In 1950, Bill Barber saved the lives of 8,000 Marines. His five-day stand with 220 men against a force of 1,400 is considered one of the greatest holding actions in Marine Corps history.
Barber, 78, was raised on a farm in Kentucky. After learning that Germany had invaded Poland, he joined the Marines at age 19. He earned a Purple Heart at Iwo Jima and the Legion of Merit in Vietnam. In between, he earned the country's highest military award, the Medal of Honor, for his heroism in Korea.
On November 28, 1950, the first of the five nights of the battle of Chosin Reservoir began. It was mercilessly cold below zero in the 4,000-foot-high Toktong Pass connecting 8,000 Marines on the North Korean front with their command center 14 miles behind. Barber was captain of Fox Company, a group of 220 Marines who left to patrol the narrow mountain pass.
No one expected that 120,000 troops from Communist China were lying in wait nearby, or that the sound of a bugle would bring 1,400 of these soldiers out of the mountains to attack Barber's company. The battle continued all night. No one slept. Barber's lines broke once, but the enemy did not take advantage of this, and the lines reformed. Though Barber's men nearly ran out of ammunition, they held strong until daybreak, when fighting came to a halt.
The second night brought another wave of attack. Again the Chinese broke through, this time taking a machine-gun post and wounding Barber in the leg. He had not slept for two days, and the situation looked grim.
"There was a time I accepted the reality that I may not be able to hold," he remembers. "You don't ever want to think about that, but it would be foolish not to recognize the odds up against you."
Barber, wounded but still able to walk, rallied his men who regained the machine gun and drove out the Chinese. Soon, he received radio orders to fight his way to a safer position. Barber requested permission to stand fast. He did, and held the road for five nights, allowing Marines farther ahead to get out.
When their time to leave did come, only 82 of Barber's 220 men were able to walk away. Over half were dead or wounded, and 40 were too frostbitten to walk. They had killed 1,000 enemy troops.
Today, Barber gives this advice to the younger generation: know your history. Especially World War II. "I think when people begin to understand what happened in World War II, they have a leg up on knowing who we are as a people, what we are, and how strong we can be if we need to be."