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Back from the Verge of Obliteration

Memorial Day recollections of a 91-year-old St. George veteran

In the late fall of 1950, Ed Barberis was a 19-year-old U.S. Marine shivering on a North Korean mountainside.

Huddled among members of the 5th Marine Regiment, Ed settled in for Thanksgiving dinner. A logistical miracle, this meal included all the trimmings. It was appreciated, yet the bone-chilling cold was impossible to ignore.

“It was 30 degrees below,” says Ed, now a 91-year-old St. George resident. “Our cotton gloves didn’t afford much protection. The footwear we had was not adequate. You’d get your body heated up and then you would sit for an hour and freeze.”

To this point, United Nations forces had gone toe to toe with North Korean soldiers in the first five months of the Korean War. Ed entered combat in August 1950, in the Pusan Perimeter when the situation was desperate. Since then, the Americans successfully pushed the enemy northward.

Perhaps they pushed too far. On a bitter night along the Chosin Reservoir, Communist China was about to enter the war.

First came the whistles. Then the rifle fire. It was late in the evening of Nov. 27, 1950. The Marines were under attack by approximately 120,000 Chinese soldiers— seemingly materializing out of nowhere.

In the snow, Ed blazed away on his .30-caliber machine gun. In many combat situations the defenders can dig foxholes to provide cover. Not in the Chosin Reservoir. The ground was too cold. Ed got as low as he could while sending bullets into the enemy.

Chaos ensued. Much of the battlefield deteriorated into hand-to-hand combat. American forces, including those in Ed’s unit, inflicted heavy casualties. Ed recalls seeing dead Chinese about 15 feet away from his position.

The Battle of Chosin Reservoir was a crisis of enormous proportions. The element of surprise, combined with overwhelming manpower of the Chinese, put American forces at the Chosin Reservoir on the verge of obliteration.

For the Americans, there was only one way out: the narrow main supply route the Chinese were in position to cut. The breakout from the Chosin Reservoir was a long, snaking line of humanity through a valley under omnipresent threat of lethal force.

“We felt like fish in a rain barrel,” Ed says. “No matter where you were, you were in the line of fire.”

Step by painful step, sometimes holding onto a truck or jeep, Ed and the men of the 5th Marines braved the cold temperatures, snipers and lack of food and water. In about a week’s time, they hobbled 18 miles to safety. From there, Ed was airlifted to the coast.

Suffering from frostbite in his toes and feet, Ed was evacuated to Yokosuka Naval Hospital in Japan. He made a quick recovery and returned home to Homedale, Idaho, on Christmas Eve 1950.

For him, the war was over.

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