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Bill Beasley: With 1st Marine Division at the Chosin Reservoir in Korean War

Interviews with Veterans

(Note: This is the twenty-first article in a continuing series about local military veterans and their service to our great country.)

Bill was born on October 5, 1930, in the little town of Cody, Nebraska. While still an infant, he and his family moved to the state capital, Lincoln, where Bill grew up and went to school. His father was a baker, his mother worked as what in those days was called a "practical nurse," providing 24-hour, seven-day-a-week care to sick and disabled clients.

Bill got off to a rather rocky start in his life. In 1933, his parents separated (they later divorced), and because his mother's job took her out of their home for weeks at a time, Bill was boarded out to family friends. At age seven, his mother managed to place him in a Lutheran orphanage (she paid $15 a month for his board and care), where he lived until he was 12. As Bill put it, "I didn't grow up in a single-parent household, I grew up in a no-parent household."

In junior high he was boarded out again, this time to a couple who needed a "handy man." Bill earned $5 a month doing chores for the couple. Finally, while still in junior high, he went to live permanently with his mother, who was now working as a checker at a grocery store. Bill's father, with whom he had little contact, passed away in the late 1940s.

Bill attended Lincoln High School. "I was a tall, skinny, gangly kid, underweight. So they decided I couldn't stand the rigors of sports. But this never bothered me. I developed an interest in photography, and was in the photography club in high school." While in high school, Bill also had a part-time job working as a "soda jerk" for the local Walgreens drug store. He graduated from high school in June 1948.

At that time, Bill decided to join the Navy, but when he went to enlist the Navy recruiting station was closed. Walking home he happened to pass a Marine Corps recruiting station, which just happened to be open; he talked with the Marine Corps recruiter, who assured him that the Navy was "out to lunch" (literally, it seems!), and that if he joined the Marines he could leave right away for training in San Diego.

The thought of leaving right away for California appealed to Bill, so he tried to enlist; however, he failed to pass the Marine Corps physical; at 6' 2" and 130 pounds he was a pound shy of the minimum weight requirement! He was told to go home, stuff himself for a week, then come back. He did as he was told, and barely made the weight requirement.

Basic training took place at the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot in San Diego, which he completed in September 1948. Following additional training, Bill hoped to be assigned to a Marine Corps detachment that was deployable aboard Navy combat ships. Yet the Navy was downsizing after World War II, so it didn't have a vessel to put him on. Thus, he ended up on a guard detachment at Naval Air Station North Island, Coronado, California.

Nine months later, Private First Class Beasley was assigned to the 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton, California. Following a short stint with the 5th Marine Regiment, he was posted to the Division's 1st Medical Battalion, for which he was in charge of the barracks that housed the battalion's enlisted personnel. "I had to make sure the barracks were cleaned every morning, that linen was changed once a week, and I issued sheets and blankets to new personnel. It was an easy job. I had lots of time on my hands."

In May 1950, Bill volunteered to serve aboard a light cruiser that had been taken out of "mothballs." Unfortunately, his intent didn't sit well with his 1st Sergeant, who responded, "If you don't like it here I can get you a transfer." Bill made the "mistake of answering in the affirmative." He was reassigned to a guard detachment at the Naval ammunition depot in Shoemaker, Arkansas. Not exactly what he'd been looking for!

During the train ride to Arkansas, Bill and the two Marines accompanying him stopped to change trains in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas. While eating lunch at the train depot, they were approached by a man with a newspaper tucked under his arm. The man had paid for their lunch. He opened the newspaper and showed the young Marines the headlines: war had broken out on the Korean peninsula. It was the 25th of June 1950. Upon arrival at the ammunition depot in Shoemaker, Bill and his two fellow Marines met with the "officer of the day" in charge of the guard detachment, who bluntly said, "If I were you guys, I wouldn't unpack my bags!"

Within 30 days, Bill was back at Camp Pendleton, this time assigned to the 1st Marine Division's 1st Marine Regiment, commanded by Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller, who had served with distinction in World War II. As Bill recalls, the regiment was scraped together from personnel all over the country. "Our entire regiment was put together out of bits and pieces of the Marine Corps. We didn't know each other at all." Bill belonged to "Fox" Company of the regiment's 2nd battalion, serving as a gunner for a 3.5 inch anti-tank rocket launcher, a new weapon robust enough to handle the Soviet tanks in the North Korean Korean Peoples Army (KPA). Indeed, the new rocket launcher could "stop a Soviet T-34 in its tracks."

