Marine Remembers 'Chosin Few'
Longtime Lomita resident Howard Mason is still awed that he survived the Battle of Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War nearly 60 years ago.
More than 4,400 men from the 1st Marine Division were killed from Nov. 27 to Dec. 13, 1950, either during the bloody battle or from the piercing cold temperatures.
The harsh weather left Mason with a case of frostbite on some of his extremities by the time he returned home from the war just months after the Chosin campaign.
"It was something I will never, never forget," said Mason, 80.
To honor the "Chosin Few" who served, Mason helped design the layout of a 6-by-4-foot, 3,000-pound blue pearl granite memorial that was recently dedicated at Camp Pendleton.
The words "Retreat Hell" are emblazoned above a Chosin combat scene that was painted by retired combat Marine artist Col. Charles Waterhouse.
At one point during the battle, the Marines fought their way back to the Korean coast as part of a strategic move that some had initially considered a retreat, Mason said, describing his selection of the quote carved into the monument.
Maj. Gen. Oliver Smith, who commanded the 1st Marine Division during the battle, reportedly said, "Retreat, hell! We're not retreating. We're just advancing in a different direction."
The monument, dedicated to "We Few, We Chosin Few, We Eternal Band of Brothers," sits near the South Mesa Club near the main gate of Camp Pendleton.
"The memorial is more of a tribute to those who lost their lives at the reservoir and made it possible for those who returned home safely than it is for those of us who survived," Mason said.
The monument was dedicated during a ceremony Sept.15, marking the 60th anniversary of the Marine invasion of Inchon, which eventually led up to the battle at Chosin Reservoir.
Mason was unable to attend the event after suffering a heart attack one day earlier.
"After all that work, I didn't get to witness the dedication, but my wife and my fellow Marines let me know that it went off without a hitch," said Mason, who was recovering at home.
Mason was a fresh-faced, 20-year-old Marine Corps reservist when he was called into active duty in July 1950 to assist in the invasion at Inchon. From there, the Marines invaded Seoul and went on to Chosin.
"I spent my first wedding anniversary retaking Seoul," Mason said. "It was nothing like anything I ever experienced before or since."
The Marines endured temperatures that plunged 35 degrees below zero. Mason shivered as he tried to get some rest while bundled inside a sleeping bag placed on the frozen-solid ground. Much of the food and the water stored in canteens were also frozen.
The Marines had to wear specially designed double-layered mittens to keep their hands from freezing while shooting their guns.
"We fought with great difficulty," Mason said. "All I remember is how cold it was. So very, very cold."
The bitter campaign was considered one of the major battles of the three-year Korean War, which is sometimes referred to as the "forgotten war" wedged between World War II and the Vietnam War.
The Korean War finally ended with a truce in 1953 that keeps the country divided at the 38th parallel north latitude.
Shortly after he returned home, Mason joined the Los Angeles Fire Department, where he worked for 28 years.
But despite his long service with the LAFD, the brief time he spent in Korea still hold a special place in Mason's heart.
"I spent 28 years shoulder to shoulder with my brother firemen, but I am more closer to my Marines than anyone else," Mason said. "Something about being with my Marines in combat is second to nothing."