In the twilight below zero on November 27, 1950, nestled next to the Chosin reservoir and surrounded by the slopes of treacherous terrain, the 1st Battalion, 7th Regiment of the 1st Marine Division, was in the center of a closing circle – and an early one but decisive battle in the Korean War.
In the following 17 days, around 120,000 Chinese troops would descend on the reservoir in the heart of North Korea, exceeding the number of soldiers US Marines and their United Nations commanders at about 4 to 1. The Marines, in a show of bravery and will that would deserve them a place in US Military lore that eventually freed itself from the tactical noose, fought its way to the port of Hungnam and evacuated with more than 80,000 North Korean refugees in tow.
Seven decades later, Karl Reinhard and colleagues at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have published results that help shed light on the final days and meals of a Marine who died fighting one of the worst battles in modern warfare history.
As an expert in pollen analysis and identification, Reinhard has spent much of his career studying the intestinal contents of mummified remains, often to see how a person died. In the case of the private first class, the remains of which were brought to Reinhard’s attention by Gregory Berg, a laboratory case manager with the defense Prisoner of war/.MY Accounting Agency, the cause of death was already clear: a gunshot wound.
However, the researchers knew that the contents of the intestines can also provide clues about how a person lived. So they set out to learn more about how the private first class managed the frenzied 12 days between the start of the massive Chinese counterattack and the PFCDeath on December 8, 1950. They focused on a question that, with the supply lines cut and rations tight, would have consumed a Marine surrounded by a seemingly endless barrage of enemy reinforcements: What was that? PFC Eat? How would he feed himself?
“This shows a soldier’s individual struggle for survival in the far greater struggle imposed by the liberation of Korea,” said Reinhard, professor at the School of Natural Resources in Nebraska. “It is a reflection on so many individual struggles that arise from global conflicts.”
Reinhard began with the help of Nebraska Alumna Brianna Neu and Marina Milanello do Amaral, a forensic botanist who works in Sao Pãulo, Brazil, to prepare and analyze the petrified intestinal contents. Unusual challenges abounded. The unusually heavy, rock-hard specimen actually snapped at the blade of Reinhard’s scalpel when he tried to cut it, likely due to the presence of a preservative. A standard rehydration procedure probably failed for the same reason. More worryingly, microscopic components of the sample, including pollen, withstood the team’s initial efforts to separate them for analysis.
Ultimately, their years of persistence would pay off. Based on comparative analyzes of pollen, seed debris, and other microscopic pieces of elastic plant tissue, the team found that the PFC lived mainly on the stems, roots and leaves of plants belonging to the rose family. A treasonous one? Striped pattern especially for the pollen of this family. Reinhard’s thoughts immediately went to the many edible fruits of the family: strawberries, apples, cherries, among dozens of others.
Instead, the team would conclude that the seeds came from Potentilla, a genus of plants commonly known as cinquefoils. In contrast to their cousins in the rose family, according to Reinhard, cinquefoils can be called starvation food – they’re only eaten in times of extreme scarcity and, regardless of the amounts consumed, aren’t nearly nutritious enough to feed anyone for long.
“Who would think Potentilla would have been consumed?” Reinhard said about his initial attitude. “It wasn’t even on my radar to compare this banding to something that is all but inedible unless you are absolutely starving.
“The diet is very low. I would call it a little inedible. The only benefit is that it provides roots and stems and super-dry fruit that can fill a person’s belly. “
The team also found remains of mustard seeds, which led to the question of whether the PFC may have been able to source kimchi or sausage from local residents. But closer analysis dispelled this notion and suggested that, as with the Potentilla, the PFC fished the seeds from mustard plants growing in the country or in a local village.
“They were pretty much in the condition they would have been raw,” said Reinhard, who noted that raw mustard seeds are generally not part of traditional Korean or Chinese cuisine. “This is an indication that these have not been softened by boiling, baking, boiling in a meat, or fermenting.”
Although not every Marine faced food shortages in the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, Reinhard said that at least some in the 7th Regiment likely had to adopt that PFC‘s persistent diet as he grapples with the constant threats of frostbite, gun entrapment and the overwhelming onslaught of Chinese forces.
The team’s findings, the latest in a long line of forensic collaborations between the United States and the Republic of Korea, help clear an often overlooked challenge of fighting an often overlooked conflict, Reinhard said. But they also show an ingenuity, he said in the PFCThe refusal to surrender to the denial of the most indisputable human needs.
“There is a story of human resilience in this,” he said, “that this guy was able to keep fighting despite the fact that he was completely under-nourished.”
“It is indescribable and incomprehensible that these people would have difficulty fighting their way out of the Chinese encirclement without rations and under such debilitating circumstances. It’s just amazing to me. “