On September 15, 1950, the 1st Marine Division took part in the amphibious assault by U.S. and other United Nations forces at Inchon, South Korea – a bold operation that ended a string of victories by the KPA and was a major strategic success. Bill remembers wading ashore through the mud against weak enemy opposition. Within two weeks, Seoul, the capital of South Korea, was recaptured, and the Marines of the 1st Division temporarily withdrawn to their ships.

A few weeks later, the 1st Marine Division, in another amphibious operation, disembarked on the eastern coast of North Korea. It advanced inland through rugged and hostile terrain, where the road conditions ranged from poor to non-existent. In late November, in severe winter weather, the Marines were transported by truck to a mountainous region close to the Chosin Reservoir (a man-made lake located deep inside North Korea).

From November 27 to December 10, 1950, the 1st Marine Division fought one of the most desperate battles in Marine Corps history: "Fighting...in bitter cold and brutal terrain, men endured severe frostbite, sleepless nights, and total mental and physical exhaustion. Below-zero temperatures, snow-covered mountains, icy roads, and wind-swept cliffs made every skirmish, firefight, and attack a nightmare beyond the men's wildest dreams.... With tens of thousands of young Americans and Chinese locked in eye-to-eye, hand-to-hand combat in the desolate, freezing mountains surrounding the Chosin Reservoir, the death toll soared. Even men with minor wounds or injuries frequently died. If you stopped moving, you froze.... None of the men who survived the horrific battle would ever be the same. Today they are called 'The Chosin Few.'" ("The Battle of the Chosin Reservoir," by Ned Forney, October 17, 2018).

The Marines, and supporting U.S. Army, British and South Korean forces, were vastly outnumbered by the attacking Chinese, whose objective was to isolate and destroy them. Fortunately for Bill, his regiment was the southernmost Marine regiment in the battle, so it didn't bear the brunt of the savage fighting. "We got a little, but we didn't get the worst of it. Our worst enemy was the weather. The winds that blew in from Siberia dropped temperatures, with the wind chill, to 70-75 degrees below zero. The cold weather equipment we had was not designed [for such arctic temperatures]. Engines had to be kept running or they'd freeze up. Our weapons had to be kept dry of lubrication, or they'd stop working, too. The [rubber] boots we had were totally inadequate. Almost to a man we had frostbite, frozen feet; men lost their toes and feet. I was fortunate to be cared for by a Navy Corpsman, who helped to save my feet." (Many of the Marines who had suffered from the almost indescribable conditions at the Chosin Reservoir would eventually receive 100% disabilities from the veterans Administration.)

Thanks to effective air support, as well as a pontoon bridge that was dropped to span a gaping ravine south of Koto-ri ("I don't remember crossing that bridge, I must have been sleepwalking") the stalwart Marines of the 1st Marine Division (and supporting forces) were able to avoid catastrophic defeat by breaking out to the sea. Yet nearly 6,000 Americans were dead or missing, and many thousands more wounded.

Bill would see additional combat in the Korean War ("I ate so many cans of pork and beans that to this day I can't stand the sight of them!"), finally returning to the States in September 1951. In late 1952 he married his wife, Nancy, a union that would bring forth three children, six grandchilden and eleven great-grandchildren (with a twelfth on the way). He also realized his dream of becoming a Marine Corps photographer and, in 1966/67, was posted to Vietnam as a combat motion picture cameraman. "Even today I have a tough time opening up about Vietnam."

Bill retired from the Marine Corps in 1968, having attained the rank of Gunnery Sergeant; his commendations included a Purple Heart for Korea, and seven Air Medals for his service in Vietnam. Bill continued to work as a photographer and in the motion-picture field as a civilian, at the China Lake Naval Weapons Center (15 years) and then at the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base. He retired from Federal Civil Service in 1988. Today, he and his wife live a well-deserved peaceful life in California City.

The Loop newspaper is publishing a series of veterans interviews to honor our local heroes. If you are a veteran, or know of a veteran who would like to take part in this series, please call The Loop office at (661) 822-8188.