The parshah speaks of the many battles that klal Yisrael fought. As they traveled through the desert, they were confronted by their enemies, time and time again. Tired, thirsty, exhausted from the weary journey through the desert, they had just been attacked and beaten by an implacable foe, Amaleik. They cried out to Hashem – they made a vow to the Lord – and He came to their rescue. Although the Canaanim were powerful, Hashem said, “Why should I trouble My children to besiege every city?” He gave all the warriors the idea to leave their cities, and they gathered in one place, where they were slain (Rashi).
Salvation comes in many forms. It was November 1950, during the coldest winter North Korea had experienced in 100 years. The Korean War was in full force. Allied troops were deployed to help an under-armed South Korea fight off powerful North Korean invaders. United Nations troops, which consisted mainly of US Marines, joined forces with a US Army combat team, South Korean Military Police, and a detachment of British troops, around 25,000 men altogether. The group was chasing North Korean soldiers out of the Chongjin Reservoir, often referred to as Chosin.
But they weren’t alone. In an effort to shore up North Korea, China sent 150,000 soldiers to back them up. The Chinese soldiers arrived and surrounded the Allied troops, hoping to isolate and destroy the First Marine Division. The Americans saw the odds and thought they were going to die. Not only were the Allies surrounded and outnumbered, but they were also freezing cold. It was cruel, punishing, unforgiving cold - as low as 40 below zero at night. Bulldozers and tanks couldn’t move. Fuel lines cracked. Guns wouldn’t fire properly. Sweat froze on the men’s skin and between their toes. Rations and extra blood for the wounded were frozen solid and rendered useless. They were hungry, tired, frostbitten, and running out of options.
Reinforcement troops were needed, but there were none to be had. Finally, a call went out for more mortar shells – at the very least, let them fight their way out. The code name that had been instituted for mortar shells was “Tootsie Rolls” – a chewy, chocolate candy that children adore and their parents abhor! The problem was that the officer back at command wasn’t familiar with this particular code. Upon receiving the urgent request, he allocated an airdrop of the chocolate candy. When the supplies arrived via airdrop, instead of ammunition, the soldiers opened the crates to reveal thousands of frozen Tootsie Roll candies! Shocked and dismayed, what were they to do? The troops didn’t have time to get mad. They needed to get home. Desperate for food, the allied soldiers thawed the candy in their mouths for some quick energy.
And then, some ingenious fellow had a great idea – an idea that saved all their lives! Given the sticky properties of the Tootsie Roll candies, it was determined that once defrosted, they could also be used to repair broken fuel lines and bullet holes in equipment! They could mount a counterattack or at the very least defend themselves to whatever degree possible.
With urgent intensity, the men applied the melted candy over a rip or tear and waited a few seconds for it to freeze again. It did just that! Fuel lines were plugged with chocolate, and equipment never tasted better! This was their way out. For 13 days, the Allied forces at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir refused to give up. The Marines formed a column and marched toward the port city of Hungnam and the Sea of Japan, where other American forces were waiting.
For 78 miles, the brave men marched the steep, dangerous road, fighting through ten Chinese infantry divisions. Fueled by sheer will, guts, and thousands upon thousands of chewy candy, the men managed to claw their way back from certain doom. One Marine wrote: “By large, Tootsie Rolls were our main diet while fighting our way out of the Reservoir. You can bet there were probably hundreds of thousands of Tootsie Roll wrappers scattered all over North Korea.”
While many would hesitate to call the 13-day event a military victory in the traditional sense, the withdrawal is one of the most well-known campaigns in Marine history. There’s even a Navy ship named after it. The men, outnumbered and surrounded, managed to not only get to the sea, but to slow the progress of the Chinese troops and immobilize several of their divisions. Those unique survivors, who call themselves the “Chosin Few” – owe their lives to ingenuity, grit, and a highly under-appreciated candy.