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50 states, 50 heroes: Frozen Fox Hill

Born Nov. 30, 1919, in Dehart, Kentucky, William Earl Barber was attending college when World War II in Europe broke out on Sept. 1, 1939. Convinced the U.S. would eventually be dragged into the war, Barber enlisted in the Marine Corps in March 1940 and went through basic training at Parris Island. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in August 1943 after graduating from Officer Candidate School at Marine Corps Base Quantico. During World War II, he fought in the Pacific Theatre, earning a Silver Star at Iwo Jima.

Barber remained in the Marine Corps and was a captain when war erupted on the Korean Peninsula in 1950. On Nov. 28, Capt. Barber, commander of F Company, Second Battalion of the Seventh Marines, First Marine Division, found himself on snow-covered Fox Hill, a position overlooking the Tokong Pass near the Chosin Reservoir in present-day Changjin County, North Korea. About one month earlier, Chinese Communist forces crossed the Yalu River into North Korea, stymying and driving back an advance of U.N. forces led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur against the North Koreans. The ensuing wave of Chinese troops proved overwhelming, driving back the U.N. forces.

On Nov. 28, 1950, about 8,000 Marines north of Barber’s position were in danger of being surrounded by the Chinese. The Tokong Pass was their only escape route; Barber and his men were tasked with keeping it open until they arrived.

F Company consisted of 240 men, mainly young reservists who had seen limited combat. They were about to face about 1,200 Chinese troops intent on driving them from Fox Hill and closing the pass.

In the early morning hours of Nov. 29, the Chinese attacked, quickly overwhelming two forward squads and seizing the crest of the hill. Small groups of Marines fought back, keeping the Chinese at bay and eventually regaining the high ground. Barber was shot in the hip during the fight;the bullet fractured his pelvis and he spent the rest of the battle rallying his men while being supported by others or carried on a stretcher.

The fight took its toll on the Marines. F Company suffered 74 casualties, including 20 dead. The battle had depleted much of F Company’s ammunition, prompting Barber to order bullets removed from the machine gun belts to be distributed to the riflemen. Making matters worse, morning temperatures were below zero, causing plasma and blood supplies to freeze and forcing corpsmen to thaw morphine syrettes in their mouths.

When Barber finally made radio contact with regimental command, he was ordered to withdraw to the First Marine Division’s forward base at Hagaru-ri. Knowing to do so would allow the Chinese to close the Tokong Pass and trap the 8,000 Marines, Barber convinced his superiors that if F Company could be resupplied by air, they could hold Fox Hill.

American planes dropped fresh supplies on Fox Hill. That night, the Chinese attacked again, but the Marines held. From Nov. 29 through Dec. 3, planes resupplied F Company as they held their ground. During the day, the Marines were subjected to Chinese sniper fire. At night, the Chinese continued their attacks. Despite the ferocity of the Chinese attacks, which broke through the lines on three occasions, the Marines held out with help from air and artillery support.

On Dec. 3, a relief battalion (led by Marine Corps legend Lt. Col. Raymond Davis) arrived at Fox Hill. With the aid of the surviving members of F Company, they drove away the remaining Chinese forces. The next day, the 8,000 Marines arrived and safely made it through the Tokong Pass, allowing F Company to withdraw to Hagaru-Ri. Barber rode in a vehicle most of the way there, then got out and limped at the head of his command as they approached the town.

Of the 240 F Company Marines that fought at Fox Hill, over half were killed or wounded. The Chinese lost over 1,000 men in their failed attempt to take Fox Hill.

Barber was sent to Japan to recover from his wound, which had gotten infected. He later returned to the United States. On Aug. 20, 1952, President Harry Truman awarded Barber the Medal of Honor.

Barber retired as a colonel in 1970. He died on April 19, 2002, in Irvine, California, at the age of 82.

Colonel Bill Barber Marine Corps Memorial Park in Irvine, Barber Bridge in Morgan County, Kentucky, and Barber Hill and the Barber Fitness Center at Quantico are named in his honor.