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On Desperate Ground: The Marines at The Reservoir, the Korean War's Greatest Battle

4.58  ·  Rating details ·  2,781 ratings  ·  448 reviews
12 hrs 8 mins
From the New York Times bestselling author of Ghost Soldiers and In the Kingdom of Ice, a chronicle of the extraordinary feats of heroism by Marines called on to do the impossible during the greatest battle of the Korean War

On October 15, 1950, the vainglorious General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of U.N. troops in Korea, convinced President Harry Trum
Hardcover, 368 pages
Published October 2nd 2018 by Doubleday
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Craig Henriksen Neither really....the Author alternates between defining the events that lead to the battle at the Reservoir and selected stories of the challenges th…moreNeither really....the Author alternates between defining the events that lead to the battle at the Reservoir and selected stories of the challenges that individual soldiers experienced during the battle......My father was a Marine at the reservoir and while he did not talk about his war experiences very often.....there were several details that he did share during his life that were reflected in the book.....I with that he was alive today to read it. (less)
Cavak It's the Battle of Chosin Reservoir written with modern sensibilities and varied perspectives, so do not expect a fully comprehensive work about the e…moreIt's the Battle of Chosin Reservoir written with modern sensibilities and varied perspectives, so do not expect a fully comprehensive work about the entire Korean War. Still educational and awesome since it summarizes the broad sweeps of command and everyone else in between without the purple prose of older books. Further recommended reading and citations are included as well within the acknowledgements section.

I enjoyed it, but I was also not aware of this battle prior to reading. I think if you're a Korean War buff, it might be a little lacking in its summarizations and maybe too brief. There is a set of interviews with survivors that isn't found in other books though.(less)

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Start your review of On Desperate Ground: The Marines at The Reservoir, the Korean War's Greatest Battle
Feb 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: korean-war
“A [Chinese] soldier, armed with a rifle, climbed onto the bed of the truck. He came to the first man, leveled the barrel between his eyes, and fired. He moved on to the next. Then the next…[Ed] Reeves sat up, half out of his sleeping bag, and watched as though it were movie. He didn't know any of these Americans especially well – he’d just shared the bed of a truck with them for a day and a half – but he was in awe of them. They didn't beg or cry; they didn't utter so much as a whimper. They lo ...more
Jul 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing
What a treat to have Sides create a narrative for us on a tough job our soldiers had in Korea and gather in some lessons relevant to our precarious position today in that part of the world. I’ve had nothing but 5-star reads with this talented storyteller and history sleuth, and this one continues that tradition.

His major focus here is on a critical campaign that almost started World War 3, namely MacArthur’s initiative after landing at Inchon and retaking Seoul to invade North Korea and win the
Nov 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is the best account of the Chosin Reservoir battle I have read. Sides is an excellent historian and his exhaustive research shows. But more than that, Sides knows how to weave individual stories into the broad overview and still keep the narrative pace moving smartly along.

Chosin was the site of the first major engagement between the United Nations coalition force commanded by the vainglorious Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Mao Zedong’s People’s Volunteer Army. Gen. Oliver Smith of the First Ma
Mar 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Yeah, this is the book! There aren't many authors who can keep my bedside lamp burning until 0300 hrs on a workday, but that's what happened to this one. Any good war story has to have a mixture of brass (officers, strategy, planning) and balls (grunts, action, blood and guts, brotherhood). Hampton Sides has mixed these ingredients in just the right combination, which is about one part brass to three parts balls.

Sides spends a bit of time explaining what we already knew: that MacArthur was as cr
“Sun Tzu says [in ‘The Art of War’] that in battle there are nine kinds of situations, nine kinds of ‘grounds.’ The final and most distressing type is a situation in which one’s army can be saved from destruction only by fighting without delay. It is a place without shelter, and no possibility of easy retreat. If met by the enemy, an army has no alternative but to surrender or fight its way out of its predicament.

“Sun Tzu calls this ‘desperate ground’.” – Hampton Sides, On Desperate Ground

Feb 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history-military
Hampton Sides in one of those authors whose books automatically goes to the top of my TBR list. His look at the first 6 months of the Korean War and the Marines escape from the Chosin Reservoir does not disappoint.

