Richard Earl Ashton Sr., a retired law enforcement officer who survived the Battle of Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War, died Sept. 24 from lung cancer at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. The Essex resident was 87.
Born in Baltimore and raised in Hamilton, he was the son of John Ashton, a Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. worker, and Edna Ashton, a homemaker.
After graduating from city public schools, he enlisted in the Army in 1948 at age 17. Following basic training at Camp Breckinridge, Ky., he joined the 26th Infantry Regiment in Bamberg, Germany, and completed advanced infantry training.
With the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, he was reassigned to the 15th Infantry Regiment at Fort Benning, Ga., then traveled by troopship across the Pacific to Kyushu, Japan, for training in the island’s mountainous regions.
Mr. Ashton and his unit landed in Wonsan, North Korea, in mid-November 1950. His arrival there coincided with the ill-fated Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, in which Chinese combat divisions attacked United Nations forces under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Gen. MacArthur had ordered the Army X Corps, 7th Infantry Division, and the 1st Marine Division into the rugged terrain surrounding the reservoir in northeastern North Korea. The Marines — some 25,000 strong — took up a position on the west side of the reservoir while the Army’s 31st Regimental Combat Team settled on the east side.
The general was misguided in his belief that the Chinese would not enter the war. On Nov. 27, some 120,000 Red Army troops crossed the Yalu River and unleashed a surprise attack. Adding to the situation were sub-zero temperatures, causing soldiers’ feet to freeze while machine guns jammed and metal cracked. American forces ordered to withdraw were blocked by Chinese forces surrounding them.
Mr. Ashton eventually reached the port of Hungnam, North Korea, on Christmas Eve and was evacuated in what was called the “Christmas Miracle,” as 105,000 United Nations forces and 100,000 North Korean refugees boarded ships.
The 17-day battle had been costly: 1,500 Army troops were dead, leaving only 385 combat-able survivors; while some 35,000 Chinese troops had perished. The 1st Marine Division lost 4,385 men in battle and 7,338 to the cold.
Mr. Ashton “thought he wouldn’t make it or be rescued,” said Christos Christou Jr. of Essex, a longtime friend and a former president of the Maryland chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution.
Mr. Christou said his friend didn’t talk much about his war experience. “I think he had a lot of angst when it came to his memories of that time. He only wanted to tell the funny stories.”
Landing at Pusan, South Korea, Mr. Ashton and his unit eventually returned to combat until being rotated back to Fort Knox, Ky., and the 7th Armored Division in June 1951. He was discharged three months later. Returning to Baltimore, he joined the Maryland National Guard and served with the 175th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Division. He was discharged in 1958 with the rank of master sergeant.
That same year he joined Bethlehem Steel Corp.’s Sparrows Point police force. He rose from patrol officer to the rank of captain, and was responsible for special investigations.
After retiring in 1988, he was named chief of police on Gibson Island in Anne Arundel County. He was also responsible for gate security and the private island’s fire department. He retired for a second time in 1996.
“He loved his work and being able to serve people,” said his daughter, Constance “Connie” Montgomery, of Middle River.
In 2017, he was recognized for his Korean War service by the Maryland chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Mr. Ashton was descended from Revolutionary War patriots Hynson Kirby of Talbot County and Rezin Haslup of Baltimore. Also Capt. Lloyd Johnson of Anne Arundel County, who commanded a company of farmers during the War of 1812.
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An accomplished carpenter, Mr. Ashton was also an excellent marksman, family members said.
“He was a very quiet, easygoing man who never raised his voice and was genuinely affable,” Mr. Christou said. “We would talk for hours and I always enjoyed our time together. He was a mentor to me and just an incredible guy.”
Mr. Ashton was a member of Harbor Heights Baptist Church in Dundalk.
In addition to his daughter, Mr. Ashton is survived by a son, Richard E. Ashton Jr. of Essex; a brother, John Howard “Jack” Ashton of Hamilton; seven grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren. Another son, Ronald K. Ashton, died in 2012.