When I was at the School of Music in Virginia Beach, Virginia, I took special liberty to Texas to go to my good friends wedding. I had a layover in Charlotte, North Carolina and sat down (exhausted) next to a young man. On the ground he had a book that he was reading through entitled, “The Last Stand of Fox Company” with this iconic image in it. I turned to him and asked, “are you a Marine?” Turns out, he was also on his way to Texas for a wedding, and he was a Marine Aviation Officer. When the stewardess (who saw me clutching my big browed white cover in my hand) realized I was a Marine, she told me to get up and sit in first class. I resisted at first, looking to the higher ranking individual next to me. With a nod, he smiled and said, “go ahead!” I sat in first class for the first and only time that day. The best part of the story is I left my saxophone back in the bin above my seat. As I was waiting for people to vacate the aircraft to return to claim my saxophone, I saw the man lumbering forward, weighed down by my saxophone!
Ever since that encounter, I have always wanted to read “The Last Stand Of Fox Company.” This year, I finally got it and read it some time ago (I thought I had already written a book review but I guess I was wrong!).
In the 1950’s, the United States went to war when the North Koreans crossed the 38th parallel into South Korea. At first, the North Koreans pushed the US and Korean forces deep into South Korea, before the famous daring puncture into North Korean lines, by way of the Chosin Reservoir, made them retreat. The United States Forces then went on the offensive, chasing them deeper and deeper into North Korea. But the Marines encountered an unknown enemy along the way: reinforcements that were wearing garments that the Marines had never seen before. The Chinese, under the command of Mao Zedong (whom I read a biography about here) came to the rescue of the North Korean’s.
This sets the stage for the heroic acts of Fox Company. They were charged to hold Toktong Pass in the cruel Korean winter. They hunkered down in defensive positions, under the command of Captain William Barber. Little did they know they were surrounded by perhaps over 100,000 Chinese soldiers.
The book details the harrowing accounts of each of the hellish nights Fox Company spent defending Toktong Pass. They not only had to battle the Koreans and the Chinese, but also the cold: at night time, the temperature plummeted into the negatives. Battle Worn and running low on men to defend the pass, I thought one of the most interesting aspects of the fight was the reinforcements attached to Fox Company. They recruited members of the Headquarters Battalion (cooks, postal Marines, etc.) to help the grunts. This is possible because all Marines are riflemen and are able to answer the call of duty when the time comes.
The most notable member of Fox Company was one Private Cafferata. On the first night, the Chinese attacked relentlessly and the members of Fox Company had to repel their offensive. Cafferata batted down grenades during the skirmish, all the while protecting wounded Marines, and singlehandedly held the line. Captain Barber in the book mused the next day that Cafferata must have killed 60 Chinese, although he is only credited with 15. I have included the citation from his Medal of Honor:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a Rifleman with Company F, Second Battalion, Seventh Marines, First Marine Division(Reinforced), in action against enemy aggressor forces in Korea on 28 November 1950. When all other members of his fire team became casualties, creating a gap in the lines, during the initial phase of a vicious attack launched by a fanatical enemy of regimental strength against his company’s hill position, Private Cafferata waged a lone battle with grenades and rifle fire as the attack gained momentum and the enemy threatened penetration through the gap and endangered the integrity of the entire defensive perimeter. Making a target of himself under the devastating fire from automatic weapons, rifles, grenades and mortars, he maneuvered up and down the line and delivered accurate and effective fire against the onrushing force, killing fifteen, wounding many more and forcing the others to withdraw so that reinforcements could move up and consolidate the position. Again fighting desperately against a renewed onslaught later that same morning when a hostile grenade landed in a shallow entrenchment occupied by wounded Marines, Private Cafferata rushed into the gully under heavy fire, seized the deadly missile in his right hand and hurled it free of his comrades before it detonated, severing part of one finger and seriously wounding him in the right hand and arm. Courageously ignoring the intense pain, he staunchly fought on until he was struck by a sniper’s bullet and forced to submit to evacuation for medical treatment. Stouthearted and indomitable, Private Cafferata, by his fortitude, great personal valor and dauntless perseverance in the face of almost certain death, saved the lives of several of his fellow Marines and contributed essentially to the success achieved by his company in maintaining its defensive position against tremendous odds. His extraordinary heroism throughout was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
Harry S. Truman
President of the United States