This story was written by Ron Albers for Motts Military Museum and is reprinted here with permission.
John J. Mitchell was born May 29, 1929 in Albany, New York. His parents had marital problems that affected his home life, and they separated shortly after he quit school in the 10th grade. His lack of a high school diploma was a detriment to him getting the type of work he could enjoy and call a career. He lived and worked on a dairy farm for a while and was paid to do all those tasks required of any farm worker, hard work - before sun up until after sun down. He worked for a trucking/freight company, unloading train cars and loading trucks. For a while he worked as an arborist, felling and pruning trees, which was particularly difficult in the cold winters of NY. Too ashamed to go back to school and not finding rewarding work, he visited the recruiting office.
In 1947, just after his 18th birthday, John enlisted in the Marine Corps. It’s not that he had a particular longing to be a Marine from childhood; it’s simply the fact that he needed a job and that the other recruiters were busy or not available when he went to the recruiting station. In his first three years, he experienced the finest of training and travels the U.S.M.C. had to offer. As an intelligence specialist at the battalion level, he trained in the heat of the jungles of Guam. While there, the U.S. needed additional Marines in China to support the evacuation of American Nationals from Tsingtao and Shanghai. His battalion boarded the USS Bayfield APA 33 and headed for China, where they assisted until March of 1949. For the next two months they cruised to Guam, Pearl Harbor, through the Panama Canal and back to Morehead City NC for more training at Camp LeJuene.
His unit was now the 3rd Battalion 6th Marines, and it was ordered to Cape Porcupine, Labrador for cold weather maneuvers, traveling there aboard the USS Henrico APA 45. There they practiced small boat landings and ground operations on the tundra and permafrost. Most of all, they became proficient in the use of cold weather gear, training that later would save many of their lives.
On their cruise back to NC from Labrador they happened to be in the right place at the right time. It was Armistice Day 1949, and the mayor of NYC requested a Marine unit to march in the huge parade down 5th Avenue. Their ship docked in NY Harbor, and the Marines spent four days in the city, highlighted by their march through Manhattan to a substantial and appreciative crowd. Mitch will never forget the pride and joy he felt marching in that parade!
Following more training at LeJeune, Mitch departed in May 1950 aboard the USS Leyte CV32 for a rotational cruise in the Mediterranean. While they were in the Med, North Korea invaded South Korea; and his battalion was tasked to deploy to Korea. A transport and a cargo ship were sent from Norfolk and picked up the Marines at Suda Bay, Crete in August of 1950. Passing through the Suez Canal, they headed straight for Japan.
When they arrived in Kobe, they became the 3rd Battalion 7th Marines. Although they were in Japan only a short time, they received replacements and equipment before heading for Korea. From Sept of 1950 until March of 1951, John was Chief Scout Observer (S-2), Intelligence Section, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, Republic of Korea. During those six months - before he reached the age of 22 - Sergeant Mitchell experienced and witnessed more than most American men could ever endure in several lifetimes.
He first landed at Inchon and saw his initial combat while proceeding towards the Han River and Seoul. On that mission, they sustained more than 100 casualties out of 1200 men in Mitch’s unit. They were relieved at Ouijongbou and transported back to Inchon.
John’s second landing was at Wonsan, after sailing up and down the coast (Operation Yo-Yo) as minesweepers cleaned the harbor. There they were issued cold weather gear in anticipation of the cold weather as they marched far into North Korea. Among the gear was the life-saving mummy sleeping bag, a Marine’s home at times and a priceless piece of equipment to a Marine. After a few days near Wonsam, the Marines traveled by an old train north to Hamhung.
