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Utahn reliving memories of bitter N. Korea battle

Hearing that remains of 19 American soldiers are being repatriated from the Chosin Reservoir region of North Korea brought vivid, chilling memories to Rex Sonnenfelt.

Shortly before Memorial Day, the Pentagon said the remains — believed to be those of men of the 7th Infantry Division and other Army units — had been recovered by U.S. teams searching with the permission of North Korea.

"Had to fight to get out of there," Sonnenfelt said of Chosin Reservoir area. "You felt that sometimes you'd wish a bullet would get you and get it over with."

Sonnenfelt, 80, grew up in Casper, Wyo. He was a sergeant, a young veteran of World War II battles in the Pacific, when his Reserve unit was activated in 1950. At the time of the Korean War's outbreak, he had been living in Utah about five years.

He was among thousands of members of the 1st Marine Division, along with Army soldiers, who were caught in a gigantic Chinese onslaught that started Nov. 27, 1950.

According to the Associated Press, 120,000 Chinese, partners of the North Koreans, battled about 20,000 Americans and allies. The Defense Department estimates that about 1,000 U.S. troops were killed in the Chosin campaign.

"It was cold and a bloody battle," Sonnenfelt said.

He was part of an artillery unit but did not participate in shelling because he didn't stay with the big guns. Instead, he fought as a rifleman. "They pulled us out to fill weak spots in the line," he explained.

He recalls looking up at the nearby hills and seeing "all these Chinese coming over the hill. A colonel told us to destroy all these trucks and everything."

He and others went around blasting the trucks with firearms, putting them out of commission so that when they fell into the hands of the enemy they would be of no use.

He remembers seeing the Chinese troops, many wearing "kind of that brown blankety stuff" as uniforms. The material was padded against the cold.

At first, there were huge masses of the enemy, he said. "I thought that we'd be wiped out by the next morning. . . . We managed to get out."

Then the retreat started. "They darn near wiped out the 1st Marine Division," he said. He lost friends during the battles.

He recalled that the wind-chill factor made temperatures about 80 degrees below zero at times.

Surrounded and under fire, the survivors managed to fight their way from the "frozen Chosin" nearly 80 miles to the south, reaching the port city of Hungnam just before Christmas 1950.

By Dec. 24, the Navy had evacuated 105,000 U.S. and South Korean troops from Hungnam, says a Defense Department chronology.

Sonnenfelt remembers that during the retreat he was "miserable . . . tired, sleepy, hungry."

He was surprised that they reached Hungnam. "I didn't really think that we'd make it, but we did," he said.

Sonnenfelt said in a telephone interview that he thinks the Marines were able to bring out most of the remains of their members who fell in the battles.

After the war, he worked at Hill Air Force Base, until he retired about 24 years ago. He and his wife of 55 years, Jean, have sons and a daughter.

Sonnenfelt keeps up with the news, closely following the war in the Middle East.

"I sure feel for those guys," he said of the American troops. "Going through those towns and don't know who the enemy is. It's a hard war to fight."

He has this suggestion concerning the return of American troops from the Middle East: "When they do come back, if you believed in the war or didn't believe in it, give them a pat on the back anyway."

Sonnenfelt is a member of the Chosin Few, veterans of the battles around the reservoir. Last November, he was present as a granite marker was unveiled at Hill Air Force Base in honor of the 43 Utahns who fought at Chosin Reservoir.

The Associated Press reported that money for the monument was raised by the Chosin Few, family members, organizations and businesses.

Recently Sonnenfelt was admitted to McKay-Dee Hospital, Ogden, for treatment of arthritis and a bleeding ulcer. Feeling better now, he is recuperating at home.


E-mail: bau@desnews.com