SILENT SENTRY  Those who have been exposed to a very cold winter day may remember the deep silence, conditions under which sound travels great distances. Here the Finnish soldier dressed in white on white does not move, but stands with ears directed to the Soviet side early in the Winter War, 1939-40. – Photo courtesy History Department, Finnish Defense Forces, Helsinki.


The Changjin Journal is designed to disseminate and solicit information on the Chosin campaign. Comments and brief essays are invited. Subject matter will be limited to history of the Chosin campaign, as well as past or present interpretation of that history.
See End Notes for distribution and other notices. Colonel George A. Rasula, USA-Ret., Chosin Historian, Byron Sims, Contributing Editor

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IN THIS ISSUE we take a new approach to winter warfare through a document found in the web pages of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: Leavenworth Papers No. 5, titled Fighting the Russians in Winter by Dr. Allen F. Chew, Combat Studies Institute, 1981. The study is based on German and Russian experiences during 1941-42, all of which should have been a must-read in the 1950 Far East Command, especially by corps and division commanders and their staffs. We will take portions of the study and relate them to the Chosin experience. Although all citations in quotes are from the study, we have included some photographs from the Soviet winter war against Finland as well as North Korea 1950.


In setting the stage for the experiencing the Russian environment we should remember that Napoleon tested it first, taking his “Grande Armee of at least 378,000 strong” into an early winter that caused his forces to undergo extreme cold, deep snow, short days in an area of sparse population (consequently few ready-made shelters), providing military historians with early lessons in winter warfare. “Although the plans of both of those would-be conquerors of Russia failed before the arrival of winter, there is no denying that snow and severe frost contributed to the magnitude of their subsequent problems and casualties.”

“Hitler’s plans also miscarried before the onset of severe winter weather; he was so confident of a lightening victory that he did not prepare for even the possibility of winter warfare in Russia.”

We are reminded that General MacArthur’s plans also miscarried because he was overly confident of a lightning victory. In the autumn of 1950 the Far East Command (FECOM) failed to recognize the problems it would face during their haste to move north to the Yalu River, a time when statistics identifying potential weather conditions were readily available. Be advised that the words “severe frost” means degrees of cold below zero on the Celsius scale, not "the frost is on the pumpkin." Ten days before being ordered to the Chosin, RCT 31 had already experienced 14 below zero F. east of the Fusen Reservoir.

“The harsh climate of that region [of Russia] can be an indiscriminate killer, and the successful army must adapt to winter conditions ... both Russians and their opponents paid the ultimate price when they overlooked this reality.”

The author then lists “pertinent environmental factors and their military ramifications.” Those that apply to Chosin are listed here.

“Mobility and logistical support are restricted. Roads and runways can only be kept open by plowing or compacting the snow. Cross-country transport–if possible at all–requires wide-tracked vehicles or sleds.”

In the X Corps sector of operations they were restricted by the existence of one main supply route (MSR) for the 1st Marine Division to the Chosin Reservoir area and one to the 7th Infantry Division to Hyesanjin on the Yalu River. No lateral roads existed other than oxcart trails and footpaths. This logistics problem was compounded by the limitations of truck units to move both supplies and troops. Transport was not available off the MSR because of the mountainous terrain, with operations to the flanks limited to foot-troops. Although some tanks were available at Chosin, their operations were restricted to roads and unit perimeters.

OXEN IN SNOW   When the first snows fell in early November 1950 the 2d Battalion, 31st Infantry, ventured deep into the mountains northeast of the Fusen Reservoir where North Korean oxen with sleds were used to haul supplies to forward units. Photo from the late LTC Joseph C. Rodgers collection; 1LT Rodgers was a medical service officer (MSC) with the battalion.

“Infantrymen moving through deep snow rapidly became exhausted.”

Deep snow was not a problem during the Chosin campaign. We note that the 1/7 Marines did encounter snow and stopped for rest during their cross-country trek from Yudam-ni to Fox Hill in the Toktong Pass. The depth of snow there or in the Funchilin Pass encountered later by the Army’s Provisional Battalion was not similar to that faced by the Germans or Russians; knee-deep snow is a minor problem, whereas one or two meters of snow has a major impact on all movement, an environment requiring skis or snowshoes.

