Mr. Russ (pronounced like noose and not like muss) lives out there in Oakville, Calif., where they produce some pretty fine wine. But he doesn't grow grapes; he writes books. And he wasn't writing me about our balance of trade or foreign policy, he was writing about, well, writing.
The book he now has is called "Frozen Chosin" and it is about (quel coincidence!) Chinese Communists and a fight we had with them 47 years ago this month in the mountains of North Korea near the Chinese border at the Chosin Reservoir. It was not the largest battle Americans have ever fought but it was one of the most dramatic and was very nearly a disaster.
Because of Gen. MacArthur's ego and stubbornness, we very nearly lost the battle and two entire U.S. divisions (about 30,000 men) with it. When you think we lost about 57,000 in 10 years of Vietnam, losing 30,000 in two or three weeks would really have been something.
And it was close. And it is the story Martin Russ now tells.
When I got his letter I went back to re-read his earlier book about Korea and the standard histories. You encounter such arrogance by famous generals, you shake your head. Consider the timetable:
Our Eighth Army crossed into North Korean in September of 1950. The Chinese sent a warning. Don't get anywhere near the Chinese border. MacArthur said they were bluffing. But soon we began bringing in dead Chinese.
"A few volunteers," said our brilliant military brains. On Oct. 26 the first major Chinese attack crushed a Republic of Korea outfit. Yet on Oct. 30 the 1st Marine Division and our 7th Army Division were ordered to proceed north 70 miles over mountains to the Chosin Reservoir. "What about the Chinese?" asked a Marine general. "There are no Chinese," he was smugly assured. By Nov. 2 the Marines were fighting major battles with the Chinese near Sudong. Thousands of men involved on both sides. Said MacArthur, "The boys may be home for Christmas." It had begun to snow. On Nov. 10 the temperature fell to 15 below zero. Along the front the Chinese were coming out of the hills ambushing and attacking. MacArthur continued to shrug them off.
In his study Joseph C. Goulden writes this terrible sentence: "November 26 was the day the Eighth Army began falling apart."
It is that story which Russ tells. Of an entire U.S. army being overwhelmed by numbers and collapsing in the winter cold of the worst mountain country in which Americans ever fought. No Chinese in the war? Some 40 divisions were coming in and a dozen were already there in North Korea. Our 7th Division ceased to function as a unit. The ROK Army turned and ran. A newly arrived Turkish brigade slaughtered several thousand "Chinese." The "Chinese" turned out to be fleeing ROKs. The Marines were surrounded at the Chosin.
That is where Mr. Russ' new book gets good.
But this isn't a book review, this is about Marty Russ. His first book was "The Last Parallel" and it was astonishing, a narrative by a young enlisted Marine fresh from college, about the fighting in Korea in '52-'53. But let Russ tell you about it:
" 'The Last Parallel' was a 'Book of the Month Club' pick and best seller; it was reviewed on the first page of The New York Times and Herald Tribune book sections on the same Sunday, which was a hell of a thrill. I got 'fan' letters including one from J.D. Salinger of all people (this really delighted me because I had heard it said the main character in the book was 'Holden Caulfield joins the Marines').
"Then Stanley Kubrick bought the rights and brought me out to the Coast where I stayed at the Bel Air, acted like a big shot and wrote a screenplay. For a while it seemed a sure thing, but then alas, Kubrick got sucked into Brando's 'One-Eyed Jacks' project, then fell into 'Spartacus,' and after that became obsessed with 'Lolita,' which I worked on along with several other writers including of course Nabokov. He never went back to 'The Last Parallel.' "
Russ' great book came out in either '57 or '58 so this is all a long time ago. He's stayed in touch with Stanley Kubrick, who "personally seems to have a soft spot for Marines in the Korean War," and after he wraps his current film "wants to take a look" at "Frozen Chosin." Marty also thinks it's a shame I don't know Ken Burns so that I "could bully him into doing a series on the Korean War." Russ has an agent, and a good one, Sterling Lord in Manhattan.
But with all this, so far no publisher is buying. Korea, Russ is told, doesn't