Chosin, the graphic novel

The battle of the Chosin Reservoir in November and December of 1950, when outnumbered American Marines fought their way out of a Chinese Red Army trap in northeast Korea, remains one of the greatest feats of arms in U.S. military history.

While every Marine knows the story of the First Marine Division’s heroic march to the sea and a number of excellent nonfiction treatments of Chosin have been published recently, the epic battle hasn’t attracted the attention of Hollywood filmmakers or many novelists. Korea has been called the Forgotten War, and—at least in the popular culture—Chosin has suffered somewhat from the same neglect.

Chosin, the graphic novel

To date, only James Brady’s marvelous 2007 novel The Marines of Autumn, praised as the Iliad of the Korean War by Kurt Vonnegut, has focused on the Chosin campaign. (While I begin my recent novel The North Building with the retreat from Chosin, the narrative then shifts to Washington, D.C.)

Brian Iglesias, a Marine combat veteran of the Iraq War, is out to raise public consciousness about Chosin. He has directed a moving documentary film, Chosin, which includes remarkable interviews with the Marines who battled not only seasoned Chinese troops, but also confronted brutal winter weather where temperatures dropped to 20 and 30 degrees below zero.

Iglesias and several writers and illustrators (Richard C. Meyer, Thomas Jung, and Otis Frampton) have created Chosin: Hold the Line, a graphic novel that will serve as the basis for an animated short film.

The graphic novel is told in two parts: “Hold That Line,” which follows a young Marine private, Billy French, through the pivotal struggle by the Americans to hold Fox Hill, and “To the Sea,” which focuses on two young Korean children who are caught up in the conflict and join the fighting retreat from Hagaru to the port of Hungnam, where the U.S. Navy waited to evacuate X Corps.

Much of the battle of Chosin Reservoir was fought at night and the illustrations capture the eerie scenes of snow falling, green and red tracers arcing through the gloom, the sudden appearance of attacking troops, and the intense hand-to-hand combat that often ensued. This comic panel depiction could easily have trivialized the situation; I didn’t find the violence shown to be gratuitous or unwarranted, but rather an accurate reflection of the desperate, life-and-death struggle involved.

Iglesias and his collaborators get the details right: the starkly beautiful terrain; the Thanksgiving meal served to the men freezing on their plates because of the cold; Chinese soldiers forced into frontal mass wave attacks by Red Army political officers ready to execute any who balked at advancing (a tactic pioneered by Lenin in the 1920s); the camaraderie of the Marines who were vastly outnumbered but never broke faith.

The second story told in the novel features the heroic march of the “Chosin Few” to the sea and considers the impact of the war on Korean civilians. One of the less-known aspects of the campaign was that American commanders decided to evacuate nearly 100,000 Korean civilians along with the troops. It’s likely many of the Koreans would have been executed by the Communists as traitors if they had been left behind. An estimated million descendants of the Hungnam evacuees live in freedom today; historians believe the scale of this humanitarian move was unprecedented.

It would be fitting if Iglesia’s efforts culminate in the Chosin story being told in longer form—a full-length feature film would be ideal. If 300, a recounting of the courageous Greek stand against the invading Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, succeeded at the box office, why not bring a stirring tale of modern American bravery to the screen?


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