In the fall of 1950, the allied forces, mostly American, had defeated the Communist North Korean invaders of South Korea and pushed them farther and farther north towards the Chinese border. The Chinese, viewed this development with alarm and crossed the border with over 100,000 troops. The Chinese overwhelmed the South Koreans and the Americans, setting off a panicked Allied retreat south. The Chinese then surrounded about 30,000 Marines and Army troops at the Chosin Reservoir, setting off one of the most brutal battles in U.S. history. After weeks of hard and constant fighting in subzero temperatures, the Allies fought their way out of the encirclement, leaving thousands of Chinese dead on the frozen ground around them.
Chinese Peoples Army soldier, 1950- Note the shoes. The rifle appears to be a Russian Mosin-Nagant, or possibly a war surplus Japanese Arisaka. Both were bolt action weapons that were no match for the American semi-automatic M-1.
Before they broke out, however, the Marines and Army troops suffered terribly from the brutal cold, with frostbite almost as feared as the Chinese. The American press often regards America’s adversaries as inferior when they are losing, and as supermen when they are winning. They picked up the idea that the reason for the initial success of the Chinese was that they were somehow immune, or at least better acclimated to the sub zero temperatures because they were from Manchuria and were better prepared because they wore “quilted uniforms.” The quilted uniforms meme became an accepted fact in many of the press reports at the time and even in some books on the subject, and a reader would be forgiven for thinking “Why didn’t we think of that?” The truth, however, is quite different. The fact is that, compared to the Americans, the Chinese were poorly equipped for operations in northern Korea in the winter.
The Chinese wore quilted winter uniforms because they were relatively simple and cheap to produce. They were warm enough, but were slow to dry out if they became wet. (This could easily prove fatal in winter conditions.) Instead of waterproof insulated boots as the Americans had, the Chinese wore rubber and canvas shoes resembling tennis shoes. Needless to say, tennis shoes provide almost no protection against the cold, and the incidence of frostbitten feet was far higher among the Chinese than the Americans. In addition, the Chinese had no sleeping bags and even very few gloves. The Americans also rigged up warming tents, and the Chinese didn’t. As if all this wasn’t bad enough, the Chinese were seldom able to evacuate their wounded due to their primitive transport and American air power.
The result of all these shortcomings was frightful. Chinese sources estimate that as much as 90% of their troops suffered some degree of frostbite, not just in the feet or hands but in entire arms and legs. Many froze to death in their vastly overrated quilted uniforms. Overall, even though individual Chinese soldiers might possibly have had good resistance to cold weather, the People’s Liberation Army was woefully unprepared for the conditions in which it fought, and the foot soldier paid the price. The reason for their initial success was surprise, overwhelming numbers and a disregard for their own soldiers’ lives. In the end, that wasn’t enough. The U.S. Marines and Army lost about 3,000 killed at Chosin Reservoir, while the Chinese dead numbered about 35,000 . Seven Chinese divisions were crippled or destroyed.
So, once again, it’s a good idea to take early breathless press reports with skepticism.