On Desperate Ground

The Marines at the Reservoir, the Korean War's Greatest Battle

Project Description

An Unforgettable Crucible in the Ice . . .

An Epic Ordeal of Survival and Endurance . . .

A Classic Tale of Entrapment and Breakout . . .

ON DESPERATE GROUND  tells the story of one of the most harrowing clashes in American history, the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, during which Mao’s numerically superior armies surrounded and tried to destroy the First Marine Division in the frozen mountain wilds of North Korea. In this deeply researched work of literary non-fiction, bestselling historian Hampton Sides offers a gripping chronicle of the extraordinary feats of heroism performed by the beleaguered Marines, who were called upon to do the impossible in some of the most unforgiving terrain on earth.

On October 15, 1950, General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of UN troops in Korea, convinced President Harry Truman that the Communist forces of Kim Il-sung would be utterly defeated by Thanksgiving. The Chinese, he said with near certainty, would not intervene in the war.

As he was speaking, 300,000 Red Chinese soldiers began secretly crossing the Manchurian border. Led by some 20,000 men of the First Marine Division, the Americans moved deep into the snowy mountains of North Korea, toward the trap Mao had set for the vainglorious MacArthur along the frozen shores of the Chosin Reservoir. What followed was one of the most heroic operations in American military history, and one of the classic battles of modern times. Faced with probable annihilation, and temperatures plunging to 20 degrees below zero, the surrounded, and hugely outnumbered, Marines fought through the enemy forces with ferocity, ingenuity, and nearly unimaginable courage as they marched their way to the sea.

On Desperate Ground relies on years of archival research, unpublished letters, declassified documents, and interviews with scores of Marines and Koreans who survived the siege. While detailing the conspicuous follies and intelligence failures of the American leaders in Tokyo and Washington, On Desperate Ground is an immediate, grunt’s-eye view of history that serves as an enthralling illustration of what ordinary men are capable of accomplishing in the most difficult circumstances.

As Sides shows, the extremity of their predicament brought to the fore a naked instinct for self-preservation, a ferocious camaraderie, and a rare improvisational spirit—making the engagement at Chosin Reservoir not only one of our country’s most highly decorated battles, but also one of the great military survival stories of all time.

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Learn more about The Battle of Chosin from PBS’ American Experience.

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