This blown bridge blocked the only way out for U.S. forces withdrawing from Chosin Reservoir. Air Force C-119s dropped portable bridge sections to span the chasm, allowing men and equipment to reach safety. (U.S. Air Force photo)
One of the most dramatic Korean airlift episodes was the supply of the 20,000 beleaguered troops of the 1st Marine and U.S. Army 7th Infantry Divisions during their harrowing retreat from the Chosin (also known as Changjin) Reservoir late in 1950. Far in front of allied lines, outnumbered, cut off from land supply and suffering in the bitter cold of the Korean winter, these divisions faced annihilation by Chinese forces.
To ease the critical situation, Air Force C-119s dropped supplies to the retreating forces while USAF and Marine C-47s landed supplies and flew out thousands of wounded soldiers from rough strips at Hagaru-ri and Koto-ri. During a 12-day peak, USAF aircraft airdropped or airlanded about 1,700 tons of supplies and ammunition.
The retreating forces were almost lost when they reached a damaged bridge over an impassable chasm. Working with Army riggers, eight USAF C-119 crews airdropped 16 tons of portable bridge spans. This operation, never done before, enabled US units to escape over the gorge.
By the time they reached the evacuation port of Hungnam, U.S. ground forces had suffered more than 5,000 combat casualties and many thousands more from frostbite and illness. With the necessary tools provided by airlift, however, the Marines and soldiers had successfully fought their way down 80 miles of hotly contested mountain roads. USAF airlift prevented the retreat from becoming a military disaster.