cover image On Desperate Ground: The Marines at the Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle

On Desperate Ground: The Marines at the Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle

Hampton Sides. Doubleday, $30 (416p) ISBN 978-0-385-54115-2

Sides (In the Kingdom of Ice) updates the much-chronicled, epic winter fighting retreat from the Chosin Reservoir in the Korean War in this splendid account. In September 1950, countering a June invasion by communist North Korean forces, Gen. Douglas MacArthur launched a “bold, sweeping”—and reckless—landing at the port of Inchon. When United Nations troops reached the border of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong and his generals, fearing an invasion, sent troops into Korea to counter the threat. The First Marine Division, led by Gen. Oliver P. Smith, continued to advance, though its commander rightly feared a Chinese trap. He was correct: for three hellish weeks, his 30,000 Marines, U.S. Army, and assorted UN forces fought four times their number of Chinese soldiers, weathering terrifying assaults with little support and fanatical courage. Sides unsparingly describes the theatrical arrogance and misplaced sense of racial superiority that led MacArthur and X Corps Commander Gen. Ned Almond to discount the intelligence warning of major Chinese infiltration, even dismissing President Harry Truman’s concerns about a widening war that could involve nuclear weapons. This account features abundant heroism, vivid battle scenes, and nuanced treatment of the judicious, determined leadership of General Smith. Sides’s lucid assessment of the battles, leadership, politics, and key figures at the turning point of the war show how the First Marine Division’s commanders and fighting men staved off a nearly unprecedented military debacle. (Oct.)