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One of the ‘Chosin Few’ remembers

Korean War vet recounts battle at Chosin Reservoir

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Emerald Sayler

Posted: Tuesday, November 30, 2010 12:00 am | Updated: 5:49 am, Wed Dec 1, 2010.

Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman famously said, "War is hell." The Korean War was certainly hell for Emerald Sayler, with one glaring exception. At least hell is warm.

Sayler, 86, believes he is the oldest surviving member of the "Chosin Few" — a group of U.S. troops who survived one of the grisliest skirmishes of the Korean War, the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. Saturday marked the 60th anniversary of the torturous engagement, which was more a bloodletting than a battle.

Amid frigid temperatures that reached 40 degrees below zero, heavily outnumbered members of the Marine Corps and Army fought off waves of Chinese soldiers sent to reinforce their North Korean allies.

Most of the fighting centered around the Chosin Reservoir, deep in North Korean territory, where more than 100,000 Chinese troops clashed with only 30,000 United Nations troops (comprised mostly of American soldiers).

So numerous were China's soldiers, Sayler said, there weren't even enough rifles to arm them all.

"They all had ammo, but they didn't all have weapons. When one got shot, (a soldier) would pick his rifle up," Sayler said. "We had 28 (Chinese soldiers) to one against us ... They came in bunches of hundreds."

Sayler, a long-time Lodi resident, was involved in one of the worst aspects of the battle — covering the rear flank for the Marine's 1st Infantry Division's retreat south. The soldiers journeyed through valleys and past hills where Chinese soldiers took advantage of the high ground to constantly pummel the troops below.

"I knew how a deer felt when I used to shoot at them," Sayler said. "You didn't know which way the hell to go."

The entire operation, which began Nov. 27, 1950, was chaotic, Sayler said. The soldiers encountered numerous road blocks, and were caught up in skirmishes repeatedly along the way. Many supply drops meant for U.S. troops were accidentally dropped among Chinese soldiers, he said, and casualties were catastrophic.

Sayler's unit, the 1st Battalion of the 32nd Infantry, began with 800 troops and 35 officers; when they finally made it to safety just four days later, only 165 troops and three officers were alive.

Against such overwhelming odds and bloodshed, Sayler had only one objective: "Just stay alive," he said. "You had to constantly be alert."

It was an awful twist of fate for Sayler, who was only 26 years old. Trained as a carpenter in his youth, Sayler had joined the Army during World War II and served as a carpentry supervisor in Japan, never seeing battle.

He left the Army after a few years, and had begun a new life working construction in Lodi. On Sept. 3, 1950, he married his wife, Geri.

Less than a month later, on Sept. 29, he got a call no newlywed would ever want to receive: The Army was recalling Sayler into active service. He had 11 days to report, and would be on the war front by the end of November.

Once he reported, it became clear that Sayler's battalion was in for a nightmarish tour of duty.

"In orientation they told us, '90 percent of you aren't coming back, you're going to go as cannon fodder,'" he said.

Although Sayler said his mind has tried to block out many of the atrocities he saw in Korea, there is one thing he can never forget: The biting, arctic cold he endured. The Army's units sent to Chosin were ill-prepared for the inclement weather, given summer gear to deal with days were the high might be 10 degrees.

Sayler cobbled two thin summer sleeping bags together to try to keep warm in foxholes, although sleep wasn't easy to come by; the troops needed to be ever-ready. Chinese forces had a habit of attacking in the middle of the night, trying to catch the Americans off guard.

The cold was unforgiving, Sayler said, and frostbite ran rampant among the troops. He recalled seeing soldiers with toes so frozen they were black, and soldiers would simply snap them off and throw them away. Sayler wore three pairs of wool socks at all times to try to keep his feet intact, but even then, sweat would cause the socks to freeze.

Finally, on Dec. 1, the 1st Battalion met up with reinforcements in Hagaru-ri and the wounded were evacuated from the area. Eventually, the long battle at Chosin would end, with the remaining U.N. and U.S. troops being evacuated Dec. 13.

Although U.S. casualties were considerable, an estimated 40,000 Chinese soldiers were also killed.

Sayler's tour in Korea lasted one year and 16 days, after which he left the war and never saw battle again. But there are still reminders of that battle 60 years ago, especially on Sayler's feet. Many of the nerve endings in his feet and lower legs are dead, and he has experienced increasing numbness in that part of his body ever since the war. He also has had sleeping problems, brought on by the memories of the carnage he witnessed.

But he remains a proud veteran, and is in touch with a few of the other survivors of the Chosin battle. They are part of the "Chosin Few," which has become the official name given to those who lived through one of the costliest battles the U.S. armed forces have ever seen. Being able to talk to his fellow veterans has been cathartic, Sayler said, since they understand what he endured.

Sayler has also received more than a dozen medals and citations for his service, including six Bronze Stars and a Silver Star for valor. He still lives at the house he bought on North California Street in Lodi decades ago, and recently celebrated his 60th wedding anniversary with the girl who only had her husband for a month before he was sent to war.

Just a few years short of 90, Sayler said he is in good health, and he works out a little bit every day.

But he'll always remember those harsh days in Korea, and how he managed to be one of only a handful of soldiers to make it out of Chosin without being shot or wounded.

"I think there's only five or six of us (in my battalion) that never got hit," Sayler said.

It just wasn't a fate he was "Chosin" for.

Contact reporter Fernando Gallo at fernando@lodi news.com.

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