by Chris Rumley
314th Airlift Wing historian
In November 1950, as the US Army’s Tenth (X) Corps and 1st Marine Division pushed north to the Yalu River in Korea, their commanders believed the war would soon be over. Eating that year’s Thanksgiving meal along a tiny mountain road in the northern portion of Korea, the troops were determined to be home by Christmas. Little did they know this tiny section of mountain road would soon become infamous. In many locations, bridges spanning deep drop-offs cut across the precariously narrow road. Heading up the route, enemy opposition had been light and morale was high.
All that changed on the night of November 26th, when 120,000 Chinese regular troops attacked the X Corps. The following night, two Chinese divisions attacked the 1st Marines and cut off their supply route to the south. The encircled units called upon Combat Cargo Command to airdrop ammunition and supplies needed to fight their way out from the Chosin Reservoir area. The stage was set for one of the most remarkable achievements in American military history – the resupply and evacuation of the X Corps.
On November 29th, 12 C-119s from the 314th Troop Carrier Group began delivering supplies to the surrounded units. Gen. William H. Tunner of Combat Cargo Command offered to fly the entire Marine division and most of the small vehicles out from Hagaru-ri, a small town at the southern tip of the reservoir. Maj. Gen. Oliver Smith, commander of the 1st Marine Division appreciated the offer. “Thanks,” he said, “I’ll need the whole fighting division to get everybody out ... But you take the sick, frost bitten and wounded.” C-47 crews flew out 4,689 casualties from Hagaru-ri in six days. Among the casualties were many Chinese regulars with frozen hands and feet who had crawled into the Marine perimeter to surrender and seek respite from the freezing temperatures. With the wounded safely removed, General Smith could now fight his way down the narrow path, and he would be taking his heavy equipment with him.
The procession of 10,000 Marines and 1,000 vehicles took 38 hours to maneuver their way down the 11-mile mountain path from Hagaru-ri to Koto-Ri. Four miles outside of Koto-Ri, they reached a dead end. The Chinese had destroyed a bridge traversing a 1,500 foot gorge in the Funchilin Pass. There was no way around the 16-foot gap. It was at this point that General Smith made an unusual request to Combat Cargo Command that eight sections of Treadway Bridge and plywood planking be dropped to his forces. If the bridge was blown out ... General Smith would build one.
The Treadway Bridge sections were each 16 feet long and weighed 2,900 pounds. A practice run before the actual drop, using 24-foot parachutes, destroyed a bridge section, burying it 6 feet into the ground. With no time for further testing, larger 48-foot chutes were brought in for the drop. On Dec 7th, eight planes from the 314th TCG, loaded with one bridge section each, took off from Yonpo and flew toward Koto-Ri. The planes decreased altitude to 800 feet in the mountain terrain and dropped the sections onto an unmarked drop zone. One section was destroyed on impact and one fell into enemy hands. Six of the sections, however, landed intact on the drop zone. Needing only four sections to complete the bridge, the Marines were in business. On the morning of December 8th, thanks to the only airdropped bridge in history, the Marines broke out of Koto-Ri and were soon out of harm’s way. “There can be no doubt,” General Smith acknowledged, “that the supplies received by this method proved to be the margin necessary to sustain adequately the operations of the division during this period.”
Once the isolated units fought their way out of the enemy trap, the problem of evacuating the X Corps from the Port at Hungnam remained. With the enemy closing in, and insufficient time for evacuation by sea alone, air transports were called upon to assist with the task. For three days, from Dec. 14 to 17, the 314th TCG was engaged in these evacuation operations. It dispatched a total of 176 C-119s. Flying through marginal weather, the pilots landed at an airfield just barely suitable for C-119 operations.
Throughout the mission, troop carrier units evacuated more than 4,000 patients and more than 2,000 tons of cargo. The 314th TCG brought in the replacements, weapons, ammunition, water, food and medical supplies needed to sustain friendly units near Chosin for 13 days and allowed them to fight their way out of the trap. By the end of December, all of the X Corps had been evacuated from its foray into the Northern sections of Korea. For its actions during the campaign, the 314th TCG earned a Distinguished Unit Citation – the first such combat award earned by any Air Force unit in the Korean War.