Taplett, Robert D.
[LtCol CO 3bn5thMR]

biography    biography    biography 


At 1045 Company G ran into machinegun fire coming from the 3/5 area of the Brigade objective, the hill north of Kang-ni. Taplett  blasted the hill with Marine air and artillery, and the North Koreans were in full retreat within an hour. MAG–33 and 1/11 rained death on the retreating Reds and continued to pound the hill preparatory to an assault by Company G.


Taplett -- Lt. Col. Robert D. Taplett


CO 3/5 1st MarDiv

Unprepared for a North Korean attack on June 25, 1950, South Korean forces, along with U.S. troops rushed in from Japan, were nearly pushed off the peninsula. An amphibious landing at Inch'ŏn restored momentum to anti-communist forces, but Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme U.S. commander in the Pacific, overreached. Sending his men across the 38thparallel in a race to the Yalu River border with China, he ignored China's warnings that its army would intervene.

"The weather was the worst enemy," says Taplett, now 81, who grew up in Tyndall, S.D., and was no stranger to the cold. The temperature during what was reputedly the coldest Korean winter in a century sank to 40 degrees below zero at night. That felt as if it were 80 below when the Manchurian wind was figured in, even though in those days, no one spoke of wind-chill factors."You'd see fellows with the tips of their noses and ears that had turned white," Taplett says. "We had warming tents, but there weren't enough."Short of rations, his men subsisted on Tootsie Rolls and frozen pine apple juice. "We would cut the cans open and suck on the juice," he recalls.

"From Nov. 27 to Dec. 10, we were in almost constant combat," Taplett says. "I don't think I slept two hours the whole time. You had to keep moving, or you'd freeze. I left Yudam-ni with roughly 1,300 men and got into Hagaru-ni (at the south end of the reservoir) with 326 effective Marines Better than half of our casualties were caused by weather."The frostbite Taplett suffered left him with progressive deadening of the nerves in the bottom of his feet that has made it increasingly difficult to keep his balance. His nose was frostbitten as well, leading to swelling that marred the profile of the tall, lean officer who reminded those who served with him of a racehorse.

"The man did just about everything," says Frank Metersky of the Chosin Few, an organization of Marines who survived that frigid winter. "He went in at Pusan and held the perimeter, took Wŏlmi-do island, the gateway to Inch'ŏn, and fought to keep the road open for escape from the reservoir.

People have gotten the Medal of Honor for much less."Taplett did not get that medal. Not the politically correct sort, he questioned orders he thought were wrong and was threatened with court-martial for not punishing a subordinate who went AWOL and flew to Tokyo in December 1950 to bring back liquor for the battalion. Taplett did receive the Navy Cross and two Silver Stars. He retired from the Marines in 1960 because, he says, it was hard to support six children on the full colonel's pay of $11,000 a year. He went on to do managerial and consulting work for a variety of organizations, but his Korea experiences were clearly unmatched. He is writing his memoirs now, to be called Darkhorse Six, his radio call sign during the Chosin retreat.

Taplett has returned to South Korea twice, the last time in 1985. On that trip, he was moved to see the hills, once denuded of all trees, lush and green. It is North Korea where the hillsides are now bare as the people scrounge for firewood and food in a way reminiscent of the Korean War.

Though suspicious of recent moves by North Korea to ease tensions with the South and other nations, Taplett says he feels only sympathy for the North Korean people, who gave shelter to Marines and shared meager rations with them a half-century ago. "I hope and pray the North Korean leadership is sincere because the people there have suffered enough," he says.

As for his own country, Taplett says the Korean War is "finally getting the recognition it deserves."Among celebrities who served in Korea are the actor James Garner, Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, and John Glenn, an astronaut and former senator. There is still no epic film, no Saving Private Ryan, to bring the war home to a younger generation. However, a memorial was finally erected July 27, 1995 on the National Mall five years ago. Across from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Korean site has its own wall but no names, just ghostly faces etched in black granite and a garden with sculptures of 19 soldiers on patrol.

Three years ago, Taplett's executive officer, John Canney, killed during the Chosin retreat, was posthumously promoted to lieutenant colonel at a ceremony in Washington. As for Taplett, who has survived three heart attacks and bypass surgery since Korea, "I'm just happy to be alive," he says.

August 6, 1950

To facilitate the early relief of the 27th Infantry, Lieutenant Colonel Robert D. Taplett’s 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, departed from Ch'angwŏn at 1040, 6 August, and arrived at Chindong-ni less than 2 hours later.