'On Desperate Ground' chronicles the amazing voyage of the US Marines during the Korean War

Hampton Sides' book is a towering tale of official ineptitude and battlefield fortitude that plays out against the backdrop of American's most forgotten modern war.

On Desperate Ground By Hampton Sides Knopf Doubleday 416 pp.

Troops and weapons may seem like all you need to win a war. But even the biggest and most well-equipped armies can crumble in the face of two powerful forces that can't be quantified. One is hubris. The other is winter.

Tens of thousands of US Marines had to tangle with both during the Korean War. First, oblivious generals sent them on a hopeless mission deep into the heart of Korea. Then they had to fight their way out of a spectacularly frozen landscape. 

The story of their amazing voyage unfolds in the gripping new book On Desperate Ground: The Marines at the Reservoir, the Korean War's Greatest Battle. It's a towering tale of official ineptitude and battlefield fortitude that plays out against the backdrop of American's most forgotten modern war.

Our guide is master storyteller Hampton Sides, who specializes in captivating readers with his trademark moment-by-moment accounts of American history. He's previously written well-received books about topics such as a World War II rescue mission in the Philippines and the hunt for Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassin.

Sides begins "On Desperate Ground" on the shores of Korea in 1950 as more than 75,000 American troops launch a surprise attack aimed at ending "a war that was not officially a war... A cause that at times was not altogether clear, for an endgame that was anybody's guess."

An amphibious landing by the Marines makes perfect sense. As Sides notes, they're the "Soldiers of the Sea," literally a marine force of "shock troops sent to hector coastlines and establish beachheads." 

But then things start to go haywire thanks in part to General Douglas MacArthur. He's far afield in Tokyo and even farther afield, in Sides' telling, from reality.

MacArthur, a man said to have "a solemn regard for his own divinity," fancies himself an expert on "the Oriental mind" and focuses on capturing occupied Seoul on Sept. 25, which he considers an auspicious day to crush the North Korean spirit. (It isn't.)

A mammoth feud develops between two of MacArthur's underlings – a cautious Major General Oliver P. Smith and a rash Major Edward Almond – about what to do and how to do it after the coastal invasion.

Meanwhile, the war-traumatized residents of Seoul fail to greet the American invaders as liberators. As Sides expertly explains, they don't see sunny days ahead. Instead, they fear chaos, reprisals, and death, all of which descend on them as the Marines arrive. "Few people have suffered so terrible a liberation," one witness wrote.

After Seoul comes a long march toward the Chinese border, a bid for easy victory that becomes "a perfect trap." Like Napoleon in Russia before him, the Marines are far from their supply lines and a big chill is coming. General Smith fears the worst: "A winter in the mountains of Korea is too much to ask of the American soldier or Marine."

But as the troops tuck into Thanksgiving dinners in November 1950, General MacArthur in Tokyo is optimistic that the Chinese will stay out of the war, which will end in a week or two. None of this comes to pass.

The Chinese fight and the troops struggle to survive in subzero temperatures so cold that they jam machinery, hobble aircraft, and freeze bullet wounds shut. The Soldiers of the Sea have no shore, no sea and – possibly – no way out.

Sides captures the big personalities who run things – General MacArthur, US President Harry Truman, the bizarre yet savvy Chinese leader Chairman Mao Zedong, and the battling generals. Informed by written accounts left by survivors and his interviews with men who were there, Sides also immerses readers in vivid accounts of horrific battles and an infamous "attack in reverse."

Consider the sounds of one night described as "a terrible moonlit serenade:" The air is filled with "a ghoulish din of cymbals, drums, whistles, and bleating shepherds' horns" – the sounds of radio-less Chinese troops communicating with each other. Then a voice begins chanting in accented English: "Nobody lives forever/Marines, you die!"

In the book's only significant weakness, there's not much about the lives and motives of the fighters on the other side. Instead, Sides focuses on the experiences of American troops and the fascinating story of a young Korean man who helped the Americans and now lives in the US.

Sides even manages to find a light moment when a mix-up over an order of Tootsie Rolls actually helps the Marines keep their machines running.  

As acclaimed historian Barbara Tuchman put it, "History is the unfolding of miscalculations." In Korea, some are miscalculations are minor, some are serious, and a few are catastrophic, not that the miscalculators would ever admit it. "On Desperate Ground" aims to finally set the story straight, giving credit to General Smith (brilliant, sometimes renegade) and the wily troops themselves.

There's a lesson here. Even when leaders fail, those far from command can turn the tide.

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