“If the best minds in the world had set out to find us the worst possible location in the world to fight this damnable war, the unanimous choice would have been Korea.” — Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson (1893-1971)
The Korean War began on June 25, 1950, when some 75,000 soldiers from the North Korean People’s Army surged across the 38th parallel, the boundary between the Soviet-backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the north and the pro-Western Republic of Korea to the south.
It ended with an armistice signed on July 27, 1953 with the 38th parallel still the dividing line. The only thing really accomplished was the death of 34,000 Americans and several million others.
The Battle of Chosin Reservoir took place between the last week of November and the first week of December, 1950. “Frozen Chosin,” as the marines called it, is a man-made lake located in the northeast of the Korean peninsula. It was a sparsely populated area, with a single road in and out, with steep climbs and drops. The road’s quality was poor, and in some places it was reduced to a one lane gravel trail.
In mid-November, A massive cold front passed over the area and brought with it the coldest winter in recorded Korean history. Daytime temperatures averaged five degrees below zero, while nights plunged to -35° and lower.
Jeep batteries froze and split. C-ration cans were frozen solid, and no fuel could be spared to thaw them. If truck engines stopped, their fuel lines froze. Automatic weapons wouldn’t cycle. Morphine syrettes had to be thawed in a medical corpsman’s mouth before they could be injected. Precious bottles of blood plasma were frozen and useless. Resupply could only come by air, and that was spotty and erratic because of the foul weather.
By November 26, 10,000 men of the First Marine Division, along with elements of two Army regimental combat teams, a detachment of British Royal Marine commandos and some South Korean policemen were completely surrounded by over ten divisions of Chinese troops from the laughingly-named People’s Voluntary Army. The Chinese began throwing human waves of soldiers against the heavily outnumbered allied forces.
Against this backdrop, Company F, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, under the command of Capt. William Barber (1919-2002,) was tasked with protecting a vital three-mile mountain pass through which the main body of the marines would have to go if they were ever to get to freedom.
Captain Barber was shot in the upper thigh fracturing the bone on the first night of action (November 29, 1950,) and continued to command his troops from a stretcher. The unit was ordered to withdrawal and fight their way back to safety, but Barber refused to budge. The Chinese broke through the line three times, only to be thrown back by F Company.
The Chinese used the ravines between ridges to marshal their forces between attacks. Doing so protected them from rifle fire, but the Marines’ 60-millimeter mortars were capable of delivering high, arcing fire over the ridge lines and inflicting heavy casualties among the enemy soldiers. The 60mm shells were the most valuable weapons the Marines had, but their supply of mortar rounds was running dangerously low. Emergency requests for resupply were sent by radio. Using code words for specific items, they requested an emergency resupply of Tootsie Rolls, the code for 60mm mortar rounds. Unfortunately, the radio operator receiving that urgent request didn’t have the Marines’ code sheets. All he knew was that the request came from command authority, it was extremely urgent.
So when the supplies were delivered, dozens of parachutes with pallets of actual Tootsie Rolls descended on the Marines. Once the shock wore off, the freezing and starving troops rejoiced. Frozen Tootsie Rolls were thawed in armpits or pockets until they were warm enough to chew, then eaten. The sugar provided energy, and for many, Tootsie Rolls were their only nourishment for days. Just as important, the marines learned they could use warmed Tootsie Rolls to plug bullet holes in fuel drums, gas tanks, cans and radiators, where they would freeze solid again, sealing the leaks and allowing the troops some much needed mobility
By the end of the battle more than 1,000 enemy soldiers were dead. Of Captain Barber’s original 240 men, 82 were able to walk away from the battle.
For the rest of the First Division, the battle went on more for than another week. The balance of the allied fighting force, originally numbering 15,000 men, suffered 3,000 killed in action, 6,000 wounded and thousands of severe frostbite cases. But they did eventually reach the Sea of Japan, demolishing several Chinese divisions in the process. Hundreds credited their very survival to Tootsie Rolls. Surviving Marines called themselves “The Chosin Few,” and Barber’s Company F inherited a different name: The Tootsie Roll Marines.
On August 20, 1952, Barber was presented the Medal of Honor* by President Harry S. Truman in ceremonies at the White House. He eventually retired with the rank of colonel.
The Tootsie Roll was invented by an Austrian immigrant named, Leo Hirschfeld in 1896. He named the candy after his daughter Clara’s nickname,“Tootsie.” It was such a big seller, that in 1905 Hirschfield had to move to a four-story factory to handle the orders, Beginning in World War I, the Tootsie Roll was added to every soldier’s field rations, because they held up so well to heat, cold and rough handling. The Tootsie roll was also the first one cent candy to be individually wrapped and was the most popular candy during the Depression.
* For Capt. Barber’s Medal of Honor Citation, click here.