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The Cold War Turns Hot
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"Too Much to Ask"

North Korean prisoners, taken by the Marines in a foothills fight, march single file across a rice paddy.
National Archives and Records Administration
If you would have told GI Vince Krepps in November, 1950, that the war would last another 33 months and cost tens of thousands more American lives, he wouldn't have believed you.

"The North Korean army at that time was pretty much a defeated army," he says. "They was talking about being home for Christmas and the war ending." Vince was eager to re-join his 2nd Infantry Division. "Here I was in Japan and I wanted to be with my brother."

Then-19-year-old Vince and his twin brother Richard hadn't seen each other for two months, since their emotional goodbye after pulling guard duty together in September. First Richard had been wounded, then Vince. Each had gone to Japan to recuperate, but they'd missed each other by a few days.

Vince had hoped that both his and his brother's wounds might be of the million-dollar variety - the kind that gets you sent home. But now Richard had been sent back to the fighting, so that's where Vince wanted to be. He'd hurt his leg in a truck accident. "I hobbled out of the bed and my right leg wouldn't touch the ground," he recalls. "So I spent a few more weeks getting therapy to straighten that out, but I walked out of the hospital limping. I wanted to be back."

As it turned out, the delay in Vince's recovery would keep him out of a hellish ordeal in the North Korean mountains.

National Archives and Records Administration
It was one of the coldest winters on record - howling winds and temperatures way below zero. Allied soldiers were not equipped for such bitter cold. A Marine General, O.P. Smith, wrote to his commandant in Washington that "a winter campaign in the mountains of North Korea is too much to ask of the American soldier or Marine." Smith also worried that allied troops were spreading themselves too far, too fast.

Nonetheless, from his office in Tokyo, General MacArthur ordered his forces north toward the Yalu River, North Korea's border with Communist China.

It was supposed to be a mop-up operation, recalls the then-company commander with the 1st Marines, Edwin Simmons. Now 81 and living in Alexandria, Virginia, Simmons has written military histories on the Korean War as well as a Korean War novel, Dog Company Six. He speaks with a thin voice and seems to struggle for breath between words. He suffered permanent damage to his lungs in the North Korean cold.

"We considered the war won," Simmons recalls, although U.N. forces moving north had taken a number of Chinese prisoners. MacArthur's headquarters in Tokyo "tended to dismiss these Chinese prisoners as being a few volunteers."

In fact, the Chinese had begun crossing the Yalu River, in force, in October. By Thanksgiving, historians now estimate, Chinese troops in North Korea numbered several hundred thousand.

Just as the United States would not tolerate a Communist invasion into South Korea, China's Mao Tse-Tung had decided, with urging from Stalin in the Soviet Union, that he couldn't accept American troops on his border.

Next: "No End To Them"

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