I Meet Sir. C. Aubrey Smith; We Talk of Korea, the Cold, and the 5th Marines

“You were at the Chosin?” I was directing this question to an 80-something year old gentleman with a moustache somewhere in between Nigel Bruce and Ron Swanson. His hat said, “Chosin Few,” his lapel pin said 1st Marine Division, and his tie was covered in Marine Corps symbols...  I was asking an obvious question; there was no doubt as to the identification of this character, but it was more a preambulary statement than a query. 

“Yes. I was.” He said a bit gruffly.

I pulled up a seat and sat down next to him. We were in the green room of the Iwo Jima Reunion in Arlington, Virginia, last February. It had been a busy afternoon, and now people were coming in and out of the room with drinks, chatting, and relaxing. 

“It was pretty cold there.” I said to the Chosin vet. 

“You’d better believe it.” He grunted. “Got frostbite on my feet. Couldn’t walk from it.” There was a definitive stress on certain letters in the words he used, sending him up north quite a bit... likely to some part of Massachusetts. 

“I can’t imagine it. I’m from Texas, and we start freezing over when it gets down into the 50s. What keeps you going when it is so cold?”

“Training.” He said simply. “We became robots. We were so reduced by the cold, the only thing that kept us going was our Marine Corps training. We didn’t know what we were doing. But that is where the training became important.” He stated these facts as they were, though with a bit of a shiver in recalling the memory. 

A few weeks previous, I'd been reading up on Chosin, and was delightfully surprised to run into one of the men who fought there, though at an Iwo Jima reunion of all places. 

"American Marines march down a canyon road dubbed "Nightmare Alley" during their retreat from Chosin Reservoir, Korea." Photo by David Douglas Duncan

The Chosin Reservoir Campaign (or Frozen Chosin) summarized: A terrible, complicated battle fought in North Korea between the allies of the United Nations: United Kingdom, South Korea, America, and the United States 1st Marine Division, against the North Koreans and Red Chinese during the winter of 1950 (November 27-December 13). 

One of the most iconic photos from the Chosin Reservoir Campaign. "A dazed, hooded Marine clutches a can of food during his outfit's retreat from the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War, December 1950". Photo by David Douglas Duncan

Some have compared it to the Battle of the Bulge fought in WWII. But the Marines who were at Chosin say it was worse. Our soldiers were poorly fed and poorly equipped, and our high casualty rate was caused more from the extreme temperatures than anything else. The cold was more than unbearable, at times dropping down to -40F. The boots they'd been issued to help with the cold only made their feet sweat profusely during their marches and freeze instantly on stopping. This created many cases of frostbite and trench-foot. It was miserable in the extreme. 

At night the men were warned about falling into too heavy a sleep or zipping up their sleeping bags. They might not awake from the former (many froze to death in their sleep), and as for the latter... the cold could freeze the zippers shut, making them easy prey for the Red Chinese who had no qualms about slitting the throats of defenseless Marines trapped in their bags.

And then, there was the most nightmarish part of it all. The enemy was unceasing. Every single Korean combat vet I've spoken with has told me the same thing almost verbatim: "The enemy never stopped coming. Charging forward madly, with an endlessness to them. It didn't matter how many you took down with fire, they continued, and continued, until all were too exhausted to go further." Just like your worst nightmare when no matter how hard you strive, all your efforts are in vain, nothing you do seems to help anything, and the situation only gets more desperate. (To get a better understanding of the Chosin Reservoir Campaign I recommend reading here). 

The U.S. Retreat at Chosin Reservoir

As I talked with this Chosin vet, his gruffness began to wear off, and I saw underneath a charm similar to the dashing old actor from the Golden Age of Hollywood, Sir C. Aubrey Smith. True confession, when I was very young, this screen actor had made a lasting impression on me as the ultimate charming old gentleman. His portrayal of the gallant Colonel Zapt in Prisoner of Zenda, or the grumpy-but-with-a-heart-of-gold grandfather of Little Lord Fauntleroy, were just a few that quite stole my heart. Thus, sitting across from this fascinating and delightful curmudgeon from Massachusetts (who in every way seemed to characterize Sir Smith), it felt like I was being taken on a virtual trip to the battlefields of Korea, personally guided by Sir C. Aubrey Smith, only with a strong Massachusetts accent and Marine Corps written all over him.

"How long were you at Chosin?" I asked, interested in continuing the conversation. 

