WOODBRIDGE, Va. --
As a teenager, Warren Wiedhahn, a retired Marine colonel, envied his friends and the men who fought in World War II.
When high school graduation came around, his mind was set on joining the Marine Corps to fight for his country, but not without his mother’s conditions.
“I promised her I’ll do my three or fours years, then I’ll get out and go to college,” said Wiedhahn. “I put my hand on the Bible, because my mother made me swear.”
After graduating from Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., Wiedhahn’s first orders were to Singtel, China. He was one of the last China Marines in 1948 and 1949. Wiedhahn went to Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif. after his service in China was done.
“When we left China in 1949, the communists took over,” said Wiedhahn.
June 24, 1950, Wiedhahn and a fellow Marine were at a bar in San Diego, when they were told by the bartender to return to Camp Pendleton. The North Koreans invaded South Korea – the Marines were going to war.
“We didn’t know where Korea was,” said Wiedhahn. “We were surprised when he said we were going to go to war.”
Wiedhahn and his friend returned to Camp Pendleton where they trained for about two weeks to prepare for Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s Marine Brigade.
Wiedhahn, a 19-year-old private first class, and his fellow Marines landed at the Pusan Perimeter, Korea and faced the heat August 7, 1950. Wiedhahn and his fellow Marines were tasked to defend what was left of South Korea against North Korea. They fought within the first 48 hours of landing.
“We were in combat, all day, every day,” said Wiedhahn. “It was dirty, and hot, and humid. We lost so many people to heat prostration. The little water there was, was down in the valleys and we were up on the hills.”
The fight on the Pusan Perimeter continued into September. The North Koreans were determined to take Pusan, the temporary capitol of South Korea.
MacArthur decided an amphibious landing at Inchon was strategically the best option. The Marines hit the beach and cut off the North Koreans, who were then trapped in the South and were defeated.
“In late September, early October, MacArthur made the announcement that the bad guys were all down [South] and that there were no bad guys in front of us,” said Wiedhahn.
The Marines continued to push north into the cold, mountainous terrain with little to no opposition.
“A couple of us were sitting, talking about the Chosin Reservoir, and one guy said ‘You know, it was 30 below zero,’” said Wiedhahn. “My other friend said ‘No, it was 35 below zero.’ I said, ‘What the hell’s the difference?’ It was damn cold!”
Trucks were able to bring rations and food to the Marines with ease. Soon, they arrived at the Chosin Reservoir where they stayed to watch for the enemy.
At the beginning of November, Wiedhahn was put into a mortar company, which had an observation post along the mountain range overlooking the valley. As time passed, Wiedhahn and his fellow Marines were able to celebrate Thanksgiving with a turkey meal.
“The cooks did a good job in the cold weather,” said Wiedhahn. “They’d bring us canteens. The canteens would freeze before they got to you, the turkey would be cold, but you got it.”
After Thanksgiving, Wiedhahn and a fellow Marine were on a listening post, a small encampment the Marines used to listen for enemy activity.
“We didn’t anticipate anything,” said Wiedhahn. “We anticipated going home. The newspaper said that the Marines would be home by Christmas. We believed it.”
After the Marines reported their post, their gunnery sergeant ordered them to get their gear and to head back. As they packed up, they heard something they’d never heard before.
“All at once, we heard whistles and bells, bugles,” said Wiedhahn. “We were high in the mountains several thousand feet and the sound carries. Down in this big valley, we looked up this other ridge, and the ridge erupted with thousands of Chinese coming over the top, down in the valley.”
The Marines soon found out the whistles, bells and bugles were used by the Chinese to communicate. That day, they were ordered to attack.
“We now read in the books where the Chinese say ‘We can not have the Americans on our Southern border,'” said Wiedhahn. “That’s when they made the decision they were going to enter the war.”
The Chinese did exactly what MacArthur did to the North Koreans. They cut the 1st Marine Division from friendly forces and supply lines.
There was only one small road, which led out of the Chosin Reservoir. The Marines were convinced they wouldn’t make it, but they continued to fight.
“We were just fighting,” said Wiedhahn. “Fighting, fighting, fighting all the time. That’s where we lost so many men, to the cold, to the freezing.”
Friendly aircraft began to drop supplies, but ran out of parachutes. In desperation, they began to skim over the ice and drop supplies out of the back of the plane. The Marines salvaged what they could.
“Only about 30 percent could be salvaged,” said Wiedhahn, “but 30 percent was better than no percent.”
The decision was then made to attack and escape.
“It was a terrible fight,” said Wiedhahn. “We had two enemies. We had the Chinese and the weather. If you got wounded and you couldn’t walk, you froze to death.
“There are still about 340 Marines up in the reservoir to this day, frozen, somewhere up there.”
The Marines would try to bring back their fallen brothers, but in most cases couldn’t.
“When you got shot and killed and fell, you fell in grotesque positions and then you immediately froze to death,” said Wiedhahn. “We had to break their arms and legs so we could stack them in the back of the truck. That’s the horrors of war. You do what you have to do.”
The Marines fought their way out to the sea. They escaped the trap, yet it wasn’t the last hardship for the veterans of Korea.
Wiedhahn came back to the states and tried to become a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, where he was turned away. The Korean War was never officially declared as a war, rather a police action, in spite of the battles at the Pusan Perimeter, Inchon Landing and the Chosin Reservoir. It became known as the Forgotten War.
“The Korean War veterans came back, got out, went back to college, got married, had children and went to church,” said Wiedhahn. “They forgot about the war, and that’s why they began to call it the forgotten war. They forgot about it.“
Wiedhahn did not stop after the Korean War. The three to four years he promised his mother became 33 years of service.
During the Korean War, all discharges were frozen.
“Not only did they freeze us in the Chosin Reservoir, but they froze all discharges,” said Wiedhahn. “You couldn’t get out.”
Due to manpower requirements, Wiedhahn served in the Marine Corps for another four years past his contract. Along with the discharges, promotions were also frozen.
The five-year private first class quickly ranked up to staff sergeant upon his return from Korea. He was stationed in New York.
Wiedhahn later took an opportunity to receive a commission and was promoted to second lieutenant.
“At that stage, mother was more than happy to have me stay in,” said Wiedhahn.
After 33 years of travel and adventure with the Marine Corps, Wiedhahn retired.
“Somewhere in there, I got married and had a lovely family,” said Wiedhahn. “I still wanted to do something, I was too young to retire.”
He founded a company, Military Historical Tours. He provides opportunities for veterans and their families to travel all over the world to visit the places they’ve once fought in.
Now, 60 years after the War, Wiedhahn will join others in remembrance. The Korean War’s 60th Anniversary is slated for Saturday, July 27 at the Korean War Veteran Memorial in Washington.
“We appreciate these commemorations very much,” said Wiedhahn. “What we as veterans appreciate is the fact that the Congress and that the Department of Defense and of course the American people recognize the sacrifices we made.”