On June 25, 1950, approximately 75,000 North Korean soldiers launched a surprise invasion of South Korea. With astounding quickness, the communist forces pushed South Korean and the quickly deployed and mostly unprepared American troops to a hastily prepared perimeter outside the port of Pusan on the southeast coast of the country. There the Americans and remnants of the South Korean Army dug in under the desperate orders to “hold at all costs.” They held, but their survival and the outcome of the situation were still in doubt.
By the end of summer, the Americans and Allies had regrouped in strength under the leadership of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Ignoring voices of opposition to his counterstroke, MacArthur launched a seemingly impossible amphibious landing at Inchon, a mere 27 kilometers northeast of the South Korean capital of Seoul. The capital city fell within two weeks. With their supply lines stretched too thin and Americans behind their lines, the North Korean Army panicked and stampeded back to North Korea as best they could. Aggressive to the end if not overly arrogant, MacArthur ordered his troops to pursue the North Koreans all the way to the Chinese border.
“You are remembered for the rules you break.”
- Douglas MacArthur -
MacArthur should have listened to his own voice. Disregarding “caution” recommendations from President Harry Truman and the American military hierarchy, plus “warnings of intervention” from the Red Chinese via neutral countries through the United Nations, MacArthur pressed his pursuit of the enemy. Against military logic, he divided his forces and sent the US 8th Army up the western coast of North Korea and the South Korean I Corps accompanied by the US 10th Corps up the eastern coast. The impassable Taebaek Mountains separated the Allied forces.
Then one of the biggest military intelligence failures of modern warfare unfolded. All total, approximately 120,000 soldiers of the PVA (People’s Volunteer Army – meaning Chinese troops) would eventually infiltrate into North Korea undetected. The American and Allied forces were in deep trouble, and deeper snow. With one of the worst winters in recent times sending snow and sub-zero temperatures into North Korea, MacArthur ordered a Home-by-Christmas Offensive, including dispatching the US 1st Marine Division with elements of the US 7th and US 3rd Infantry Divisions to supposedly protect their flanks up the eastern coast towards a man-made lake called the Changjin. A contingent of Canadian and British Royal Marine Commandos was also present.
During WWII, the Japanese had dubbed the pronunciation of the area Changjin as Chosen, thus the Allied designation of the lake and area as the Frozen Chosen since UN forces were using outdated Japanese maps. To simplify the battle, the Marines and Army elements plus the limited Allied units were entirely surrounded and fighting for their lives against impossible odds, approximately 120,000 Chinese versus 30,000 UN troops. Thus began one of the most historic retreats in military history, or as Marine Major Gen. Oliver Smith stated, “Retreat hell! We’re attacking from a different direction!” The legendary Brigadier Gen. Chesty Puller was more accurate, in a Marine way of thinking, “We’re surrounded. That simplifies our problem of getting to these people and killing them. Now we can fire in any direction, the b———- won’t get away this time!” The Leathernecks would need all the bravado they could muster.
The cold front howling in from Siberia plunged temperatures to as low as -36 degrees at night; -5 degrees during the day. The ground froze, frostbite put men out of action, ice covered the roads, and weapons began to break down. Lubrication in guns gelled and the springs on the firing pins couldn’t strike hard enough to fire a round or caused jamming. Medics had to put morphine syrettes into their mouths to defrost the medication before injections, and blood plasma was frozen useless. Cutting off clothing to treat wounds invited frostbite or gangrene. Jeep and radio batteries quickly lost their charge, ran down, and split open. Rations froze solid as bricks. Bulldozers could not dig emplacements for artillery; the ground was too hard. When an engine stopped running, the fuel lines froze. American and UN High Command considered the Marines and other military units at the Frozen Chosen a lost cause. They basically wrote them off.
The Chinese hid in ravines between mountain ridges to protect themselves from small arms fire while regrouping for their next assault. The only weapon the Marines could use against their concealed enemy was the high arcing fire of 60mm mortars, yet ammunition ran low and was near depletion. The Marines sent out emergency requests via radio for resupply of 60mm mortar rounds using code words. The code word for 60mm ammo was “Tootsie Rolls.”
As bad luck, or conceivably good luck, would have it, the radio operator receiving the emergency request did not have a copy of the Marine code sheets. However, he knew the request was from command authority, which meant it was extremely urgent. As zany as the request may have seemed to the radio operator, he knew there were tons of the candy at supply bases all over Japan. The request went out for urgent shipments of Tootsie Rolls to be dropped to the trapped Marines.
The mighty little Tootsie Roll had been a favorite of American soldiers dating back to World War I. It held up well in cold and heat, and didn’t break up like other candy due to careless handling.
Soon resupply aircraft could be heard above the Frozen Chosen. Thick winter clouds and fog did not deter the determined pilots who pierced through the dense cloud cover to drop their loads of Tootsie Rolls. One can only imagine the first reaction of the Marines when they discovered their resupply was not ammo or decent food, but tons of Tootsie Rolls. No doubt a few choice words were heard, yet the Marines quickly realized the Tootsie Rolls were a God-send. The little frozen chocolate bits brought cheers and celebration. The Marines thawed the Tootsie Rolls under their armpits before popping the petite treat into their mouths. The sugar provided almost instant energy and became the sole source of nourishment for many Marines, although the nonstop diet of Tootsie Rolls played havoc with their digestive systems. The Marines didn’t care.
As any kid knows, when a Tootsie Roll melts in your mouth it becomes a gummy sort of pliable putty. Spit it out in normal temperatures and a well-chewed Tootsie Roll becomes a shoe-magnet. Spit it out in the middle of winter in North Korea at the Frozen Chosen, and a well-chewed Tootsie Roll returns to a tiny chocolate frozen brick. Super Putty, if you will.
With an ample supply of Tootsie Rolls for nourishment, Marines used chewed-up Tootsie Rolls to plug bullet holes in equipment and vehicles and hoses and a host of other paraphernalia. The tiny candy held up as a chocolate glue to plug holes in gas tanks and fuel drums, not to mention plugging radiator leaks. With a brilliant fighting withdrawal, sheer backbone and self-discipline, plus thousands of Tootsie Rolls in pockets and hands and under tepid armpits, the US Marines and other soldiers made the trek to the port of Hungnam for evacuation. Of the 15,000 men at the Frozen Chosen, 12,000 became casualties: 3,000 killed with 6,000 wounded, and thousands of cases of frostbite.
The survivors of the Frozen Chosen are known as “The Chosen Few,” but among Leathernecks they’re known as “The Tootsie Roll Marines.” As one survivor acknowledged, “Ask any soldier that served at the Chosen, to be good a Tootsie Roll has to be frozen!”
Sort of makes you want to go out and buy a few Tootsie Rolls, doesn’t it?
“This was no retreat. We found more Chinese behind us than in front of us, so we about-faced and attacked.”
- Brigadier General Chesty Puller -
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran. For story consideration visit his website at veteransarticle.com and click on “contact us.”