I stood there in a teary-eyed haze as my palms added to the thunderous applause resonating through the theatre. Pride, sadness, revulsion, and raw amazement ran through me in a maelstrom of emotion. I had just encountered a work of art that moved me in a way I had never expected, and every soul in this packed auditorium at the 2010 GI Film Festival felt the same way.
I had just experienced Chosin. Chosin, a documentary chronicling the Korean War Battle at the Chosin reservoir, is the production debut of Marine Captain Brian Iglesias and Marine Captain Anton Sattler and the directorial debut for Iglesias. The entire magnificent film is created using first person accounts from the living survivors of the battle. To some of you, this concept may not seem extraordinary. I’ll be the first to admit I can sit in front of the history channel for hours and enjoy a documentary after documentary because I love the knowledge I glean, but this was a different experience. I was held rapt from the instant the title screen arrived until the moment I lurched to my feet to give these two gentlemen and the thirteen Chosin veterans they had flown across the country to the premiere the standing ovation they so rightfully deserved.
Every aspect of the film was spectacular, but what truly set it apart was the raw and honest nature of the comments from the Chosin veterans. Thirty-three minutes into the film I stopped myself from sobbing as a man that could easily be any of our grandfathers teared up as he described his experience. His perimeter had been overrun with Chinese as his battle buddy died in his arms from multiple bullet wounds. The incoming fire was so heavy that he instinctively placed his dead friend in front of him as a sand bag. You could see the pain in his eyes. You could imagine yourself in that situation. For an instant, you were almost there with the Chosin Few, as they often refer to themselves. You almost understood. An instant later you realized you could never understand, and you thanked God for it.
I found myself amazed that they had managed to get these men to talk about their experiences. The Korean War, often referred to as the Forgotten War, was treated as little more than a police action at home in the United States. While the warriors that returned did not suffer indignities as their brothers in arms would in Vietnam, they returned with no fanfare. As such, perhaps more than any veterans in our nation’s history, they are notoriously tight lipped. That fact coupled with Hollywood’s apparent lack of interest over the Korean War, in favor of the easier “good versus evil” storylines of World War II or the “damn the man” storylines of Vietnam, made such a documentary impossible. The interviews simply did not exist. The information did not exist, except in the minds of the few dozen gentlemen still alive.
Hollywood producers would never get this story. Thank God Iglesias and Sattler are not Hollywood producers. The two Marines, both two time-Iraq combat infantrymen, left active duty and transferred to the reserves with one solitary vision – they were going to tell the story of Chosin. They didn’t have money. They didn’t have connections. They simply had a mission and they refused to fail. The two rented a van, were given boxes of MREs from their units, and tracked down one-by-incredible-one the remaining Chosin survivors. For one year and two months they toiled, sleeping in the van every night unless a local VA was willing to give them some floor space for their sleeping bags, and met our forgotten heroes. When they ran out of money, they waited until their next drill and then went back to the road. At the end of it all they gathered more than 250 hours of video that they are preparing to donate to our national archives.
The Chosin Few spoke to Iglesias and Sattler in a way they never would to others, because while the generations and the battlefields they served on were worlds apart, these heroes from the Chosin campaign saw in them combat infantrymen. Iglesias and Sattler were not simply interested in making a movie. They felt every single word, imagined every single round, could see every lost Marine, and wanted to honor the men who had come before them – the men that helped give the words United States Marine the meaning it rightly deserves today.
As the film comes to its two-hour conclusion, the men who have been telling their stories so graciously to us answer, one-by-one, the same question: how many did you lose out there? The answers come and with each response my heart sinks further: 17 out 235 men in combat infantry company returned, 35 out of 240 returned in the next, only five returned in a rifle platoon… Each man’s story was different, but yet horrifyingly similar. I sit and wonder whether I would even have the strength to live if I had lost 35 of my men as a platoon leader. My mind goes to Bill Maher, a soldier who was taken by an IED months after I left command of the mortar platoon. I feel the weight that loss still has on me, on all of us. I think about losing all but four of my men and what that would feel like. I know I am not strong enough. I know it.
There is a brief pause on screen. We hear Iglesias’s voice for the first and only time throughout the entire film, which is told entirely in the voices of the Chosin Few.
“Thank you”, he says.
Finally, someone said it.
Purchase Chosin here. Ranger Up believes so strongly in this film that all purchasers will receive a $5 gift certificate to Ranger Up with their DVD.