“Without special lubricants firearms and motors may freeze up and become inoperative at subzero temperatures.”

Equipment is affected in different ways depending on the temperature range. Weapons can freeze and jam at the warmer range while in extreme cold the metal may crack or shatter, while vehicle engines depend not only on the temperature extreme, but also on the parts being affected, such as metal, rubber or plastic. Most vulnerable at Chosin were batteries of all kinds. Truck engines could be warmed up, while radio batteries died quickly.

“Human efficiency and survival require adequate shelter. If not available locally, portable shelter must be provided.”

Small villages were scattered across the plains of eastern Russia whereas at Chosin there were very few in the mountainous terrain; those having a bearing on the Chosin battles were Yudam-ni, Hagaru-ri, Koto-ri and Chinhung-ni at the bottom of the Funchilin Pass. Most of the Marine perimeters mentioned had tents and stoves to provide temporary shelter, whereas east of Chosin the Army units were still waiting for their supply trains to arrive when the Chinese closed the door. Improvised shelters were the only answer in an environment where only a few native huts were available.

SOVIET DUGOUTS  Soviet dugouts captured by the Finns during the Winter War. Photo courtesy History Department, Finnish Defense Forces, Helsinki.

“Frostbite casualties may exceed battle losses unless troops wear proper clothing, including warm gloves and footgear.”

Some Russians had felt boots while some others improvised with straw and rags. The U.S. Army in Alaska had already tested lightweight arctic tents and stoves, and thermal boots that were far superior to the shoepac, although Korea would not see these items until the following winter.

“Speedy removal from the battlefield to shelter is essential to prevent even minor wounds from resulting in death from exposure.”

At Chosin evacuation was with limited airlift by light fixed wing and a few helicopters, with the final evacuation of thousands by C-47 aircraft from airstrips at Hagaru-ri and Koto-ri.


“In 1941 winter weather arrived in Russia earlier than usual. In normal years, snow begins ... about mid-November and severe cold sets in during the latter half of December.”


Lautensach reports in a January chart the mean temperature at Changjin (north of the Changjin/ Chosin Reservoir) as –19˚C (0˚F), with a mean minimum at –29˚C (–20˚F). Since the Chosin action was near the end of November, we know the temperatures were warmer than January. The low temperature of –20˚F reported by General Smith appears to be accurate. Artillery units used temperature readings on which to base accurate supporting fire. H/11 Artillery at Hagaru-ri fired at near maximum range in support of F/7 in the Toktong Pass, with no reports of inaccurate fires. (See CJ 08.31.00)

“Although there is general agreement concerning weather conditions on the Russian front through October 1941, there are many conflicting versions of the severity of temperatures during the weeks and months that followed.” The author reports temperature ranges from -17.3˚C (+1˚F) to -53˚C (-63˚F), depending on the area and the reporting source.

“In terms of casualties, the precise temperatures are virtually meaningless, because a poorly clothed soldier exposed to the elements is susceptible to frostbite even at temperatures warmer than –18˚C (0˚F).


Temperatures at Chosin have been reported to cover a wide range, depending on the source. Although Major General O. P. Smith’s Aide-Memoire reports –20˚F, someone apparently doubled that number to –40˚F which has appeared in many publications. Then came the copycats who continue to use large numbers, reinforcing the myth with wind-chills of -75˚F. Be it known that minus 40 on either scale is in the dangerous extreme zone which can kill unprotected soldiers very quickly.


[Between Moscow and Leningrad] “heavy, accumulative snow (29 to 59 inches) began about 7 December. Strong winds and blizzards followed, creating massive drifts.... this snow cover greatly restricted German mobility, but it also hampered the Red Army.

