When President Lincoln established the Thanksgiving holiday in 1863, he invited his "fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November as a day of thanksgiving." For Americans in foreign lands, few have celebrated in such a remote location far from home as did 20,000 U.S. Marines and soldiers on November 23, 1950.
Located deep inside enemy North Korean territory and at an elevation of 4,000 feet atop the rugged Taebek mountain range, the Americans stopped to observe the holiday and were as happy for the turkey as they were unaware that 120,000 communist Chinese troops had secretively encircled their positions. As Col John Gray, who served with the Army's Task Force Faith said, "Well, Thanksgiving of 1950 was one to remember!"
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The Korean War was just five months old and the United Nations forces, under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, were fighting with stunning success. The communist North Korean Army was on the run and by Thanksgiving, the Marines and soldiers of X Corps under the command of General Almond were high up in the Korean mountains at the desolate Chosin Reservoir.
With orders to go as far north as the Yalu River on the border with China, the men of X Corps thought the war might be over in a matter of weeks. General Ray Davis, who passed away in 2006 and who commanded 1st Battalion, 7th Marines at Chosin recalled, "We were promised to be home by Christmas."
Davis remembered the November holiday he and his men spent in freezing temperatures in North Korea that year, "Thanksgiving came and everybody was having turkey. They came up frozen so we set up a double tent, put two stoves in the middle, stacked the turkeys around it, and thawed the turkeys enough to, to get them cooked for Thanksgiving."
Frank Kerr who was a Marine combat cameraman at Chosin recalled, "We were all assembled in a little village, and they fed us Thanksgiving dinner. It was magnificent! Turkey and all the trimmings. I think none of us will ever forget that!"
The next day, with the holiday meal barely digested, the first wave of the Chinese communist forces attacked.
"They were coming at us every night," said Kerr. "So, we're fighting during the day when we had air support, but we were fighting them off at night."
The American and other U.N. troops were outnumbered 6-1, and the command decided two days into the attack to make a tactical retreat.
At the time, Major General O.P. Smith, who commanded the 1st Marine Division, described the decision in terms characteristic of the leathernecks, "Retreat? Hell, we're attacking in a different direction!"
The fighting of the next few weeks became known as the Chosin Reservoir breakout, and has gone down in Marine Corps history as one of its bravest and most courageous chapters.
— Gregory Johnson is a producer for "War Stories"