Book Review: Martin Russ' Breakout
By Thomas Barclay

TITLE: Breakout, The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950
AUTHOR: Martin Russ
PUBLISHER: Penguin Books
COPYRIGHT: 1999, Martin Russ
ISBN: 0 14 02.9259 4 (paperback) 0-88064-231-9 (hardcover)
BOOK TYPE: Non-Fiction Hardcover (Military History)
PRICE: 14.99 US, 20.99 Canadian
Size: 436 page (plus index and pictures) trade paperback

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Breakout is a history of the Chosin Reservoir campaign in the Korean Conflict. The book recounts the tale particularly of the X Corps under Army General Almond as a part of MacArthur's plans to end the situation in Korea with a sweeping Victory. More specifically, the book focuses under the encirclement and subsequent fighting withdrawal of the 1st Marine Division under general Oliver P. Smith from the Chosin Reservoir area.

The book is written with (perhaps justifiable) pro-US Marine sentiment. It does not speak favourably of the Corps commander, General Almond, nor of the Army troops which participated in the Chosin campaign. It focuses upon the actions of the Marines and pulls no punches.

Throughout the book, you get a good feeling for the nature of the conflict - a battle fought in mountainous terrain, in horrid winter weather, against a vastly numerically superior foe, and with limited command and control. The book also illustrates the distance between the view presented by the media of the time and the situation as perceived by the Marine Divisional command - the former having written off the Division, the latter having plans for a fighting withrdawal and breakout back to the sea after being segmented and encircled by the Chinese forces.

The book isn't pretty (content-wise) as it relates some pretty horrific events. At least one story in the book made me profoundly uncomfortable when I thought about it (one of the Marines using a partially decapitated and frozen Chinese soldier as a TV table). But it is told to a large extent by the people who survived the event and their recollections are vivid and I beleive credible. And the accounting gives you a flavour for what it means to be a US Marine and for how some of the Corps' traditions play out in the harsh Korean mountains. The book illustrates both the best and worst in human nature and gives the reader a good feeling for the dedication and professionalism of Marine officers and non-coms along with the great hazards those combat leaders face. It also gives a gritty texture to the hardships of this unusual campaign from the perspective of the men who fought there, all the way from privates to colonels and generals (the last of these mostly by references to their official diaries).

The book also would not, by some, be considered politically correct, as it reflects the opinions of the Marines who served throughout the Chosin campaign. The slang for the Chinese regulars was "shambos". There is some profanity in the book. There are episodes of cowardice and the great disdain of the Marines for the pathetic Army troops they had been saddled with is apparent. But it paints a picture of events that smacks of truth and not of adulteration (except perhaps the Marines' own tendencies not to dwell on personel who may have failed to live up to Marine standards). And despite the slang description of the Chinese, there are several descriptions of Chinese soldiers as incredibly brave and stoic people.

The format of the book that I read was a trade paperback. It had easy to read text, and clearly illustrated line-art maps. The prose style was readable and conversational (partially a by-product of the many personal reminiscences which form a significant body of the work). The level of detail provided was good. The clarity of the retelling was also good, although in some parts the chaos of the actual events is to be felt - that chaos comes through without diminishing the overall clarity of the accounting.

If there was any single criticism which might apply to this book, it is in the failure to present the view from the Army above the level of a few non-coms and privates. The book definitely has a Marine-centric feel to it. Additionally, it might have been nice to hear some recounting of events from the Chinese side, but that perhaps would be the meat of another work. Overall, if the rah-rah pro-Marine attitude is taken with a grain of salt, it is an excellent study of the Chosin Campaign and the role of the 1st Marine Division in that campaign. And an educational and interesting read.

Rating Back to Top

Readability: 9/10
Detail: 8/10
Completeness: 7/10
Value: 8/10
(I got mine used... say 7/10 otherwise)
Overall: 8/10