Memories from Korea’s Chosin Reservoir
Pat Finn of Grand Marais and Eden Prairie is one of many veterans who didn’t talk about his military service for many years—despite the fact that he had been a participant in America’s third largest battle— the Chosin Reservoir Campaign in Korea. He agreed to speak with WTIP’s Rhonda Silence.
Finn told WTIP that he definitely didn’t know what he was in for when he lied about his age and enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve at 15 years old. He served until he was 18 years old and was ready to return to civilian life. Unfortunately, that did not happen. It was mandatory for Marines to turn in their uniforms and gear— Finn had worn his uniform and equipment out. He was told he needed to come up with $92 to replace them—or he could re-enlist.
Finn did the latter, just as the conflict in Korea began. Finn’s military occupation specialty (MOS) was advanced rifleman and he was assigned to B. Company, 4th Infantry Battalion of Duluth. He was shipped to Camp Pendleton, California, to Japan, and finally to Korea, just as the North Koreans had forced their way down to the tip of Korea to Pusan.
During the season of thanks—Thanksgiving—Finn and his unit advanced toward the Chosin Reservoir. General Douglas MacArthur was directing the action from Japan and because of the intelligence he received, the general believed there would be “nothing to it” to push the North Koreans back. MacArthur was confident that the Chinese Army would not enter the war. That was not the case.
Things weren’t too bad right after they landed, said Finn. There was decent weather as they started the trek into the mountains. There was only a little sniper fire as they traveled— until they reached the crest at the Chosin Reservoir on November 25, 1950. Finn explained that the Chinese fighters knew what they were doing. He said they let the U.S. Marines pass through and then “they formed a pinscher and isolated us. They had us in a trap.”
There was only one road to the reservoir and the Chinese army destroyed the bridge that could have been used for retreat.
Finn and his 11,000 comrades, who eventually became known as the “Chosin Few,” were ultimately surrounded by 123,000 Chinese troops.
The weather they faced was as much a challenge as the enemy. The men fought in 30-40 degrees below zero. It was next to impossible to dig a foxhole in the frozen ground. Finn said they resorted to stacking Chinese corpses to build shelter.
The Marines had sleeping bags, but they learned not to use them. When Chinese troops advanced, they bayoneted anyone who didn’t get out of the sleeping bag fast enough.
In an interview with the Cook County News-Herald in 2016, Finn said, “We lost a lot of people…We had trucks piled high with dead people.”
Finn said the food was not bad—but it was frozen and difficult to eat. The one pleasant memory was of Tootsie Rolls—which is a treat, but also a slang name for mortars. Rations and munitions were airdropped to the Marines and one drop included the chocolate treat, which was edible frozen or not. Finn said he still loves Tootsie Rolls.
In his 2016 interview, Finn said he was “really green” when he got to Korea and if a more experienced Marine, Eddy Reilly, had not taken him under his wing, he would be dead. Finn recalled an incident at the height of the battle when his position was overrun. He was face-to-face with an enemy soldier. When he attempted to fire, it was so cold, his rifle did not fire. Finn said he thought he was going to be shot and he called out, “He got me!” Reilly shot the attacker, saving Finn’s life.
Finn eventually became one of the wounded. He suffered from frostbite, like all of the Chosin survivors, but was also “blown out” of a foxhole, receiving serious injuries to his back. When he arrived at the hospital, he was given the choice of being sent to one of three places where it was warm—Guam, the Philippines, or Hawaii. It was a no-brainer, said Finn. He wanted to get back as close as possible to the United States. He completed his recovery at Tripler Army Hospital in Hawaii and when he recovered enough stood guard duty on the beach. “We guarded the beach at Waikiki. We never had any trouble, so we must have done a good job,” joked Finn in his previous interview.
He was then sent to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina to finish up his military career, where he was given the job of driving a fire truck. “That didn’t work well,” chuckled Finn, who was happy to get out of the Marines as a corporal. He was offered sergeant if he stayed in, but Finn said, “I’d had enough.”
After his discharge, he went to work for a family-owned plumbing and heating company. He eventually became CEO of the firm. Because of a friend in the business—Chuck Soderholm, who retired to Grand Marais—he and his wife, Arlene visited the North Shore and decided to build a home in Grand Marais. They now divide their time between Grand Marais and Eden Prairie and enjoy when their children—daughter, Jessica and sons, Pat, Jon, Tim, Tom and Mike and families— are able to visit.
WTIP asked Finn if he thought he was going to survive and he said he definitely had doubts. Finn said he and his comrades found hope when the Air Force began its work. Planes flew in a bridge in sections to make an escape route. It was especially worrisome when the construction was underway. The Air Force had never done such an operation. The first section crashed when it was dropped. And the planes could only fly when the weather was clear. On one of the last nights at the reservoir, it was very cloudy and the Chosin Few thought the planes would not be able to finish the bridge. They watched the night sky and when it cleared enough to see one lone star, they were heartened. The planes could fly and complete the bridge.
That too, was frightening, crossing a narrow, temporary bridge. But it enabled Finn and the other survivors to fight to reach safety.
Finn joined a group called the “Chosin Few” that meets to talk about the horrible ordeal and their survival. Finn added that the Tootsie Roll company always sends some candy to these events. Finn treasures these reunions but notes that the number of attendees keeps getting smaller as the men of the campaign get older. He said all of the Chosin Few, or the “Frozen Chosin,” are in their 90s now. “Yeah, there aren’t too many left,” Finn told WTIP.
The emblem of the Chosin Few is that lone star that they spotted in the sky on that night of despair.
Finn and his comrades will never be forgotten by the people of South Korea. He said the country was such a mess when his unit left, he was hesitant to go back. “Everything was in a shambles.”
But, Finn has been back to South Korea twice and the experience has been very meaningful. He recalled being at a museum with an exhibit about the Frozen Chosin and being almost overrun by excited South Korean school children who treated them like heroes. Even though it was 70 years ago, the people remember the Marines and are thankful to the Americans who fought in the battle.
Finn is pleased that the South Korean people now live in a thriving democratic nation.
WTIP asked if Finn had any message for his fellow veterans. Ever resilient, Finn said, “We’re just glad to be here another day.”
Click below to Patrick Finn speaking about the harrowing ordeal of the “Frozen Chosin.”
For more of Patrick Finn’s story, read this article by historian Ned Forney. Forney lives in Seoul, South Korea, and met Finn on one of his return visits to Korea. Brothers In Arms: A Story Of Sacrifice And Survival