66 years ago, thousands of American and allied forces were saved thanks to a very small, very chewy secret weapon:
Yep, that’s right. The mediocre-at-best chewy chocolate candy that you eat reluctantly six weeks after Halloween or if you’re really good at the doctor’s office also totally saved lives.
But what? How? Buckle up — it’s history time.
It was the winter of 1950. Allied troops had been deployed to help an underarmed South Korea fight off powerful North Korean invaders.
United Nations troops, which consisted mainly of U.S. Marines from the 1st Marine Division, joined forces with a U.S. Army combat team, some South Korean Military Police and a detachment of British troops, around 25,000 men altogether. The group was chasing North Korean soldiers — who, by the way, had the might of China’s Mao Zedong along with the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin behind them — out of the Changjin Reservoir, often referred to as Chosin.
But they weren’t alone.
Hearing the North Korean soldiers were in a bad way, Mao sent 150,000 Chinese soldiers to back them up. The Chinese soldiers surrounded the allied troops, hoping to isolate and destroy the 1st Marine Division.
“I thought the whole division was going to die,” Capt. Richard Wayne Bolton told Military.com. “The Chinese came to annihilate the 1st Marine Division and I thought every one of us was going to die.”
Not only were the men surrounded and outnumbered, they were freezing cold.
This wasn’t “Wow, I could use some cocoa” 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 skin and between toes. Rations and extra blood for the wounded were frozen solid and rendered useless.
They were hungry, tired, frostbitten, and running out of options.
That’s when someone put in a call for more mortar shells, the code name for which was — you guessed it — “tootsie rolls.”
Only someone back at command wasn’t familiar with the code.
When the supplies arrived via airdrop, instead of ammunition, the soldiers opened the crates to reveal thousands of frozen Tootsie Rolls.
But 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 and armpits for some quick energy.
And given the sticky properties of the Tootsie Rolls, once defrosted, they could also be used to repair broken fuel lines and bullet holes in equipment.
The men applied the melted candy over a rip or tear and waited for it to freeze again. Boom. 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.
When asked if his company was retreating, 1st Marine Division Gen. Oliver Prince Smith responded: “Retreat? Hell, we are attacking in another direction.”
For 78 miles, they marched the steep, dangerous road, fighting through 10 Chinese infantry divisions.
Fueled by sheer will, guts, and a few thousand pieces of 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 literally thousands of Tootsie Roll wrappers scattered over North Korea.”
While many would hesitate to call the 13-day event a victory in the traditional sense, the withdrawal is one of the most well-known campaigns in Marine history.
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 who survived, who call themselves the Chosin Few, owe their lives to ingenuity, grit, and highly under-appreciated candy.
It may not be the tastiest treat around, but the story of how it earned its place in American history should never be forgotten.
See a re-creation of the heroic and surprising turn of events in this video from Great Big Story.