“Discussing the plight of about seven divisions that were cut off in January 1942, a German commander observed that ‘the deep snows protected the encircled German troops about Demyansk from annihilation. Even the Russian infantry was unable to launch an attack through those snows.’ ”


“Hitler’s overconfidence immeasurably compounded the inevitable hardships of a winter campaign in Russia.... On 30 November von Bock informed [the Chief of Staff] that his men still had not received winter coats, although the temperature was –45˚C (–49˚F). ... The freezing German troops were reduced to removing clothes from enemy corpses, improvising straw boots, and taking other emergency measures.”

“It was no wonder that thousands of Germans froze to death that winter. By the turn of the year they had suffered about 100,000 cases of frostbite, more than 14,000 of which required amputations.”

“The Red Army was far better prepared for winter warfare than were its opponents. For example, Siberian troops who attacked the shivering Germans of the 35th Infantry Division near Moscow on 5 December 1941 wore padded jackets and trousers, fur caps, and felt boots.”


“A German officer who witnessed persistent Soviet attacks near Shuvaevo in mid-January 1942 when the temperature reached –40˚, reported that ‘the Russians suffered even more [than the Germans] from the cold despite their winter clothing, since they were out in the open.’ ”


However much Chosin has been reported as having extremely cold temperature and wind chill, the casualty statistics do not support such extremes. In addition to walking wounded, hundreds of casualties were carried on vehicles from Yudam-ni to Hagaru-ri for almost four days without many deaths due to cold injury. Soldiers wounded east of Chosin suffered the cold in improvised unheated shelters covered with scrap canvas or sleeping bags. During the attempted breakout on 1-2 December 1950, those wounded soldiers lay on cold steel of truck beds or on improvised litters made of scrap lumber. There the majority of them died from exposure caused by unattended wounds and cold.


OXEN DRAWN SLEDS   North Koreans with oxen-drawn sled hauling supplies into the mountains for the 2d Battalion, 31stInfantry, northeast of the Fusen Reservoir. Photo from the late LTC Joseph C. Rodgers collection.

“The ubiquitous, shaggy, hardy Russian ponies proved indispensable for transport in bad weather. Many of the larger horses that the Germans brought died from the cold, but the native breed could survive in the open at almost any temperature if merely sheltered from the wind. The Germans called these small, patient animals panje horses, a term they also applied to the native carts and sleighs.”

“Russian tanks, especially the T34, KCV1, and KV2, were effective even in deep snow because of their wide tracks and good ground clearance [giving them] a marked advantage over the tanks that the Germans employed during the first winter.... The Soviets frequently used T34s to break paths through the snow for the infantry.”

FINNISH SKI TROOPS   A soldier trained in rapid mobility across the snow has a distinct advantage. Here we see Finnish ski troops involved in fire and movement as it was done in the Winter War against the Soviet Army 1939-40. Photo courtesy History Department, Finnish Defense Forces, Helsinki.

“Another advantage the Russians enjoyed was the number of ski troops. Profiting from the lessons of the Winter War against the Finns, both Soviet military and civilian authorities emphasized skiing.... Special ski units, trained in Siberia and committed on the Finnish front during the new war, proved almost as skillful as the Finns.”

“Although the mobility of well-trained ski units was a significant asset, not all of the Russian ski troops employed in that first wartime winter were sufficiently experienced to exploit that advantage. General Meretyskov noted that he often saw men of the hastily formed Second and Fifty-ninth Shock Armies proceeding on foot, dragging their skis behind them.”

During the previous winter soldiers of the 31st Infantry Regiment (RCT 31 in Korea) were given ski and snowshoe training, as well as training in survival techniques. Regretfully, many ended up as replacements to the early divisions deployed to South Korea, while the regiment at Chosin was made up with many replacements. One member of King Company 3/31 attributed his survival from capture east of Chosin and three years in prison camp to the training he had received the previous winter in Hokkaido.


“It could only have been in total ignorance ... that the German Army of 1941 could be surprised that because of the extreme cold the mechanisms of rifles and machine guns, and even the breech blocks of artillery became absolutely rigid. The recoil liquid in artillery pieces also froze stiff, and tempered steel parts cracked. Striker and striker springs broke like glass.”

“General Halder took notice of an encounter when the temperature was –35˚C (–31˚F) and only one of the five German tanks could fire.”

