MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- A retired Marine veteran who participated in the Chosin Reservoir Campaign in Korea and was promoted by Chesty Puller, attended the 7th Engineer Support Battalion, 1st Marine Logistics Group Marine Corps birthday ball to share history and camaraderie with the Marines.
After the cake-cutting ceremony, the guest speaker, 1st Sgt. Robert L. Gaines, told the Marines stories about his 20 years in the Marine Corps, his experiences in Korea, and serving with Chesty Puller.
Gaines was stationed at Marine Barracks in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 1950. One day he was told to report to the commanding officer, which just happened to be Col. Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller, arguably one of the most well-known and highly-decorated Marines to ever serve in the Corps. Chesty Puller promoted Gaines to corporal on the spot.
"Then he said, 'I'm so proud of you, son. Soon you'll be a sergeant and a staff NCO,'" recalled Gaines. "The way he was talking, I thought I would end up Commandant of the Marine Corps."
The Korean War broke out on June 25, 1950, when nearly 100,000 North Korean soldiers crossed the 38th Parallel into South Korea and quickly overwhelmed the lightly-armed South Korea Army positions, explained Gaines. Gaines was assigned to Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines at Camp Pendleton. The 1st Marine Division arrived at Inchon five days after the Inchon Landing. Less than two weeks later, Marines liberated the South Korean capital of Seoul.
By November 1950, the Chinese had rallied thousands of troops and "were preparing a special fate for the Marines," said Gaines, 80, from Plattsmouth, Neb.
The Marines' main task was to keep the main supply route open for the 8,000 Marines with 5th and 7th Marine Regiments, located at the northwest corner of the Chosin Reservoir at Yudam-ni. If the MSR fell to the Chinese, the Marines would have been cut-off from all support and supplies. The Marines of Fox Co. could not abandon their fellow Marines, said Gaines.
"The 1st Marine Division was not at all happy with the 78-mile long line of supply," said Gaines of the MSR, which was a 78-mile trek through the snowy Korean mountains to get to the Sea of Japan.
Fox Co. was positioned at Toktong Pass, a high ridge overlooking the MSR. It was later dubbed "Fox Hill."
"The hill was surrounded by ten thousand Chinese soldiers – the odds were 40 to 1," said Gaines.
Gaines remembers getting shot in the shoulder, but when he assessed the damage, he found no wound, no bullet – nothing.
"That night in my foxhole, my shirt pulls out and I reach back and the slug falls out of my uniform," said Gaines of the bullet that pierced his uniform but not his skin. "I carried it for a long time."
Over the next four days and nights of intense fighting, 75 percent of Fox Co.'s 240 Marines were killed, wounded or captured, said Gaines. Temperatures dropped to 40 degrees below zero. Rifles and machine guns jammed. But the "Frozen Chosin" Marines successfully fought off the Chinese, keeping the MSR open.
"We kept it open, rescuing the 1st Battalion [7th Marine Regiment]," said Gaines. Of the "Chosin few," Gaines believes there are about 50-100 Chosin Marines still alive today.
After the Korean War, Gaines went on to serve as a recruiter as well as embassy duty. He retired in 1968 after his last tour with 13th Marines, 5th Marine Division at Camp Pendleton. After retiring, he taught high school English and theater for 18 years. He is now the owner of an antique shop in Las Cruces, N.M.
Forty-one years removed from active duty, Gaines still enjoys attending birthday balls and being around Marines, passing on the history and traditions of the Corps.
"This will be the most memorable Marine Corps birthday I will ever have ever celebrated," said Gaines. "Happy Birthday, Marines."