Upon relief, Thomas and his 3/1, along with the rest of the 1st Regiment, began moving north to Chigyong. From there he was ordered to take his battalion north to Hagaru-ri, detaching George Company to guard supplies until shuttling transportation could be arranged to take them forward. The weather turned from a wet to dry cold with temperatures reaching as low as minus 25 degrees and during this movement there was a shortage of motorized transport, Chesty's priority being available vehicles haul tents to serve as warming stations that could be set up for the riflemen. Initially, this call led to a shortage of ammo, but Puller justified it with, "I'll take care of my men first. Frozen troops can't fight. If we run out of ammunition, we'll go to the bayonet."
Aerial view of Chosin Reservoir in 1950.
Upon arrival, Thomas was given the mission of defending the perimeter. Hagaru-ri was 2500 yards below the southern tip of the Chosin Reservoir and to the west of the Changjin River. This would be the furthest north any element of the 1st Regiment would reach. Hagaru-ri was vital to the division as it offered the only reasonably level ground within the AO where an airfield could be established, and the 1st Engineer Battalion immediately set to work in its construction. In the Division Commander's words, Hagaru-ri "had to be held".
Thomas called on his South Korean counterintelligence agents and sent them into the surrounding territory. Within a day that had returned with identical reports-a division of Chinese were moving south with the intent to attach the perimeter at 2130 on the night of the 28th. Once again, Thomas found himself with too much ground and too few personnel. The perimeter he was tasked to defend stretched for 4 miles, and his 2 rifle companies and weapons company were not enough to effectively hold the ground. Once again, Thomas drew from his support element, plugging in bodies from wherever he could pull from. Cooks, clerks, and mechanics pulled from 1st Motor-T Battalion, 1st Service Battalion, an Army engineer company, artillery, and his own H&S were once again pressed into service as riflemen. To ensure proper coordination with the Army and ROK units in his charge, Thomas assigned a Marine officer and radio operator to each of their positions. Judging by the terrain, Thomas predicted that, depite the enemy's advance from the north, they would attack from the south. He placed his two rifle companies where he felt his perimeter would be hit the hardest, and filled in the rest with his provisional riflemen. Weapons company was again assigned the roadblocks. The Division Commander, Major General Oliver P Smith, arrived by helo to establish his CP within the perimeter.
Map depicting the Hagaru-ri defense perimeter November 28-29.
On the night of the 28th, shortly after dark, it began to snow. By 2100, 2 inches had accumulated on top of the ice. At approximately 2210, enemy artillery and mortars began raining down around the Marines. Phosphorous shells were heavily used and heavy casualties started to be taken while the enemy infantry crept into range and began lobbing hand grenades. A violent attack ensued, with the enemy overrunning positions and penetrating the line. Upon notification, Ridge immediately dispatched a 50 man unit to reinforce the line. After sustaining heavy casualties, they were successful in dulling the attack but the enemy had achieved fire superioritu and was rapidly strengthening their force. Ridge dispatched another 50 men that were able to seal off the penetration. 3 hours after the attack began, it withered.
In the ice covered eastern hills, Ridge had dispatched Army detachments, attaching Marine Captain John Shelnutt and radio operator PFC Bruno Podolak to oversee and report from their sector. As the attack against the perimeter withered, the engineers on the hill came under heavy fire and were forced to withdraw. Shelnutt was killed as the enemy overran the hill and Podolak was left behind by the withdrawing Army unit. Podolak radioed Thomas and told him he would hold firm, hiding in a hole and reporting on the enemy.
Having committed 100 men to reinforce the perimeter, Thomas was down to 20 men in his reserves. He tasked his XO, Major Reginald Myers, to form them up and retake the hill at all costs. Myers met up with the fleeing Army unit and reorganized them for a counterattack. Myers ordered tanks and mortars to fire on the hilltop and was informed by Podolak that the enemy surrounding him on the hill was battalion strength. At 0315, Myers led his rag-tag assault element of 315 men slipping and sliding up the ice-covered hill, repeatedly exposing himself to enemy fire as he shouted encouragement and pushed forward those lagging. Only 75 men reached the crest, rescuing Podolok and holding their line until daybreak when an airstrike could be called in. For this action, Myers' would later be awarded the Medal of Honor, undoubtedly recommended by Thomas.
Ridge sent an additional 2 attacks up the hill in an attempt to relieve Myers' depleted force, but both attacks were pinned down by enemy fire. Myers' was forced to pull back to the face of the hill and dig his men in. In the light of day, 750 dead enemy lay frozen in front of the perimeter at Hagaru-ri. This had come at a heavy price, with the defenders having suffered 500 casualties of their own. Fortunately, much higher casualties had been avoided by the enemy's failure to untilize indirect fires. The line was intact.
With an urgeant need to clear the road between Koto and reinforce the vital position of Hagaru-ri, Chesty Puller formed Taskforce Drysdale consisting of the British Royal Marine 41st Commando, a company of the Army's 31st RCT, and Thomas' George Company. They would encounter fierce resistance and battle their way towards Hagaru-ri throughout the day and into the night, finally rejoining Thomas and his 3/1 within the perimeter at 0130 on the 30th. George Company would suffer 63 casualties and earn 2 Medals of Honor on the way. Ridge placed George Company in reserve and they were reorganized to relieve Myers. At 0900, they had retaken the hill.
