Battling a relentless enemy and biting temperatures that reached 35 below zero, Charlie Gebhardt was among the American troops beating a hasty retreat at the Chosin Reservoir in late 1950.
Growing up on Chicago’s West Side, Charlie Gebhardt thought he had a pretty good idea just how brutally cold winter could be. But the Army veteran changed his mind once he took part in the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War in the winter of 1950 and faced temperatures of 35 below zero.
“My feet were like balls of lead. My fingers were turning black,” recalls the 88-year-old Belvidere resident. “To this day, when I’m exposed to cold my cheeks will flash up. You can’t imagine how cold it was and how difficult it was to deal with.”
Bitter cold was only one of many battles Sgt. Charlie Gebhardt found himself fighting in late November 1950 during the first year of the war. The Korean War had been going on since June 1950 when Communist-backed troops from North Korea invaded South Korea without provocation. Responding to the invasion, a coalition of South Korean and United Nations forces led by the United States had stabilized the situation, retaken much of the territory lost, and had turned the tide of the war in South Korea’s favor. Many thought the war could be over by Christmas with North Korea defeated, and the two sides reunited under democratic rule.
But everything changed in October when Communist China, which borders North Korea, entered the war. On Nov. 27, 1950, the Chinese forces surprised United States forces when close to 120,000 Chinese troops encircled and attacked U.S. Marine Corps and Army units near the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea. This was the start of a brutal 17-day battle fought in some of the coldest conditions of the war that resulted in about 2,500 U.S. troops killed in action, 5,000 wounded and another 8,000 who suffered from frostbite.
“I got up there on Nov. 27, 10 a.m., three miles north of the inlet – and we got hit at 8:15 that night by the Chinese,” recalls Gebhardt. “The Chinese had warned us. They didn’t want us messing with those reservoirs.”
Gebhardt was assigned to the Army’s 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division during the battle and was an intelligence and planning specialist, helping those in charge decide what to do.
“I got top-secret clearance and I still got it! It was a critical MOS [Military Occupational Specialty].”
Gebhardt believes the American forces were caught off guard by the intensity of the Chinese attack and reacted the best they could in a chaotic situation.
“The whole thing was a fiasco,” Gebhardt says. “We were thrown in at the last second – 2,389 Army guys and 700 South Korean kids who were grabbed off the street. We were short two infantry battalions and a brigade of artillery. It was such a helter-skelter operation.”
With the American units surrounded and outnumbered, they had to organize a fighting retreat toward an evacuation seaport, marching 70 miles through treacherous mountains on what could best be described as an unpaved “ox cart” road. This was the only retreat route available to the American forces, and the Chinese were waiting for them, ready to attack, at almost every turn.
“I kept people moving,” remembers Gebhardt. “I got guys together to try and break the roadblocks set up by the Chinese. There was no communication with the outside world, except for a Marine captain, a Captain Stanford who called in air support.”
That air support provided by Marine Corps fighter-bombers proved crucial. It inflicted heavy casualties on the Chinese troops and gave the retreating soldiers and Marines a chance to make it to safety.
For Gebhardt, the situation was so daunting he could only focus on all the dangers he was facing from hour to hour and minute to minute.
“I didn’t think a lot about tomorrow for a while,” Gebhardt says. “I was just trying to survive the moment – the Chinese had us surrounded and we were outnumbered 10 to one. We were fighting the impossible. Death was always there. You were always next.”
But as difficult as it was fighting the Chinese, battling the freezing temperatures that were frequently 20 below zero, or colder, was even worse. The bitter cold caused the lubricating oil in rifles to freeze up, rendering them useless in battle. Batteries in jeeps, trucks and radios wouldn’t work properly and quickly ran down. Medical supplies froze on a regular basis. Frozen blood plasma was useless on the battlefield.
Morphine syrettes that were used for painful wounds had to be defrosted in the medic’s mouth before they could be injected. Frostbite actually caused more casualties to American troops than the Chinese.
For Gebhardt, the cold was unimaginable, but he found a way to survive it.
“I had a good winter jacket, and I was told to always have a pair of socks under your armpits – that really helped,” he says. “I had a sweater and heavy socks. But we just had combat jeans and regular combat boots [instead of winter boots]. It just was just cold, very cold. It was never warm enough.”
Eventually, after days of fighting the Chinese and the bitter cold conditions, the Army and Marine units made it to safety. But because of the horrendous conditions, many wounded had been left behind.
“We walked across the ice and got to the Marines, and a Marine Colonel chastised us for leaving our wounded behind. I got into a warming tent, recovered from the cold and tried to organize a way to rescue those left behind with some trucks. An officer said, ‘If you get some men who are nuts enough to go with you, I’ll supply the trucks and drivers.’ So, I found 46 nuts who were willing to go back, and we rescued 84 men who were in bad shape. They were wounded or frozen. Their wounds were unattended.”
For that rescue mission that in all likelihood saved the lives of those 84 men, Gebhardt was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest medal for bravery in combat, ranked only behind the Medal of Honor.
Battling both the Chinese and the severe cold did finally take its toll on Gebhardt. He eventually collapsed from pneumonia and exhaustion and was evacuated by plane on Dec. 4 to a rear area where he eventually recovered.
When asked what he remembers most about the Battle of the Chosin, Gebhardt responds without hesitation.
“Only 385 out of 2,389 Army G.I.’s escaped the battle without being killed, wounded, surrendered or missing in action,” he says. “Only three officers remained [out of more than 100].”
For Gebhardt, the Korean War was far from over. After recovering, he eventually received a battlefield promotion to Second Lieutenant and later was promoted to Captain. He was wounded in Korea during March 1951 when shrapnel from a mortar round pierced his right hand.
“I was outside a command post in South Korea and raised my hand instinctively to protect myself and was wounded. No big deal,” Gebhardt says. “They put a small bandage on it – you can still see it. I never told anybody about it.” Because he never reported the wound, he never received the Purple Heart Medal he had earned for being wounded.
After serving in Korea and later being discharged, Gebhardt decided to make a life and a career outside of the Army back in Illinois. As a teenager, he had worked in the railroad industry in Chicago and decided to return to it. He eventually got a degree in transportation and became involved in the railroad’s union, holding several leadership positions.
He married his wife Linnea, had two beautiful children and eventually moved to Belvidere. Today, he is happily retired, remains active in the community despite battling a serious illness, and serves on burial honor guards for local veterans who have passed away.
“I’ve had a good life – the whole thing has been a good life. I appreciate everyone I’ve had the chance to get to know,” Gebhardt says.
When asked what he wants people to know the most about the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, his eyes light up and his voice grows strong.
“The Army was there! The Marines weren’t the only ones who were there!”
Incredible as it sounds, Gebhardt says he has no regrets about the hardships he faced during the battle, and the many memories of war he still carries with him to this day.
“I was with the greatest combat infantry men in my unit,” he says. “Yes, I had to put up with a lot of combat, but I got through it because I had so many great people beside me.
“I don’t really care about the awards and decorations that much,” Gebhardt continues. The only badge I really respect is the Combat Infantry Badge, [awarded only to those in the Army who’ve been in combat]. I’d do it all over again, because of my band of brothers.”