Col. Jerome M. McCabe dies at age 84

Career Army officer whose unit was finally recognized 50 years later for its contribution to saving the 1st Marine Division from destruction at Chosin Reservoir

September 03, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun | Baltimore Sun reporter

Jerome M. McCabe, a retired career Army officer who survived the Korean War's ill-fated Battle of Chosin Reservoir and later became an advocate for peace, died Aug. 27 of pancreatic cancer at his home in California, St. Mary's County.

He was 84.

Colonel McCabe was a 23-year-old lieutenant when he was assigned to the 7th Infantry Division and sent to Korea after war broke out in June 1950.

The successful Inchon landing in September 1950 had resulted in North Korean forces being pushed back to the north across the Yalu River by United Nations forces under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

General MacArthur ordered the Army X Corps, 7th Infantry Division and the 1st Marine Division into the rugged terrain surrounding the Chosin Reservoir in northeastern North Korea.

While the Marine forces were made up of veteran combat troops from World War II, the 7th Division forces were filled with poorly trained and poorly equipped conscripts.

The Marines — some 25,000 strong — had taken up position on the west side of the reservoir while the Army's 31st Regimental Combat Team — also known as Task Force Faith — settled on the east side.

General MacArthur's belief that the Chinese would not enter the war was shattered on the evening of Nov. 27-28, 1950, when 120,000 Red Army troops crossing the Yalu River unleashed a deadly surprise attack on forces at the reservoir.

The attack coincided with brutally cold weather, with temperatures estimated at 30 degrees to 40 degrees below zero, which caused troops' hands and feet to freeze, while machine guns jammed and metal cracked.

When the attack commenced, Colonel McCabe was a fire control officer for a heavy mortar company assigned to the reservoir's northeastern tip.

"Terror was a nice word," Colonel McCabe told The Washington Post in a 2000 interview. "It was prevalent. Notwithstanding terror, we did our job."

Enemy forces relentlessly attacked American forces for five days and often resorted to hand-to-hand combat.

As American forces attempted to withdraw in the wake of the attack, they were frustrated by the Chinese, who were quickly surrounding them and the blocked road that was jammed with retreating military vehicles.

"There were dead Chinese lying all around us, and they were frozen in place. They thought they would get into the perimeter and destroy us. For two nights, that didn't happen," Colonel McCabe said. "They had taken horrible casualties. We stopped them and bloodied them so badly they couldn't circle the Marines."

When the order came to withdraw on Dec. 1, Army forces were suffering from the deaths of two commanding, heavy casualties and a shortage of ammunition, while the Marines fought their way out.

Later that afternoon, Colonel McCabe was wounded in the arm and leg by an enemy mortar round. He had been unconscious for several hours, lying in the snow, until a passing soldier picked him up and put him in the back of an open truck with other wounded.

He awakened when the Chinese attacked the convoy, which was transporting 600 wounded soldiers, killing many.

Colonel McCabe was able to escape the truck. "I slithered out of the truck," he told The Washington Post. "I hobbled and crawled. We were just sitting ducks for the Chinese. ... I would die before I was taken prisoner."

He and several other soldiers, who were severely frostbitten, walked for miles before reaching the safety of U.S. lines the next day.

Colonel McCabe, whose toes had turned black from frostbite, was flown by plane to Japan for medical treatment.

When the Battle of Chosin Reservoir ended 17 days later, United Nations forces had evacuated from North Korea and 1,500 Army troops had perished, leaving only 385 combat-able survivors, while some 35,000 Chinese troops had been killed.

Initial reports accused the men of Task Force Faith of cowardice and ineptitude, and when the Army unit was included in 1952 in paperwork for a Presidential Unit Citation, Marine Corps Gen. O.P. Smith, who had led the Marine forces out of Chosin Reservoir, had them removed.

"Up to that time, a lot of people thought the Army folks collapsed, they were overrun and didn't hold themselves up well," retired Marine Col. Robert Parrott, who fought and was wounded at Chosin, said in the 2000 interview. "Maybe I'm talking to you now because of what the Army did."

Years later, Marine and Army veterans of the battle formed the "Chosin Few," whose aim was to get the deserved Presidential Unit Citation restored to Task Force Faith, which took place in June 2000.

The citation "for extraordinary heroism and outstanding performance of duty" finally helped correct a historical injustice and recognized the heroic sacrifice and actions of Task Force Faith, which resulted in saving the 1st Marine Division from destruction.

Colonel McCabe told The Washington Post he was not bitter.

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