BOOK REVIEW – “Colder Than Hell”

BOOK REVIEW – “Colder Than Hell”

About the book

The book “Colder than hell” by Joseph R. Owen focuses on the Korean War as told by the author who worked for a rifle company. The book is about the first year of the Korean War where Marines were fighting against the North Koreans. The book narrates the experiences of a marine officer during the Korean War.

The author of the book was a leader at the mortal section and served as a rifle platoon leader. He narrates how the company Baker-one-seven was formed from a mixture regulars and reservists. Owen mentioned all the details of how they survived, how they ate, fought, slept and their efforts to keep warm. The book breaks down the levels of activities that went on during the war. He narrates the different roles that each officers had and the types of units that were available.

The author makes the readers feel like they were in deed present due to the way he explains the story in detail. The narration of the book is fast and describes how the rifle company was able to adapt to fighting under the enemy fires, how they eat frozen food and how they pushed on even when wounded. The experiences of the seventh marine regiment that occurred in 1950 in camp Pendleton and the tragic end of the choosing reservoir where many Marines were either wounded or killed are also detailed.

Through the frontline experiences shared by Owen, the courage and discipline of the Marines is displayed. It also touches on racism where Washington politicians proposed that blacks would be integrated with white Marines. This proposal was only rejected by some Southerners. The author also uses the book to introduce his family to the readers expounding on he was able to juggle family and work. The book also describes the lives of the author and other men before the start of the war. The author gives a cynic view of how man men were wounded while others died during the war.

Purpose of the book

 Through the book, the formation of the Marine Corps is easily understood and the details of choosing reservoir put across. The readers are made aware of how America sent a troop that had not been prepared, as most men in that troop did not have any training or active service. They were just summoned from their respective homes. This included 215 men and 7 service officers all who had not served before “Many of the privates were beardless teenagers with little training beyond the basics of shouldering a rifle and marching in step” (Owen, 2000).

The book also describes how the men performed in their first fight, mistakes they made and how they eventually learnt the art of fighting a war. It can also be used as a guide as it has detailed lessons of how leadership in small units works. Combat and training lessons are also shared in the book and are very applicable in practical sense. Additionally the book highlights the contributions made by the air and naval forces. This book serves as a tribute to the Marines of the Baker-one-seven company and showed the achievements they made. From the book we are able to know what type of weapons they used in the war. The fighting capabilities of the American Marines are vividly brought out by this book from how their started as inexperienced fighters to the exploits that they reached as experienced soldiers.

The author takes time to clearly articulate the background of the way. According to the author the war started as an error by both the United States and Peoples Republic of China when they misread intentions of each other. From the book the war is said to have started in June 1950 and was as a result of North Korea sending forces to its border with South Korea.

The author seeks to credit his fellow Marines and helps the reader to understand the topography of the area in addition to the process of choosing reservoir; the book also acts as a motivating factor for new marines who read it. This can be attributed to the considerable effort by the author to clearly depict the conditions that faced the Marines as illustrated by,” A captain who had been an adviser to the South Korean Marine Corps predicted Korea would be one lousy place to fight a war. Too, hot in summer, too cold in winter and straight up and down mountain terrains all year round. Except for those stinking rice paddies down in the valleys. Human manure they use. Worst stink in the world” (Owen, 2000).

Through the book, the recreational activities of the Marines are also brought out. It indicates that they mostly involved themselves with brawling and boozing, which often led to some marines not reporting for duty, a major misdeed while on duty.

Strengths and weakness of the book

The main strength of the book is the fact the writer participated in the war and hence was able to give detailed information on the occurrences of the war. The author has also included both sides of the story when he describes mistakes he did and mistakes that the company did and how they learn from this mistakes to defeat opponents’ soldiers. Description of the characters is another formidable strength in that the book is made of personal memories of the author and his fellow Marines and hence the stories were easily comparable and could be taken to be unbiased.

The book additionally has a good flow and a reader easily follows the events without getting lost. This book does not have political aspects and perspectives that are usually associated with most military book stories as it only gives an account of what transpired in the war.

The book’s main weakness is lack of maps from which the readers would use to locate where every event took place. This would be very important for the readers and historians as well. Owen has described his fellow marines well and has explained situations well from how the fought in the trenches through to the rice’s fields and the hillsides of Korea.

Another weakness of the book is that it only expresses the war from the company’s view hence the reader is not able to get a wider picture of the whole war. This may result in the author not highlighting out all the relevant information about the war. The book has been written in a journal -like format and tends to be repetitive in some events. The book also has a wide use of the term Negro “one of the Negro sergeants in the 1st platoon was the platoon’s guide” (Owen, 2000).

Accounts and connections in the book

The author has a key concern on reporting on the events that took place and did not divert his attention to praise himself and fellow marines. The book has great accounts of different Marines with detailed explanations of their background and how well they fitted to their unit. He described the strengths and weaknesses of different service members.

The author has a good memory as he provides very specific details of an individual. In one case, he describes the Sergeant “First sergeant Caney was an entirely different breed. He was a runtish fellow, narrow from the shoulders all the way down, his face pale and the skin of his hands soft. He wore wide, black –rimmed glasses that were better suited to a bookkeeper than to a field Marine” (Owen, 2000). It also includes information on Chosin and Seoul survivors told by one of the survivors.

Leadership and people skills are values that are emphasized by this book. The author narrates of how his unit is being inspected by a senior officer and how he leads them “After noon  chow one day the captain  informed me that he would inspect the mortar section  the following morning. He had come from a guard detachment where troops were always spit and polish. Here, mired in administrative work, the skipper had not seen for himself how ill prepared and under trained we were. I hade little confidence that youngsters would stand scrutiny when he gave them a parade –ground inspection” (Owen, 2000). This expresses how the author viewed his unit and how he believed in their capability.

