In late November 1950, U.S. and South Korean troops approached China's southern border with Korea as part of an offensive that General Douglas MacArthur hoped would reunify Korea and end the Korean War. The conflict had begun that summer when North Korean forces poured over the 38th parallel—the latitude line that had divided the Korean peninsula roughly in half since the end of World War II—and captured most of the southern half before a U.S.-led intervention rolled them back. As Thanksgiving approached and MacArthur's forces began what then seemed like their final push, the general declared that he hoped to "get the boys home by Christmas."
The Armed Forces newsreel below, published in 1951 and available via the Internet Archive, gives a glimpse of what that Thanksgiving looked like on the front. "It is bitter cold in the valley as they advance doggedly across the snow patches," recounts the narrator as gray figures trudge up a frozen hillside. At around 3:19 in the clip come images of Thanksgiving dinner from the troops' perch near the banks of the frozen Yalu River separating Korea from China: "turkey with all the trimmings, and served piping hot," in the narrator's words, providing "a pleasant interlude [that] brings a touch of home to the icy wastes of Korea."
The frozen idyll unspools until about 4:06, with machine-gun crews gratefully accepting extra-large helpings of turkey and mashed potatoes from the mess sergeant—"hot chow that hits the right spot when it's so cold."
"But Thanksgiving peace doesn't last long," the newsreel narrator continues. On November 25, the Chinese army counterattacked in support of its communist ally, and in concert with North Korean forces drove most of the U.S. and South Korean troops back south to the 38th parallel by Christmas. The narrator quotes a Marine commander insisting of the withdrawal: "We're not retreating—we're just advancing in a different direction." By November 28, MacArthur was describing the conflict as "an entirely new war."
Two more Thanksgivings would pass with American troops in Korea—and more than 36,000 U.S. soldiers would die there—before a July 1953 armistice ended the fighting almost exactly where it had ended up that first December. (Today, thousands of U.S. troops will be spending Thanksgiving in Afghanistan and Iraq, with no promise of being home for Christmas.)
In 1951, the Defense Department reportedly shipped some 12 million pounds of turkey to service members overseas for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. "Am so full I can hardly move!" the Army's Bill Shepard, of Plymouth, Massachusetts, wrote home from the war in 1951. "Typical Army—feast or famine, but today we had the feast."
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