Book Review: East of Chosin Entrapment and Breakout in Korea

East of Chosin Entrapment and Breakout in Korea, 1950 written by retired Lt. Col. Roy E. Appleman is a stark and dramatic portrayal of one of the most tenuous battles of the Korean war. Often referred to as the “forgotten war”, Korea was not a glamorous as WWII and quickly became over shadowed in Vietnam. As one of the first conflicts of the Cold War, Korea became the proving ground of the conflict between democracy and communism that dominated the next forty years .

In this book, Appleman focuses on the men involved in the battle not the politics that placed them there as such he makes great use of both primary sources, such as  interviews with survivors and accounts written shortly after the battle, and official accounts. These two sources often were in conflict of each other, making the authors job one of having to sort through what was seen and what was reported. This is understandable considering the chaos and confusion of the time but there is no accounting for the sometimes fantastic discrepancies. For example there were several engagements that appear in the official record, but show up nowhere in survivor accounts. The author does a good job of presenting these discrepancies in an honest and questioning way, providing great depth to the accounts.

Far from a simple narration of the events of the campaign the author takes great pains to not only relay the events, but also provide his own insights. This can sometimes come off as an armchair general questioning a commanders decision well after the fact. That line however is seldom crossed for more than a sentence or two and his musings are there to provide perspective. Even so, he is never afraid to point out mistakes and show the consequences of poor planning on all levels of the X Corp. A simple action, such as air dropping the wrong type ammunition to the wrong unit had devastating consequences, to that unit and many others. Beyond simply pointing these mistakes out the author tries to explain, not place blame for the mistakes.

The real value of this book is in the stories and remembrances of the soldiers that were there on the frozen shores of the Chosin Resovoir. Having the events shown through these men’s eyes brings a level of humanity that is often lacking in accounts such as this. Here the author hits his stride as he not only provides the accounts, but provides enough details of the storytellers to put a true human face on the story. Alongside the narrative we are shown photographs taken during and around the time of the battle. There were few survivors of the battle, but there were many heroes, and thanks to the author we know who there are and what they were able to accomplish. In all, this is a very good and informative account of the events and well worth further study.

Lt. Col. Appleman served in the Korean War as an army historian. His position provided him with access to troops involved in the combat and an unparalleled knowledge of the conditions experienced by the troops. This knowledge was parlayed into five books on the Korean conflict.