Local News 52 years later, Northport man's heroic unit honored

By Robert DeWitt

Staff Writer

February 21, 2002


Ben Chism had a choice. He could stay beside the swimming pool and enjoy the warm summer sun and pretty girls in Fort Hood, Texas. Or he could risk his life in the frozen North Korean highlands."I was a lifeguard at the pool, and they said they

couldn't train another lifeguard," Chism said. "But it was my unit, and I was going. I'd have had guilty feelings the rest of my life if I had stayed behind."

His unit, the 92nd Armored Field Artillery Battalion, was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation on Wednesday, 52 years after it helped rescue the encircled 1st Marine Division and 7th Army Infantry Division at the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea. "We were outnumbered numerically," Chism said. "To overcome the weather and the superiority in numbers that's what makes that thing special to me."

The 500 men of the 92nd, known as the "Red Devils," used protective fire to clear roads so the two divisions, comprising several thousand men, could escape their North Korean attackers. Because of the savage fighting in the bitterly cold Korean winter, battle participants are known as the "Frozen Chosin. " The battle of Chosin Reservoir could be looked on as a defeat from a purely military standpoint, said Harold Selesky, an associate professor of history at the University of Alabama who specializes in American military history. But while American troops retreated, they persevered. "In terms of the valor shown under seriously adverse circumstances, it is a landmark," Selesky said.

A presidential unit citation honors an entire military unit for extraordinary heroism. "We felt from the beginning that we should have been included," Selesky said. "We wondered why we were excluded. "Rep. Bob Riley, R-Ala., heard about the unit's performance from members last spring. He asked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the Army to review the unit's contribution and determine if it deserved the award.

Chism grew up in Northport, the son of a deputy sheriff and World War I veteran. He graduated from Tuscaloosa County High in 1948, too young to fight in World War II. He joined the Army in 1949, never expecting to see combat. "I had never even heard of Korea before," Chism said. "I didn't know where it was. "But the sleepy summer of 1950 at Fort Hood was shaken by news of war. Chism's unit was sent to Japan and then Korea. Between Japan and Korea, they discovered they would be part of the Inchon Landing.

The Americans clung to a tiny toehold in South Korea known as the Pusan Perimeter. Gen. Douglas McArthur proposed an amphibious landing behind enemy lines at Inchon. It was a brilliant plan that caught the North Koreans off guard.

Chism's unit came ashore four days after the Marines secured the critical port. The North Korean Army, taken from the rear and almost encircled, was on the run. His unit had fire missions but no hot combat.

"I thought it was pretty much over," Chism said. "We thought the North Koreans were whipped."

Chism's unit drove the Korean peninsula almost to the China border. They were, in fact, north of the Chosin Reservoir. But ominous signs were appearing along the border. American patrols began bringing in Chinese prisoners in late October. On Nov. 24, thousands of Chinese troops, battle-hardened from civil war, poured across the border.

Some American units were overrun and their troops slaughtered or captured. At Chosin Reservoir, the two American divisions faced eight Chinese divisions.

Chism's unit was ordered to destroy its equipment and walk out. But its commander had anticipated the withdrawal and begun a day early. "To never lose a gun is a feather in your cap," Chism said.

The 92nd retreated to the port of Hungnam. But there would be no evacuation yet. They regrouped and went back for their comrades at Chosin in horribly cold weather. "The equipment we had, the clothes we were issued were for Texas," Chism said. "You went to bed at night and it was cold. You woke up and it was cold. It was always with you."

The cold even affected the 92nd's big 155 mm self-propelled howitzers. "The big guns had a hydraulic recoil mechanism," Chism said. "In those extremely low temperatures, the hydraulic oil would get so thick that the mechanism would get stiff. The first round you fired would almost stand the gun on its end."

The Chinese had little or no artillery or air cover. But that also meant they weren't wedded to the road system. They moved through the mountains. Chism soon found out that his unit would have to fight its way along mountain roads through Chinese ambushes to a point near Chosin. There, the big guns of the 92nd would lay down fire that would allow the surrounded troops to escape.

"I didn't know what to expect," he said. "I was definitely afraid. "He didn't have to go down the road far to see that his fears were justified. "On the road, I saw my first dead Americans," Chism remembers with emotion in his voice. "They were Marines that had been ambushed by the Chinese. Some of them were still in their sleeping bags. I had seen dead North Koreans and dead South Koreans. But when you see dead Americans, that's different."

After days of ambushes in the horseshoe bends of mountain roads, the Red Devils finally reached the spot where they would make their stand. They fired their guns for three days and nights. Chism still has hearing loss from the battle. "Our tent was almost in front of the guns," he said. "You could feel the concussion from the barrel. "Chism was usually put in an outpost on the perimeter to guard the guns from enemy attack. At night, Chinese troops came out of the mountains and sprayed the batteries with submachine gun fire.

By the time the Chosin troops had withdrawn, the Chinese had gotten behind Chism's unit, and the Americans had to pivot the guns 180 degrees and fire in the opposite direction. They fought the Chinese all the way back to Hungnam and then were able to evacuate safely by sea. The 92nd went back to Pusan and started back up the peninsula. It would see even more intense combat in April 1951 during the Chinese spring offensive.

Eventually, the men who fought at Chosin men rotated home. "We went over as a unit, but we came back a handful of the time," he said. "We lost track of each other. "But through the Internet, Chism renewed old acquaintances. He attends reunions, and they remember the war. He's most proud that the Red Devils were honored as a unit. "There were no heroes in our unit," Chism said. "We went as a unit, we fought as a unit. That's the way I would like to be portrayed. I wasn't a hero. I was one man doing his job."

Reach Robert DeWitt at robert.dewitt@tuscaloosanews.com or 345-0505, Ext. 28