By Todd DePastino

Tootsie Roll

The story about the accidental Tootsie Roll airdrop at the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir ranks among the greatest in American military lore.

But it probably isn’t true.

Legend has it that during the desperate fight at Chosin, Marines ran out of 60-millimeter mortars, useful for delivering high, arcing fire over the ridgelines at Chinese forces. With their supply depleted, Marines radioed for airdrop resupply using the code word for 60-mm mortars: TOOTSIE ROLLS.

The US Air Force operator at the other end of the radio didn’t have the Marines’ code sheets. He assumed that TOOTSIE ROLLS meant, well, the chocolate-flavored taffy issued with C-rations.

So, the order went out to the Air Force Combat Cargo Command to load its C-119s Flying Boxcars in Japan with pallets of chewy candy and parachute them down to the ground troops fighting in frozen North Korea

Vintage Tootsie Roll AdvertisementAt first bewildered by the delivery, the story goes, the Marines came to see the Tootsie Rolls as a godsend. With C-rations frozen, the candy could be thawed easily in armpits and then popped into mouths to stave off hunger and provide a quick dose of energy. The enterprising Marines also found that warm Tootsie Rolls could be molded to plug bullet holes in fuel tanks and radiators. The 30-below-zero temperatures ensured the candy putty patches would refreeze and hold.

Part of the story is true. Some of the earliest accounts of Chosin contain references to an odd superabundance of Tootsie Rolls. 1st Marine Division veteran Edward M. Szymciak recalled, “Tootsie Rolls were our main diet while fighting our way out of the Reservoir. You can bet there were literally thousands of Tootsie Roll wrappers scattered over North Korea.”

Most Marines disdained Tootsie Rolls, both during the war and afterwards. Many considered them subpar confections fit only for children. A few Marines went on record during the 1980s as saying they would never touch Tootsie Rolls again after having eaten so many during Chosin.

But why so many Tootsie Rolls at Chosin to begin with?

The answer is two-fold.

First, during World War II, this penny-candy was marketed to adults as energy food. “Grown-ups who want to be more like tireless youngsters,” read one ad, “should do what kids do—eat plenty of chewy chocolately Tootsie Rolls . . . packed with energy.” The military added Tootsie Rolls to rations because they wouldn’t melt in the heat. One WWII ad featured a Marine who’d just stolen a Tootsie Roll from a child. “Rich is DEXTROSE for quick food-energy,” claims the ad.

So, wherever Marines went in the 1950s, plenty of Tootsie Rolls followed.

That included Hagaru-ri, just south of the Chosin Reservoir, where the Marine Corps had expected to establish a rear base. Before their encirclement by the Chinese, Marines in the Post Exchange Section had trucked in tons of merchandise to sell at the PX when the shooting in the area stopped. Those shipments included a lot of candy, especially Tootsie Rolls.

But the shooting didn’t stop, and the Marines at Hagaru had to plot their evacuation. The plan was to load everything of value aboard trucks for the return trip to the coast. There would be no room on the vehicles for the Tootsie Rolls and other retail stock designated for the never-to-be-realized PX at Hagaru.

So, General O.P. Smith gave the order to distribute the supply (worth $13,547.80, according to official Marine Corps history first published in 1957) free-of-charge to the Marines at Chosin.

That accounts for the Tootsie Roll dump Chosin survivors all remember so vividly. And, sure enough, some used the candy to plug leaky radiators.

But while there were indeed airdrops of badly needed 60mm mortars and other supplies, mostly ammunition, Tootsie Rolls weren’t delivered by air.

The truth about the Tootsie Rolls at Chosin is more prosaic than the legend. But, at least it relieves the Air Force of one embarrassing radio operator whose failure to deliver was only redeemed by Marine Corps ingenuity.