Surrounded by sixteen Chinese divisions near the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea in 1950, the U.S. First Marine Division battled its way to the sea and safety. It was called the greatest tactical withdrawal in modern warfare, made especially difficult by the sub-zero temperatures and mountainous terrain, and has assumed legendary status in the Corps. James Brady, a Korean War veteran himself, gives readers an intimate view of the two-month-long campaign in his novel The Marines of Autumn.
The book’s tone is dreamlike, its descriptions gritty and shocking, as the narrative progresses through short episodes in which the point of view often abruptly shifts among many characters. But the central character is Marine Captain Thomas Verity, a World War II veteran and expert in Chinese culture and language. A reservist forced back into service, he is grieving the recent death of his wife; moreover, he is torn between his love for China and his duty as a Marine. As he travels to the front, performs his intelligence mission, fights the Chinese, and copes with the vicious weather, he often thinks back to his wife and surviving daughter. The narrative thereby advances in tandem: The reader learns how the Marine division barely holds together and how Verity’s young family disintegrates, as if the personal tragedy and the military debacle are analogous.
Along the way the reader meets well-known historical figures, such as generals Chesty Puller, Oliver Smith, and Douglas MacArthur (the book’s least sympathetic person). Despite them and nightmarish combat scenes, this is not a military thriller. Rather, it is an elegy for the people, and their hopes, lost in a war whose purpose and conduct is often least clear to those most in harm’s way.