Books have been written about “The Chosin Few,” and it’s absolutely impossible to summarize the brutality of the environment, the enemy, and the weather in a short article such as this. Briefly, about 15,000 Allied Troops - nearly all U.S. Marines - had fought their way up a narrow, one-lane road from Hamhung. They departed on 2 Nov 50 and arrived at the Chosin Reservoir late in the month. Somehow, our U.S. military intelligence at the highest levels had failed to realize the number of Chinese troops who had gathered in the area and had nearly surrounded our troops. Most estimates are that there were approximately 120,000 Chinese in the battle that began on 27 Nov. Our troops were ordered to march back those 73 miles to Hamhung. The only road available was a narrow, rutted, one lane dirt road through hills and valleys, with torturous hairpin curves and steep cliffs. There were no trees along the route, only some stunted pine scrub. This Korean terrain was, in and of itself, a terrible obstacle; and the surrounding Chinese troops had every tactical advantage. Our forces were in plain sight, and the enemy knew where we were headed. To make the combat even more absolutely brutal, the weather was unbearably cold; and frostbite was every bit as dangerous as the enemy bullets. Temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees were made even worse by strong Manchurian winds of 40 knots or more. At times there was blinding snow and as much as two feet of snow on the ground. The vast majority of the Marines had only the clothes they were wearing and their precious sleeping bag as protection from the elements. The situation looked impossible. But these men never gave up. For fifteen long days and nights, they fought fatigue, frostbite, the terrain, the elements, the Chinese, and nearly impossible odds. Under constant enemy fire for more than 45 miles of that road, they fought, arriving at the bottom of the hill at Chinhung-Ni, carrying their wounded with them and burying their dead as they went. These 15,000 suffered 12,000 casualties - 3115 KIA and about 6000 wounded, plus thousands more with severe frostbite. It has been estimated that more than 28,000 of the Chinese were KIA and more than 13,000 wounded. Three of the Chinese Divisions were destroyed, never to fight again. The remainder were unable to fight for many months after their battle against the “Chosin Few.”
Shortly after Chosin, Major General Oliver P. Smith, Commanding General of 1st Marine Division (6/50 to 5/51) awarded Sgt Mitchell a Navy/Marine Corps Commendation Ribbon with Combat “V.” The accompanying citation read:
“For excellent service in the line of his profession while serving with a Marine infantry
battalion during operations in KOREA from 27 November to 5 December 1950. Sergeant
MITCHELL displayed great skill, courage and confidence in the performance of his duties as
chief scout observer. His professional knowledge of scouting enabled him to secure valuable
information about the enemy which materially aided the battalion in planning future
operations. When the intelligence section had been depleted by casualties until he was the
only remaining scout, he voluntarily carried on the scouting activities for the entire section. he
worked day and night under adverse weather conditions, subjected to constant enemy fire.
He displayed no concern for his own personal safety or fatigue. His actions set an example
for all who served with him. Sergeant MITCHELL’S conduct throughout was in keeping with
the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
Following Korea, John was briefly transferred closer to his home with a guard detachment at a Naval Supply Depot in Scotia, NY. It’s here that he met and married his bride, Sina Mae (Pat) Baker in December 1951. Shortly thereafter Mitch transferred to Washington DC, where he served in the Office of Naval Intelligence for nearly five years. Promotions and upward mobility were scarce in the Intel field, so John decided a career change was in order, attending electronics school at Great Lakes IL and subsequently in San Diego CA. Mitch admits that he wasn’t cut out for that arena, so he withdrew from the program.
He was then stationed for 15 months with the 3rd Marine Division in Okinawa. At first he was Intel Chief for the 3rd Marine Regiment and later transferred to 3rd Division Intelligence school, beginning as an instructor and then as NCOIC.
After Okinawa he rejoined the 1st Marine Division Intelligence Section at Camp Pendleton CA from Aug 59 to May 62. While there, he attended the Army’s Intelligence School at Fort Holobird, MD, graduating #1 (Honor Man) in a class of 32. His dream for a long time had been to get transferred to Hawaii. In May 1962 Sgt Mitchell was transferred to Camp Smith on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. He served there for three full years as Senior Enlisted Intelligence Analyst, Indo-Asian Pacific Section, working in a Division directly under the CINC Pacific.
In August 1965 the 1st Marine Division was ordered to Okinawa and Viet Nam. Mitch went to ChuLai as Combat Intelligence Chief of the 1st Marine Division, where he stayed until Sept 1966. While there he was in charge of approximately 75 other Marines, who served in a variety of roles from mapping to briefing and from selecting targets for B-52 Arc Light bombing missions to interrogating prisoners in the POW compound. Mitch flew numerous chopper missions into Special Forces units and often worked with the Navy Swift Boats out of ChuLai. For his service in Vietnam, Sergeant Mitchell was awarded his 3rd Letter of Commendation with Combat “V.”