This narrative really begins with MacArthur’s great gamble – the invasion at Inchon and the subsequent liberation of Seoul. In telling this story, Mr. Sides relates the unreasonable time table MacArthur set, Seoul had to liberated by 25 Sep (the 3 month anniversary of North Korea’s In
Jul 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Sides always does a great job of humanizing conflicts of war by selecting a handful of individuals and focusing on their specific experiences. In 'On Desperate Ground', Sides follows historical figures such as General MacArthur and President Truman to provide big picture context, but the meat of the book, which provides the strongest images of the conflict for the reader, follows the Army and Marine grunts on the ground. It is the experiences of these men that bring the ugliness of warfare to li ...more
David Eppenstein
I am giving this book 5 stars. The 5 star rating for me means the book possesses a WOW! factor(s) and this book certainly had me expressing that sentiment on several occasions. To begin with I have to confess that 20th century wars generally do not have a great deal of appeal for me as they tend to have been overly done by popular media. Consequently, I do not know much about the Korean War and surprisingly this war didn't seem to get the usual media exposure of wars fought after the invention o ...more
Dec 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: military, non-fiction
Once again, Hampton Sides does not disappoint. This was a uniquely engaging - in parts, riveting - and easily accessible slice of military history, nicely placed in time and place and context, seasoned splendidly with just enough human interest to ramp up the empathy, but not distract, and ... as is the case with his other stuff ... efficiently written so it feels as if the pages are turning themselves....

I'm long past the point of being objective about Sides' work - he's one of my favorite non-
Steven Z.
Nov 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Hampton Sides latest book, ON DESPERATE GROUND: THE MARINES AT THE RESERVOIR, THE KOREAN WAR’S GREATEST BATTLE has met, or even surpassed the high standards for excellent narrative history that he has set in his previous works. The book is based on extensive interviews, memoirs, command of secondary sources, and the ability to place the reader along side historical decision makers and the soldiers who carried out their orders. Whether Sides is writing about James Earl Ray and the assassination o ...more
Jan 11, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This book is a testament to why the United States Marine Corp is the greatest fighting force in the world. A group of Gung Ho Marines are often mistaken as arrogant. This is not arrogance you see. It is Esprit de Corp and pride. The source of this pride and Gung Ho spirit can be traced to specific events such as Belleau Wood, Guadalcanal, and Iwo Jima but there is no greater example than the 1st Marine Division's retrograde movement out of the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War.

Thank you Ham
Feb 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I will need more time to write a worthy review about this truly remarkable book about the courageous Marines at Chosin. Hampton Sides’ absolute mastery of narrative non-fiction is on full display here.
Karen R
Sep 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: jr-read
A magnificent story by the author of In the Kingdom of Ice about the key battle at the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War. The details of the war’s greatest battle are stunningly written. I loved everything about this book which covered details of tactics, politics, heroism, major historical character portrayals.

The marines fought like never before in history. Inter-relationships between the various military elements - Army, Marines - were meticulously researched by Sides. Sources include wr
The reason I wanted to read this book is because my ex-father-in-law was a Korean War Marine veteran. He was one of the few Marines able to walk off Fox Hill at Chosin Reservoir on his own two frost-bitten feet. My FIL and I never knew quite what to think of each other. I respected him but also thought he was a little nuts. My ex and I couldn't have children and were thinking of adopting a little girl from China in the 1990's. When my FIL heard this, he flat out said he could never accept a Chin ...more
Oct 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
Along with Candice Millard and Laura Hillenbrand, Hampton Sides is my favorite narrative-nonfiction author on the planet. (Erik Larson is a close fourth.) Sides's latest offering doesn't disappoint; ‘On Desperate Ground’ is a bracing story of courage and survival against impossible odds. The writing is exquisite. How does it compare to Sides’s other books? Here is my entirely subjective ranking (with stars):

1. Hellhound on His Trail (5)
2. Ghost Soldiers (5)
3. On Desperate Ground (4.5)
4. In the K
After reading On Desperate Ground I was humbled by the unfathomable suffering that the Marines and soldiers endured in the Korean War battle at Chosin Reservoir. The Korean War is often referred to as America’s “forgotten war”. Thanks to this outstanding account of what happened there, anyone who reads this book will never forget the selflessness and sacrifices of the brave men who fought there.

The poignant personal stories are so overwhelming and compelling that it is impossible to put the book
Jan 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
A gripping, well-researched and readable history of the 1st Marine Division from Inchon to the Chosin Reservoir.

The book doesn’t have much new material, but the narrative is interesting, compelling and informative, and moves along briskly. Sides ably covers the Marines’ ordeal; the decisions made by the Truman White House, the UN command, and the Marine commanders; and the communist side of the campaign. Sides covers how MacArthur’s decisions contributed to disaster, how Oliver Smith translated
Oct 08, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
I essentially read this book in 2 sittings - it was really tough to put down. I had previously read Mr. Sides' book about the U.S.S. Jeannette, which I found compelling despite covering (IMO) a less interesting topic, so my enjoyment wasn't terribly surprising. I know almost nothing about the Korean War beyond what I "learned" from M*A*S*H, and my desire for a little knowledge combined well with Sides' flair for storytelling.