The sea voyage to the war is well accounted for. According to the author, it took them three weeks to get to Korea. This voyage was taken by twelve hundred marines. The process of shipping out is clearly described “Shipping out was a familiar routine to our regulars and the  were well experienced at life abroad and transports. Down in the troop compartments the old salts knew which of the sleeping compartments were least comfortable, and they put immediate claim to the top tiers” (Owen, 2000).

Accounts of the living conditions in the vessel are also well documented by the author and it is easy to relate to the experiences of the Marines “The racks were sheets of heavy canvas laced by rope to metal frames. stacked five and six high, with sixteen inches of vertical space between them ,they afforded little breathing room. The top tier, however offered a few more inches of space, and another body didn’t sag down from above…” The book also helps ordinary civilians learn on the communication technique used by the marines during the way.

Through the communications by phone, the communication protocol is remarkably brought to light. The author has used one of his phone calls he made to the captain to depict this “Joe’s voice was hollow and scratchy on the field telephone. He said, “Skipper went over to sergeant king in the 1st platoon sector. Gooks came up the rear slope and the damn near busted through there. your people holding okay?”  “Yeah,” I answered, “except there are lots of bandits moving below us. They could be heading for the road.” “Can you give me any people?” I asked, “negative on that,” Joe informed me” (Owen, 2000).

The author also describes how they held boxing matches. Although they had few experienced boxers among them, one by name of Pfc Ron Moloy who had participated in the fleet championships and usually fought in the middleweight category at camp Pendleton. He was more lethal than larger men were and in one case, he fought with Tony Swandollar a sergeant leader from the first platoon.

The book accounts of leadership qualities that should be emulated by the readers. This is well brought out by the author as he narrates on the hardworking nature of their captain, “He had gathered under him a hodgepodge of 215 men, most of them untrained for the job, and had formed them into a marine rifle company. He worked through stacks of forms and records of affidavits. He assumed accountability for each of the hundreds of weapons. He chronicled and signed off on medical examinations and immunization shots, and had seen it that dog tags were stamped out and issued” (Owen, 2000).

The training details of Baker-one –seven are also accounted for in the book. This helps the readers to understand how the company was run and the bases on which it operated on “Baker-one – seven held to the doubled –up training schedule until we shipped out. We ran the troops up Camp Pendleton’s punishing hills, and when we stopped running them, we did weapons drill. We ran through tactics-fire and the movement, skirmish lines, sectors of fire, supporting fire, digging in. We ran them into the night to get the feel of the dark. Then came gear issue, physicals, immunization shots, and administrative details in triplicate. At night we gave them five hours’ sleep” (Owen, 2000).

The author also gives a detailed account of the weapons that they used and the stages required of each marine to be allowed to use a certain weapon. The weapons that he detailed include m-I riffle the hand grenade and the bayonet.

Accounts of how the Marines maintained their cleanliness and how he and the sergeant used to inspect them , “We had the men break out  their scrubbing brushes and laundry soap to wash a uniform for the inspection ,a set of dungarees and web gear ,which would dry in the afternoon sun. Then Sergeant Wright and I inspected them again, and yet again. One by one we instructed the mortar men on how to stand up at rigid attention and how to present their weapons for the skipper’s inspection” (Owen, 2000).

Families of Marines are also put into perspective with the author detailing on the events that their families joined them “Our wives were at the docks, bathed in the bright sunlight, more beautiful than they had ever been. We tried to fix the sight of them in our minds, images that would stay with us and lend us courage in the battle. Those of us with families at the pier were allowed to break ranks for a final goodbye. With my clumsy pack strapped to me, I held Dorothy tight and tried to smile at her tears. Damned if I was going to cry!” (Owen, 2000).

Vivid memories of the wars are expressed by the author including one of how he shot another soldier, “I still had the officer in my sights and fired a round at his chests. When he went down, his arms flopped in the air. I gave myself the credit for the kill, but I knew that Able’s people, on the other side of the valley would take credit for the same prize” (Owen, 2000).

The author has also indicated how the Marines ate, the different types of food present when, and how they ate it “at the end of the wait the food was, at best, edible: grayish stews, grayish potatoes, grayish canned vegetables. A man could have as much as he wanted, and there was always applesauce to spread over everything. Navy coffee that was strong enough to corrode a canteen cup was available in limited quantity. Everyone on board –troop’s crew and officers- shared the same mediocre chow” (Owen, 2000).

Incidents of betray are also brought out in the book. This is well brought out during Sergeants Lunney’s dismissal after he was charged with neglecting his men and only caring for himself “but you set no security. When opponents came through, you forgot your men to take care of yourself” “lieutenant, I panicked. I admit that but if u give me another chance …” “I’m sorry too sergeant; Dismissed” (Owen, 2000).


This book is important for history purposes as it gives detailed information on the Korean War. From the book, we are able to understand what caused the war and the participants of the war. The book also takes us through steps of leadership that have been displayed by leaders in the book. These leaders are very inspiring as they worked hard to attain victory.

Relations and importance of friendship can also be derived, as we are able to learn how the Marines lived and interacted amongst themselves. This is important for the modern society as they can draw inspiration from this book and use the lesson for the development of their day-to-day life.

Perhaps its greatest feat, the book seeks to honor all those marine who served during the war. Through the experienced shared it is clear that the Marines are heroes as they struggled in order to achieve that feat. A Marine normal way of life is brought out for the normal citizen to see. Through the book, the reader acquires knowledge on what goes about during wars.

Value for human life can also be expressed. From the book, the author gives details of how his fellow marines were shot and wounded and how he shot other officers from the opposing army. The book is rich in history and moral stories and serves as a motivation book for any one who plans to join the Marine.

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