"Till the middle of December, when I was wounded." Said Sir Smith (as I shall call him). "My sergeant sent me to the back for medical attention. When I got there, I was told they had no place for me and to go back to the front. I made the hike to the front lines again and got bawled out for returning. The sergeant sent me back again. This time I told them how it was and what was what, so I stayed back till I got shipped home."

His 6-month war in Korea was over. 

"And you were in the 5th Marines?" I checked.

"Yes indeed. The best regiment in the Marine Corps!" 

"I don't doubt it," I said, amused. "Actually, I just finished reading a book about a brother regiment of yours - A Company, 7th Marines... Baker 1/7 I believe it's called.”

Hardly had the words "7th Marines" come out of my mouth when there was a virtual explosion from Sir Smith. 

“Bah. Those 7th Marines! They’re no good at all. Always behind the action at a safe distance, making us do all the dirty work. We take a hill, they get the glory. Those no good....” My charming friend was obviously not biased at all. 

A friend of his nearby turned and said, “Bob, isn’t that the Company with the Chinese guy in the pink vest?”

“Kurt Lee. Yes," said Sir Smith with a chuckle. "The fellow was crazy. Always running into battle with that ghastly pink vest so that his men would always know where he was at all times.”  

“So you saw his pink vest then?” I was thrilled. Lieutenant Kurt Chew-Een Lee was a truly remarkable soldier. The first Marine Corps officer of Chinese decent, he quite proved the mettle he was made of during the Korean War. Gallantly leading his men into action, he would holler out orders in Mandarin, successfully causing disarray and confusion in the ranks of the Red Chinese. Then he would wildly attack them with little care for his own protection. His men watched in awe as Lt. Lee stood tall and straight, marching about and giving orders during the hottest parts of the fighting, seemingly unaware of the hundreds of bullets whizzing around him. Eventually, he was wounded, but he did not allow this to interfere with his duty. Indeed, he and another Marine made a daring escape from the American hospital to return to the front, despite being covered in bandages and wrappings. No, nothing mental or physical would ever come in the way of this brave Marine's determination. 

And as far as the pink vest was concerned, if he thought it would inspire his men, than who cared if it made him the perfect target for the Red Chinese?

Lt. Kurt Chew-Een Lee in Korea

Sir Smith guffawed at my excitement over the vest, “Of course I did! Everyone did! He didn’t seem to realize the enemy would also see where he was at all times. What did he think anyways? He could have gotten us all killed. There is no place on the battlefield for foolish heroics.” 

I couldn’t help laughing. These “foolish heroics” Sir Smith spoke of (and highlighted above) had awarded Lt. Lee none other than the Navy Cross, the second-highest military decoration for valor given by the United States.

“Besides,” his eyes twinkled, “He was in the 7th Marines that...”

I had to laugh again. The 7th Marines may not have been up to Sir Smith's standards, but with men like Lt. Lee in their ranks, they were certainly a fighting force to be reckoned with.

With "Sir Smith" at the Iwo Jima Reunion in February (Photo Credit: Dean Laubach

With "Sir Smith" at the Iwo Jima Reunion in February (Photo Credit: Dean Laubach

But though we joked about the eccentricities of the officers, the events of the summer, fall, and winter of 1950 had left a deep and terrible impression on Sir Smith. He told me that the reality of what he had gone through was finally catching up on him. About 50 years after his service in the Marine Corps, he suddenly started having nightmares about the fighting in Korea. He dreamed about things he'd seen or done that hadn't crossed his mind in decades, and out of the blue thoughts attacked him that left him with little mental peace. 

"I have to go to a PTSD group now." He told me somewhat grimly. "I'm the oldest guy there. All the others are soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. It doesn't help much, but I keep going." 

We all know that the end-date of a war doesn't mean it's over in the minds of the fellas who fought there, but it's still hard every time I hear it from their own mouths; that each day they are re-fighting the battle of the Chosin Reservoir, or Iwo Jima, or Normandy. Thankfully, though, my new friend has a tenacious fighting spirit and probably wouldn't allow himself to be easily overcome by these nightmares.

We talked for some time more, till the dinner bell rang concluding the weekend. It was a lovely time I spent chatting with Sir Smith. Learning from such a charming curmudgeon about the rougher side of Chosin combat (as well as a few humorous anecdotes) was a remarkable experience. It is regretful that so few know anything of the Korean War, or even the Chosin Reservoir Campaign. The difficulties of Chosin were practically unparalleled in American history. That any could survive it is truly a miracle. But they did, and once again I was reminded of the endurance of the human spirit when it is put to the test - especially the United States Marine Corps at Chosin.