Hold Back the Night by Pat Frank
Hold Back the Night (1951; 2017) is the third of Pat Frank’s classic Cold War-era novels receiving a re-issue from Harper Perennial, after Mr. Adam (1946; 2016) and Forbidden Area (1956; 2016). Originally published during the Korean War, Hold Back the Night finds inspiration from the very real events which occurred during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir and tells the story of a single group of U.S. Marines. Frank’s intimate descriptions of military life during wartime, especially the differences separating enlisted men and their commanding officers, as well as the hardships they shared during that brutal winter, bring each page to life in graphic, harrowing detail.
We begin with the straggling remnants of Dog Company of the First Marine Division, in retreat across the Korean Peninsula. Most of their men have been lost to injury or frostbite, their C-rations have frozen solid in the near-Arctic conditions, they have no reliable means of communication with United Nations forces, and Mongol riders are at their heels. After this shocking introduction, Frank skips backward to Dog Company in their settlement at the Chosin Reservoir on November 24, 1950. They’re aware of enemy movement in the outlying vicinities, but intelligence and communiqués from General MacArthur assure the troops that the tide of battle is turning in their favor, and they should all be able to return home soon — after they “restore peace and unity to Korea,” of course. There’s even been a recent delivery of several frozen turkeys so that the Americans can celebrate Thanksgiving.
That night, Chinese forces attack, catching the men off-guard by coming across the frozen water rather than by land, killing seventeen men and wounding twenty-two others. It’s not a spoiler to say that things go decidedly badly for Dog Company; even a cursory knowledge of twentieth-century world history will inform the reader that General MacArthur’s lofty promises of victory in Korea were sorely mistaken, even if you aren’t aware that the Battle of Chosin Reservoir precipitated the total removal of U.N. troops from North Korea. Captain Sam Mackenzie’s orders are to load up his remaining men, pack them and their jeeps with as many rations and supplies as can be carried, and make their way down the 78 miles of twisting, ruined road from the reservoir to the extraction point at Hungnam. Should any of them survive, they will be taken home … but it’s uncertain whether any of them will make it that far.
Even with the foreshadowing that some men won’t live through the retreat, Frank provides no guarantees of success for anyone, echoing the uncertainty faced by all soldiers in wartime. Factors like rank, experience, and age are no proof against injury, and a character’s likeability is no assurance of safety. Their characterizations run the gamut: some of them are too young to even vote, while others fought in the Pacific theatre of World War Two. Some are admirable men, like Captain Mackenzie or Sergeant Ekland; others are despicable, like Beany Smith, who refers to his own attempted rape victim by a hateful slur; still others, like Private Couzens, are trapped by the consequences of simply trying to survive impossible odds.
When reading Forbidden Area, if readers don’t know why deuterium and tritium are key components of nuclear warheads, their enjoyment of the text won’t be affected. In Hold Back the Night, however, some background knowledge will be helpful, since recognizing the difference between a BAR and a “burp gun” will provide valuable information about a weapon’s effectiveness, appearance, and lethality. Being able to distinguish C-rations from modern-day MREs will also help, especially since portable meals have changed quite a bit over the intervening decades. There’s a wealth of military jargon and shorthand on display here, some of which was invented during the Korean War, and much of it can be deciphered through context — a helicopter pilot refers to his craft as a “pinwheel,” for obvious reasons — so unfamiliar readers shouldn’t feel too lost or overwhelmed at any point. I suggest keeping a dictionary, Wikipedia, or Google handy just in case.
Hold Back the Night is incredibly honest about the circumstances and consequences of war. The men of Dog Company believe that they, and their allies, are in Korea to prevent World War Three from swallowing humanity whole. To that end, they are trained and prepared to kill when necessary, but I’m glad to say that Pat Frank never treats their actions lightly; all death is regrettable, regardless of the clothing a soldier or civilian wears. While some of his characters might express overtly jingoistic ideals, Frank presents an overall fair and even-handed view of the horrors of war, stripped of sensationalism and platitudes. I don’t believe that there can be a good war, but there are good soldiers, and Hold Back the Night is filled with them.
Hi Jana, this sounds like something well outside your usual reading territory, no? I had no idea Pat Frank wrote anything other than “Alas, Babylon”, which is a typical situation for authors from prior generations. I didn’t know he wrote Cold War-era books and I’ve sadly never read anything about the Korean War. This sounds like a thematic sequel to Saving Private Ryan, and would be really interesting.
Hi, Stuart! Actually, this is pretty well within normal reading territory for me, it’s just not what I would usually review for FanLit. (For obvious reasons — no speculative element — but some of his other books are speculative fiction, and I’ll be reviewing one of them here shortly.) I’m glad his books are being re-issued, because they’re quite good, and deserve a modern audience. I haven’t seen Saving Private Ryan, though, so I don’t know whether it would function well as a thematic sequel.