Map depicting the defensive positions at Hagaru-ri on December 1. Notes written by Helen Ridge.
At 2130, the enemy onslaught resumed, signaled by a green popup. Small units made probing attacks, which evolved into a full scale attack by 2330. This time, the enemy was supported by indirect fire and threatened to penetrate the line. The Marines fought back savagely. At one point, George Company's line was bent back, but Ridge rushed reinforcements to the sector and the line was stabilized.
On December 1st, the 31st Regimental Combat Team, having fought off continual Chinese attacks during the 6 mile southern withdrawal from the P'ungnyuri Inlet were forced to stop near the sawmill at Sasu-ri and abandon their convoy, leaving the dead and wounded behind and crossing the ice on foot. The Chinese overran the trucks and killed the wounded and destroyed many of the vehicles. Lieutenant Colonel Olin Beall, in command of 1st Marine Division's Motor-T Battalion, observed from the north end of Haguri-ri. His story and uniform can be viewed here... http://www.usmilitar...t/?hl=hagaru-ri .
At 1935 on December 3rd, an advance party of the 7th Marines reached the roadblock at Hagaru-ri. Having fought from Yudam-ni through the surrounding Chinese, the 5th and 7th Marines marched silently into the perimeter, haggard and hard, the resupplies and air support coming out of Hagaru-ri being instrumental in facilitating their ability to fight their way out. Some of this air support possibly came from Lloyd B Finley, whose uniform and story can be seen here... http://www.usmilitar...y/?hl=hagaru-ri . Or from Hugh F 'Whiskey' Newell, whose medals and story can be seen here... http://www.usmilitar...s/?hl=hagaru-ri .
Upon seeing the Marines enter his position, Thomas was overcome by a wave of relief. The airstrip had been completed, and those casualties incapable of walking were flown out. A division hospital was established within the perimeter. By 1300 on the 4th, after nearly 20 hours, the final elements of the Yudam-ni task force were inside the perimeter. 650 Marine replacements were flown in. General Tunner of the Air Transport Command flew in and told General Smith he was willing to fly out the Marines as fast as the airstrip could take planes, but was informed in turn that no able-bodied man would be flown out.
The statues of the Korean War Memorial covered in snow, fittingly representative of what Thomas and his Marines endured at the Chosin Reservoir.
On December 5th, Thomas and his 3/1 were attached to the 5th Regiment for the march out of the Reservoir. They would continue to hold the perimeter at Hagaru-ri until the 7th Marines had moved south to Koto. The perimeter again came under heavy attack that night, and 340 Chinese lay dead before them in the morning. The Marines continued to fight their way south, taking with them their wounded, dead and equipment while leaving nothing for the enemy to use. On the night of December 7th, they arrived in Koto-ri and Thomas and his boys were reunited with Chesty and their regiment. On the 9th, the order came down to evacuate the Hugnam area. From Koto-ri, the Marines would march to the sea, with the 1st Regiment defending Koto-ri until the final trains had departed and taking up the rear guard. 3500 civilian refugees gathered at the north roadblock and had to be driven back by firing over their heads. Enemy fire continued to steadily pour in. Two hours before daylight on the 10th, a force of 350 enemy attacked Thomas' positions but were successfully beaten back. The 1st Regiment moved out, and by the night of the 11th the last elements of the 1st Marine Division had entered the seaport town of Hamhung and were loaded aboard ship. During this night, PFC Henry F Klinzing of the 1st Signal Battalion went MIA. His medals and story can be seen here... http://www.usmilitar...osin-reservoir/
Thomas decorates Joseph Trompeter with the Legion of Merit.
During the Defense of Hagaru-ri, Thomas's 3/1 suffered 33 KIA with 10 more later dying of their wounds, 2 MIA, and 270 WIA for a total of 415 casualties. For their actions at the Chosin Reservoir, they would be awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, as well as the title of "The Chosin Few". Additionally, for his actions during the defense of Hagaru-ri, Thomas would be again decorated, this time with the Legion of Merit with combat distinguishing device. His citation would read as follows:
"For exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services to the Government of the United States while serving as Commanding Officer of a Marine infantry battalion if KOREA from 26 November to 10 December 1950. During the Chosin Reservoir operations against the enemy, Lieutenant Colonel RIDGE discharged his responsibilities with great skill, aggressiveness and initiative. His battalion was charged with a portion of the defense at Hagaru-ri from 27 November 1950 to 7 December 1950, and from 28 November 1950 to 5 December 1950 he acted as Defense Area Commander. With complete disregard for his own personal safety and fatigue, he so skillfully employed his reinforced battalion that determined and coordinated enemy attacks against the defense were repelled, and the defense perimeter remained intact, withstanding all enemy efforts to overrun and destroy the garrison. A most capable and inspiring leader, he was directly instrumental in making it possible for other advancing units of the division to reorganize and replenish their supplies before continuing the advance, and the constructing of a base for the treatment and evacuation of casualties. In the attack to Koto-ri and Chinhung-ni, he continued the skillful tactical employment of the battalion, inflicting heavy casualties upon the enemy, inspiring the members of his command to even greater efforts, and contributing materially to the success achieved by the division. Lieutenant Colonel RIDGE's skilled service and exemplary conduct throughout this period were in keeping with the highest traditions of the united States Naval Service.
Lieutenant Colonel RIDGE is authorized to wear the combat "V"."
The citation for Thomas' Legion of Merit.