His final assignment was to Norfolk VA, where he served nearly two years as NCOIC of the Transportation Intel Section, Amphibious Department, of the U.S. Navy Atlantic Intelligence Center.
MSgt (E-8) Mitchell retired from USMC in August of 1968, after exactly 21 years of service. His many Awards and Decorations include: Navy/Marine Corps Commendation Medal with Combat “V” & 2 stars; Navy/Marine Corps Achievement Medal; Combat Action (2 awards;) Presidential Unit Citation (3 awards;) USMC Good Conduct Medal (7 awards;) China Service; Navy Occupation (Europe clasp;) National Defense Service Medal w/ 2 Stars; Korean Service w/ 4 stars; Vietnam Service Medal with 3 Stars; United Nations Medal; Korean Presidential Unit Citation; Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry w/ palm; Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal; and Korean War service ribbon.
Upon leaving the Marine Corps John was a member of the Technical Staff at North American Rockwell in Columbus for two years. Mitch left there in 1970 to become a District Scout Executive with Boy Scouts of America (BSA.) He held that title at councils in Columbus, Miami FL, and Huntington WV for the next 13 years. In Columbus he was the first Director of Scouting for the Handicapped.
In 1983 John and his family moved to Austin TX, where he did a variety of jobs working for an old Marine Corps buddy who owned a number of businesses. John managed the guy’s new mobile home park until that job was eliminated because of his buddy’s financial problems. Mitch soon found work with the VA Finance Center in Austin. After 10 years, they moved back to Columbus to be closer to family. After Pat retired from J.C. Penney, they both worked driving cars nationwide for a leasing company. They both enjoyed seeing the country in this manner. They suffered a serious car accident in late 2004, however, which ended their driving careers and finally forced them to retire into their current lifestyle centered around family and volunteer activities.
Married for more than 55 years, John his wife have raised three sons and two daughters. They are the proud parents of 14 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. In 2006 they were among Korean War veterans and their spouses from many countries who accepted an offer from the Korean government to visit the country they fought to save. Both had a wonderful experience and said the Koreans were friendly and grateful;
the country is beautiful and the whole experience was tremendously positive.
Both John and Pat are volunteers at our museum, presently at the front desk on Wednesday afternoons. Make a point to stop out and meet them. He can even tell you how to find his photo on the wall at the beautiful Korean War Memorial in Washington DC. One would never know that this gentle giant was was a hero among heroes in one of the most horrific battles in the history of modern warfare.
It’s sad that very few Americans remember much at all about the Korean War or have even heard of the “Chosin Few.” That’s why Motts Military Museum exits - to honor veterans like Master Sergeant John J. Mitchell and make certain that their legacies remain alive. He is a true American patriot and hero, living proof that “Freedom is Not Free.”
God Bless You, Top Mitchell!
Yes, it's too bad that the battle of the Chosin Reservoir is not well known outside the Marine Corps. It was most likely the worst conditions U.S. Marines ever faced. A single regiment (7th Marines) with Army support units (about 10,000 troops, total) surrounded by ten divisions of Chinese Army (roughly 100,000), in temperatures well below zero. The Marines were ill equipped to handle such weather, but never short on fighting spirit. Many heroes in the Chosin Few.
I've known survivors of that battle. Most were my Senior NCO's and Officers. My Platoon Commander in Vietnam, CWO4 "Gunner" Donald P. Ivers, was a machine gunner with E/3/7 at Chosin. I'll never forget him. "The Gunner" passed away in 2010.
My Father, Sergeant Major Bert H. Boyd, was an Army Veteran of the Korean War. He was awarded a Bronze Star with V, and Purple Heart, while serving there. He also fought in Europe during the winter of 1944. He said the weather and terrain he experienced in Korea, was much worse than they ever were in Europe. He hated the cold.