FINNISH LOG HUT   This log hut is a good example of making use of local buildings in the battle area. Note the rifles hanging outside in the cold air and not inside the warm and humid building. It is said the Finns build a sauna before they dig their trenches; quite true because the sauna serves many purposes, a warm shelter to be used as an aid station as well as a bath. Photo courtesy History Department, Finnish Defense Forces, Helsinki.

“Soviet weapons were designed for winter, and they used appropriate lubricants.... the Germans had to improvise by lighting fires under their artillery, and by either wiping off all the lubricants from weapons or experimenting with substitutes. Kerosene worked. Sunflower oil proved quite effective, but available only in southern Russia.

“Deep snow greatly reduced the effectiveness of mortar shells. The best antitank weapon was the gun of the heavy tank. Mines proved unreliable under heavy snow or ice.”

“The Germans also encountered constant problems with most of their motor vehicles. At first they tried to start frozen machines by towing, which badly damaged motors and ripped differentials to pieces. It proved necessary to apply heat for up to two hours before moving. During alerts motors were frequently kept running for hours. (Only the panje horse started without a warming up period!)”

AFTERMATH OF FINNISH MOTTI   Winter silence reigns once again after a successful motti operation against a Soviet column thatwas limited to movement by road. The battle of Suomusalmi was one of the first such operations which led to the annihilation of two Soviet divisions during November-December 1939. (See CJ 05.15.00 and CJ 08.01.02) Photo courtesy History Department, Finnish Defense Forces, Helsinki.



“Because shelter was essential to survival, villages became the focal points of local battles during the winter of 1941-42.... When the Russians penetrated the gaps between German-held villages and fanned out laterally to threaten the roads leading to the rear of those villages, the German were forced to retreat again. Whenever [the Soviets] failed to capture [a German-held strongpoint], they usually withdrew to the nearest friendly village for the night.”

“Without shelter, and faced with freezing to death in the nighttime temperature of –30˚ to –40˚, the Germans had to abandon the encirclement and withdraw to a distant village.... Battlefield success had turned to failure because the Germans were not equipped for the weather and could not find local shelter.”

The same problem existed at Chosin: finding local shelter. The villages at Hagaru-ri and Koto-ri that had a few native shelters became the main base perimeters for operations, each receiving resupply by airdrop to meet most needs. Units at Yudam-ni had less native shelter available but were fortunate to have some tentage and canvas from unit trains. At the Inlet east of Chosin units of RCT 31 relied on improvised shelter and occasional open fires during daylight from limited warmth. When shelter was not available for wounded, they were placed in sleeping bags covered with canvas. Under these conditions the soldier’s body warmth is his only source of heat; had the temperature been between –30˚F and –40˚F as reported by some, those soldiers would have died in a few days.

“Deep snow hampered movement on foot. In one instance a unit required nine hours to advance two and one-half miles – unopposed – through five feet of snow. Consequently, trampling lateral and rearward paths assumed tactical significance.


Sound travels farther in very cold weather.

Horses provided the most reliable transport.

Mines often failed in winter.

Charcoal was better than wood for heating because it creates less smoke to reveal troop positions.

Soviet wide-tracked tanks had better over-snow mobility.

“Finally, perhaps the most important lesson is simply the folly of ignoring the pertinent lessons ... that the highest German commanders were slow to profit from Russian examples because of their feelings of superiority, and some refused to learn until they went down in defeat. There may be a message for others in that conceit.”


The many similarities between the conditions experienced in Russia and the Chosin reveal common lessons to be learned. Foremost among the lessons is that troops fighting in severe winter weather must have appropriate clothing, weapons, and transport for that harsh environment. Acclimatization and pertinent training are also essential.

Although the author used the term “General Winter,” this writer prefers “Father Winter” because it better defines conditions that have existed since man took up his spear to face his first battle for food. Winter will always be a formidable foe to an unwary army fighting in Russia or North Korea. Although formidable to some, Father Winter is always a companion to soldiers who are trained in his use.

END CJ 02.22.05