Colonel Cordero frantically issued commands and counter commands on the radio in the clear. Everyone, from the American top brass to Chinese intelligence could hear and sense the desperation in Cordero’s voice. “Hold the hill to the last man!” demanded Cordero. There was no response from the men fighting desperately to defend Outpost Kelly.
Colonel Juan César Cordero had assumed command of the regiment the first day of February, 1952. He had been well received by the men. That All Puerto Rican Regiment, the Borinqueneers, finally had one of their own leading them. Cordero easily won the loyalty, respect and admiration of his men. He seemed to understand his men better than the previous commanders. With Cordero arrived Puerto Rican flags, copies of the new constitution being drafted for Puerto Rico, newspapers, Puerto Rican food, and rum, hundreds of cases of rum. Cordero counted on the national spirit of his men, on the pride they felt as Puerto Rican, to keep the regiment performing as it had performed under American commanders.
In August, exploding Chinese artillery rounds and the strains of the Puerto Rican national anthem set the mood as a group of Puerto Rican soldiers proudly raised their homeland’s flag beside the Stars and Stripes on a mountainous battlefield in South Korea. Cordero gave a speech thanking his men for making that moment possible. They quickly had to abandoned that hill. But it had been an inspiring moment.
The Puerto Rican flag could be seen from all along the main line of resistance. The moment it went up, the whole regiment cheered, soldiers hugged each other, guitars came out and singing could be heard all along the 65th’s positions. Turks, South Koreans, Brits, Belgians, and the American units that had fought alongside the Borinqueneers joined the cheers. A casual observer could’ve thought the war was over. Sargent Camacho was among those Borinqueneers seeing their island’s flag raised in a hill in Korea. He felt his heart was too big for his chest and as much as he tried, the battle-hardened veteran could not stop smiling. But he knew better. The war was still going on and more would die. He wiped the smile off his face and restored order along his perimeter. He urged other sergeants to do the same and soon order and sound discipline were restored. The war was far from over.
On September 7, Company F took control of Outpost Kelly. Kelly’s defenses consisted of a circular waist deep-trench ringing the crest, four bunkers, and a squad-size bunker serving as command post. Captain Cronkhite’s men held the outpost for six days. Company F lost half its men before being relieved by C Company on the 14. On the night of the 17, a whole Chinese regiment attacked the position. The Borinqueneers repelled wave after wave of Chinese attacks just to have a larger attack follow. Close to midnight, two Chinese companies attacked the Borinqueneers position again. After almost an hour of fighting, and about to be overrun, Company C called artillery fire on their positions to break the assault. It worked but it cost C company many lives. Early on the morning of the eighteenth (0245 hours), Lieutenant Nelson’s B company relieved Kelly’s defenders.
The Chinese continued shelling the outpost throughout the day. Under the cover of darkness, two Chinese infantry companies supported by mortar and artillery fire, attacked the outpost from the southwest, northwest, and northeast at 2100 hours. The attack from the northeast surprised the defenders, and the Chinese quickly overran the machine gun position in this sector. The company commander, most of his platoon leaders, the artillery liaison officer, and the forward observer were meeting in the CO’s bunker when the Chinese overran it. The Chinese advanced along the trenches and closed in hand-to-hand combat. The 65th’s 2nd Battalion Headquarters lost communications with the outpost less than an hour after the attack started. The situation was chaotic. Scouts reported that the Chinese were herding prisoners down the slopes of Kelly. The position had been lost.
Some Borinqueneers managed to escape from Kelly. Thirteen wounded men, among them Sergeant Camacho and Corporal González, made it back to friendly lines. They were all that was left of B company.
Puerto Rican scouts came back from the hill and reported that half the dead had been bayoneted or shot still inside their sleeping bags. The Chinese had infiltrated the position. Cordero was furious. Camacho was the highest-ranking man to survive so him and González were scolded by Cordero.
“Your men are dead because you were sleeping on the job! You killed your men”
Camacho felt a rage he had never felt, not even when he had fought hand to hand to save his men and his own life. He also felt ashamed- he felt a shame more intense than after killing for the first time and realizing he had taken a life. He was not sleeping when the Chinese attacked, neither were his men. He knew that the Chinese had overran the position too quickly. The Northeast flank had just collapsed. Could it be? Had they fallen asleep?
Cordero interrupted Camacho’s thoughts. “See this flag?” asked Cordero as he showed them a Puerto Rican flag full of bullet holes. “This is what you did. You let down your men and your country. You will go back to that hill and our flag will fly again! Understood?”
“Sir, yes, sir!” replied Camacho and González in unison.
The counter attack would have to wait. Division had lost faith in Cordero and his capacity to keep his cool in combat so every plan was scrutinized by the division’s staff. In that time, the battle-scarred Puerto Rican flag made it to Puerto Rico and new flags arrived to inspire the Borinqueneers. Kelly had to be retaken and Puerto Rican units leading the assault would have “the honor” of carrying their flag to the hill’s crest.
The worst was yet to come