it’s fired. That way, if it’s dropped or hit by a stray round, chances are fairly good it won’t explode.
“The Chinese keep coming, and we kept shooting at them until they finally ran out of men. It would be hard to walk in front of our gun without walking on an enemy soldier,” he said.
By the time Foster marched all the way back to Hungnam and his waiting ship, both his feet were frostbitten.
“I didn’t realize how lucky I was. I had eight empty sandbags wrapped around each boot, but I got them on too late,” he said. “They put me on a hospital ship and took me to Japan.
“For the first two weeks the doctors were talking about cutting off both my feet. They were concerned frostbite on my feet might develop into gangrene. Day after day the doctor would come in my room, look at my feet and say, ‘You still got ’em.”
He finally survived the ordeal without losing both feet and was transferred to another Navy hospital in California. After nine months of hospital recuperation Foster was sent to Great Lakes Naval Training Center and discharged.
At the time he didn’t know it, but years later he would become a member of a very select group of Marines: “The Chosin Few.” They gave their all for this country on a march to a frozen reservoir in enemy held North Korea a long time ago.
Name: James Foster
Age at time of interview: 77
Currently: Punta Gorda, Fla.
Unit: George Battery, 3rd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division
Battles/Campaigns: The Chosin Reservoir – Korean War
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, March 18, 2007 and is republished with permission.
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