The Chinese knew the Americans' 1st Marine Division was one of the most effective fighting forces they would face in the Korean War, so they set a trap for it at the Chosin Reservoir in late October 1950, just four months after the war began.
Unbeknownst to Sgt. Jerome “Jerry” Gindl and his fellow Marines, two Chinese divisions encircled their spearhead units in “The Frozen Chosin,” regarded as “one of the most storied exploits in Marine Corps lore,” according to one historian.
“No one believed the Chinese were in the war,” Gindl, 85, of Schererville, recalled. “... They were letting us walk into the pocket to annihilate us.”
Their first of many encounters came Nov. 3 in a three-day battle at Sudong when a Marine regiment, according to official accounts, defeated an attacking division, killing at least 662 Chinese.
“The odds were about 30 to 1," said Gindl, who was a runner for 1st Lt. Frank N. Mitchell. “Like the colonel said, it didn’t make a difference which way you fire, there’s one (an enemy) there.”
The Thornton Fractional Township High School grad knew Baker and Charley companies (about 500 Marines) had lost about a quarter of their men. He helped return two bodies early on in the fighting in the bitter 60-degrees-below-zero cold.
Mitchell told Gindl to inform the command post that Marines were in position after the initial encounter (radios didn’t work in such mountainous terrain), but that he (Gindl) shouldn’t return that night because of the risk he would be shot in the dark by his own men.
Instead, Gindl and another Marine were shot at point-blank by an enemy tank near the command post late that night. Mortar rounds struck the tank, but it was so heavily sandbagged, they had no effect. It had killed a five-man fire team before it was dispatched by more lethal rounds.
As human waves of Chinese would attack, blowing bugles and beating drums, trying to terrify the Marines, they quickly learned to “shoot the bugler,” Gindl said, explaining he was the one who relayed directions.
Gindl, who previously was in the second wave of the Inchon amphibious landing on Sept. 15, didn’t experience hand-to-hand combat. His closest encounter with the enemy wasn’t in battle.
The Chinese and North Koreans were known to use refugees as “shields” to infiltrate United Nations forces lines. Ordered to get rations and ammunition at the regimental dump, Gindl chose 20 Korean laborers to help carry everything back to his platoon.
When he prepared to return the men, he counted 21. Mitchell told him to find the impostor.
“He was a North Korean wired with money and explosives,” Gindl said. “He wanted to blow up (the ammo dump), but we got to him before he could."
The enemy, uniformed and not, as well as the cold, was formidable.
If you didn’t sleep with your M-1 slung to your shoulder, children would steal it, Gindl recalled. The M-1 was the most effective weapon Marines carried, he said.
Whereas a bullet from a 30-caliber carbine might not even fully penetrate the padded and layered Chinese outerwear, the gas-powered M-1 was reliable even in the cold.
“We used to strip all the oil off it and use ChapStick,” said Gindl. Once it fired there was enough heat to keep it firing, unlike vehicles which if they were turned off for three minutes, you couldn’t restart them.
Sleeping in foxholes was difficult, but Marines would stretch their ponchos overhead and watch their breath freeze on them to help stabilize their "tent."
The 1st Division eventually punched its way through the Chinese noose, but not before Mitchell was killed on Nov. 26. Gindl, who at one point became a forward observer, was not with the Texan when he single-handedly covered his wounded men’s escape before he was slain by small-arms fire. For his gallantry, Mitchell was awarded the Medal of Honor.
“It was a total shock,” said Gindl of hearing of his friend’s death. “He was a man’s man … a top-grade officer. … We would have followed him anywhere.”
Days later, Gindl suffered a wound he doesn’t talk about, but was able to walk to the staging area at Hagaru-ri where he and some 70 of the other 12,000 Marines wounded in the campaign were evacuated by DC-3. The Leathernecks lost 836 killed before the battle ended Dec. 11. Chinese casualties are estimated at 35,000.
“I love the Corps,” said Gindl. “To me, the finest men are there. We have an esprit de corps that no other branch of service has.”