Joe Narde was a freshly minted 18-year-old Marine when he took part in the bloody Chosin Reservoir battle of the Korean War that killed more than 900 of his comrades and wounded thousands more.
"I remember how cold it was," said Narde, a San Diego resident, as he recalled the subzero temperatures that resulted in more than 6,000 U.S. troops suffering frostbite. "I also remember not getting much sleep, because you didn't know when the SOBs were going to come out."
The events of nearly 60 years ago were fresh on his mind Wednesday as dozens of the battle's survivors and other Korean War veterans dedicated a monument at Camp Pendleton to the men known as the "Chosin Few."
The Chosin Reservoir battle pitted vastly outnumbered soldiers and Marines against more than 100,000 Chinese troops. It was one of the major battles of the three-year war precipitated when North Korea invaded South Korea, prompting the U.S. to send troops to help repel the invaders.
Stories of the valor, hardship and sacrifice shown by the troops are revered in the Marine Corps and often pointed to as examples of what it means to be a Marine in battle.
The fight took place between Nov. 27 and Dec. 13, 1950, and Wednesday marked the 60th anniversary of the Marines' initial invasion at Inchon, South Korea, that preceded the battle.
A radio operator, Narde escaped injury in the fighting, but said he is forever haunted by the memory of a simple coin flip.
He and a fellow radio operator were stationed on a hilltop. They had gone through basic training together and served together at Camp Pendleton before being shipped to Korea with more than 25,000 others from the base's 1st Marine Division.
"We needed new batteries, but we had to go down the hill to get them," Narde recalled. "We flipped a coin, and as he went down, a mortar got him and blew him to bits. There was nothing left, and I cried like a baby."
Ray Houlette remembered one of the signature stories of the Chosin Reservoir battle involving Tootsie Rolls. Marines referred to their 60mm shells as "Tootsie Rolls," and when their supply ran low, they radioed for more.
A few hours later, Army planes dropped loads of actual Tootsie Roll candies for the Marines.
"Those Tootsie Rolls saved my life," said Houlette, a retired gunnery sergeant.
Other Chosin veterans recalled how they would suck a frozen Tootsie Roll for energy and after extracting what they could, would use the hardened candy to plug holes in equipment.
The 6-by-8 foot, 3,000-pound, granite monument sits on an overcrop with a sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean at the South Mesa club near the base's main gate. It is dedicated to "We Few, We Chosin Few, We Eternal Band of Brothers."
Col. Nicholas Marano, the base commander, got the idea for the monument just a few months ago when he was at the club chatting with some Chosin Few survivors.
The group soon realized that no such tribute existed at any Marine Corps base and put together a group to secure the materials, and design and construct it.
The black, gray and white piece includes a famous quote from the 1st Marine Division commander in Korea, Maj. Gen. Oliver Smith.
As the Marines battled their way back toward the Korean coast in a strategic retreat, Smith said, "Retreat, hell! We're not retreating, we're just advancing in a different direction."
Gen. James Conway, Marine Corps commandant, heaped praise on the troops who fought the Chinese to what military historians consider a standstill, saying they are renowned as "some tough sons of bitches."
"Korea is often a forgotten war that many consider a police action," he said as he made his last West Coast swing before retiring as commandant in a few weeks. "We in the Marine Corps don't see it that way. We see it as a tremendous bright spot in our legacy."
The Korean War would last two more years after the Chosin Reservoir battle, ending in a 1953 truce that keeps North and South Korea divided by the 38th Parallel, and where thousands of U.S. troops remain on duty to preserve peace.
Call staff writer Mark Walker at 760-740-3529.