If the Korean War is the Forgotten War, then Rocco Zullo is its forgotten warrior. First Sergeant Zullo was shot while leading his men during a crucial assault at Chosin Reservoir, then whisked away to a makeshift morgue, only to be rushed into surgery after being discovered alive. Most of his men were unaware he survived the battle, so one can imagine their surprise when he showed up at George Company’s first reunion in 1986.
In “Give Me Tomorrow” (Da Capo Press), military historian Patrick K. O’Donnell spotlights the exploits of Zullo and the men of George Company, a small group of mostly inexperienced Marines, who, against all odds, made five separate stands against enemy units during the Korean War, in spite of being badly outnumbered. Much of the book focuses on George Company’s exploits during their engagement at Chosin Reservoir in November and December 1950, where temperatures dropped to twenty- and thirty-below zero, and the soldiers survived for days on little more than Tootsie Rolls and mouthfuls of snow.
In the following conversation with Failure, O’Donnell discusses the heroic efforts of the Marines at Chosin Reservoir, and why some military historians regard the battle as a failure.
Take me through George Company’s exploits at Chosin Reservoir.
The small town of Hagaru-ri was surrounded by several Chinese divisions, and it had to be held at all costs. George Company was one of the few units in reserve, and they put together a task force to break through to this tiny garrison. If the task force didn’t get through, Hagaru-ri would have been lost. There would have been no place for the First Marine Division to consolidate, and if the First Marine Division was lost at Chosin Reservoir, there is a good chance we would have lost the Korean War.
George Company went down an 11-mile stretch of road, which became a giant shooting gallery. The Chinese had the high ground and started peppering their vehicles with machine guns, bazookas and mortars. Many of their 150-some-odd vehicles were destroyed and over half of the convoy was captured or killed. But George Company somehow made it though.
What happened to Rocco Zullo?
Zullo helped lead George Company up the road, and when they went through the gates at Hagaru-ri, he was cut down by Chinese soldiers that were posing as Marines [wearing Marine Corps uniforms]. He went through hours and hours of surgery and another 20 operations back in the U.S., but somehow survived.
He surfaced 35 years later at the George Company reunion. He had undergone this transformation from tough guy Marine to high school principal. He had dedicated his life to teaching young men, because on the road to Hagaru-ri, one of his men tried to bring bandages to patch up his stomach, and in the process was paralyzed. He felt guilty about that and wanted to give back, and that’s why he went into teaching.
Why doesn’t a battle like Chosin Reservoir enjoy the same name recognition as other notable American battles?
There were almost 20 Medals of Honor earned, more than at any other battle in Marine Corps history. I think it’s a failure on the part of America that we don’t recognize Korean War veterans—and veterans in general. We typically don’t care about the sacrifices of our veterans, and that remains true for Iraq and Afghanistan. The guys come home and are labeled as having Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and nobody wants to deal with them. Nobody understands. Veterans generally don’t talk about their experiences, and they are expected to carry on and go about business as usual despite all the things they have gone through and the sacrifices they have made.
Why is Chosin Reservoir sometimes regarded as a failure?
It’s considered a failure in the sense that we left the field of battle, but a victory in the sense that we inflicted way more casualties on the Chinese than they inflicted on us. Most of their army groups that attacked the First Marine Division were mauled. Their objective was to destroy the First Marine Division, and what happened is that they were destroyed in the process.
What would you like readers to take away from “Give Me Tomorrow”?
To honor and respect the sacrifice the men made, and to look at the Korean War from their own personal perspective and understand it. There is a current events angle here too. The war has never ended. There was an armistice signed and it was ripped up. Korea is still in the news, and China is still there. North Korea would collapse in a month if it weren’t for the Chinese and what they provide for them in terms of money and energy and material support.