As other reviewers have noted, the beginning of the book gives a descri
Jan 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
On Desperate Ground: The Marines at the Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle,
Hampton Sides, author, David Pittu, narrator
There are few books I would like to award more than 5 stars, but this is one of them. Not only is it researched thoroughly and written logically, with the clear lens of the backward glance, the audio has a pitch perfect narrator, imparting the story with the clarity and structure the author intended. He plants the reader right in the thick of every scene with descriptio
Porter Broyles
I'm a member of the M*A*S*H generation. In other words, most of what I know about the Korean War I learned from watching Hawkeye, Hot Lips, Radar, et al.

I've been wanting to learn more about the war, but didn't know where to start.

This book was an excellent choice.

This was a very well done interesting book on one of the most significant battles of the war. It provides sufficeint background on the key figures that it leaves you wanting to know more about the War, but covers the subject in suffice
Jul 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
On Desperate Ground had me as riveted as though this decades old Korean war story was in real time and the outcome not yet decided. Huge admiration for the unsung heroes and the sheer mettle of marines and others in perilous conditions, along with loathing (cough* MacArthur*) for others. Sides is adept at interspersing stories of the individual with the larger picture of the how and why of this epic battle. Hail to the Chosin Frozen Few! Thanks to Doubleday for the advance copy.
Peter Tillman
As this is a new book and will come due soon, I’m going to close it out as DNF, about halfway in. The writing is fully up to Sides’ usual high standards, but I’m just not in the mood for it. I'll tell you why, below. As always, please read the publisher's intro (top of page) first. I’m likely done. Left unrated.

Taking a break at p. 89. Too much bad stuff: MacArthur’s strutting peacock crap and fake deadlines, his toady Gen. Edward Almond (Marine Gen. Smith’s boss), an incompetent, impulsive man,
Nov 05, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book brings to life the details of an amazing part of world history. The United Nations came to the aid of the Korean people right after the North Koreans launched an attack. The authors does a good job of setting the stage at the beginning by explaining the nations and the general. During the rest of the book he tells the tales of US Marines on the ground, pilots in the air, officers in command posts and even a Korean civilian desperate to help his sister make it across the bridge on the w ...more
Sep 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Knowing precious little about the Korean War, I first read Halberstam's book, which was excellent. Interestingly, Halberstam glossed over Chosin, seemingly deferring to the many other great works on the subject. I was glad for that, because I really wanted Sides to tell me the story of Chosin for the first time. Sides is an incredible author, and he did not disappoint.
Having recently read a lot of civil rights books earlier this summer, it was interesting to hear the story of Jesse Brown, a gro
Dec 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is nonfiction/war/history. It covered the problems with China during the Korean War. This is a war I know little about. I found this informative and tragic.

I listened to the audiobook and the narrator did a fabulous job. This one started off slow, but I quickly became riveted. What a sad circumstance! Hindsight is 20/20 and I bet the powers that 'be' would have done things differently. Hopefully some valuable lessons were learned.

I like the way the research was laid out. The author include
Dick Reynolds
Oct 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The author tells a true story that is exciting and tension-filled as any novel I’ve read in many years. He captures the courage and heroism of Marines who fought in this misbegotten war along with the arrogance and faulty strategy pursued by Generals Douglas MacArthur and Edward Almond.
I enlisted in the Marines in 1953 and, during my twenty-four year career, served with many Korean War veterans including several who are mentioned in this book. I’d like to call attention to two of these men in m
The Chosin Few

“So the Chinese are to our east. They’re to our west. They’re to our north. And to our south. Well, that simplifies things. They can’t get away from us now!” – Colonel “Chesty” Puller, on learning his regiment was surrounded at Koto-ri in North Korea

Hampton Sides’ latest book is a riveting saga, set in the opening months of the Korean War, a war I knew next to nothing about, aside from what I’d learned watching M.A.S.H. episodes and visiting the MacArthur Museum in Norfolk, VA
Jan 12, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: korean-war
Entertaining read by Hampton Sides that focuses mainly on the battles at the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea during late 1950, site of some of the worst fighting during the war. Sides is an accomplished writer and his narrative reads as such ... especially when he stays on his topic of the exploits of the First Marine Division. While much has been written on this particular part of the Korean War, Sides does an admirable job of painting a gripping version of the tale ... albeit one that doesn't ...more
Dec 29, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, 2019
Sides provides an episodic account of the invasion from the east coast of North Korea across the middle, and the necessary retreat attack in the other direction necessitated by MacArthur (and his equally arrogant sidekick Almond)'s ridiculous, self-serving, cherry-picked-evidence based assessment of China's presence on the Yalu River (in MacArthur's estimate, it was 0 - he was off by about 250,000).

Each section centers on individuals, which makes the narrative compelling, after all, humans exper
Aug 03, 2019 rated it really liked it
Sides keeps the tension constant in his telling of the Marines and Army retreat from North Korea's Chosin reservoir during the Korean War. A drawback is that, while American personal accounts drive the narrative, there is no personal view from the Chinese or North Korean perspective. During the conflict 50,000 Americans died, while 100,000 Chinese and 2.5 million Koreans were killed.
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