The Chosin Reservoir, the Borinqueneers, and triste navidad in Puerto Rico


[This is the first excerpt from my next book: Fighting on Two Fronts: The Experience of the Puerto Rican Soldiers in the Korean War.]

I have always liked listening to elders for they convey all the wisdom, emotions, and feelings that history books can’t. In one of those conversations with Pepita Medina, an elder woman in Puerto Rico, she told me me about  1950s’ Christmas. She said it had been the saddest she could remember. Puerto Rican soldiers, “our boys” (los muchachos), as she put it, were in peril and no one dared to celebrate. Instead, the Puerto Ricans were glued to radios in private homes, colmados and bars while the local newspapers sold as soon as they came out with news of “our boys”.

The Fall of 1950 received the United Nations command fighting in Korea led by the United States with a rude awakening. Though the story of the 1st Marines Division and their desperate escape from encirclement in the Chosin Reservoir is well-known, and deservedly so, the role played in this ordeal by a U.S. Army infantry regiment composed mostly of Puerto Ricans is barely known beyond small circles of surviving Puerto Rican soldiers who participated in this battle, their descendants, and a few scholars and activists who have study the Puerto Rican regiment, the Borinqueneers. And of course, elders like Pepita remember those days with a mix of sadness sadness and pride.

I wouldn’t go where you are being sent

In late October 1950, Major General Edward Almond summoned Colonel William W. Harris to X Corps Headquarters, and ordered him to move his regiment back to the port of Pusan in Korea.  Harris commanded the 65th U.S. Army Regiment of Infantry which was composed of Puerto Rican soldiers and NCOs (sergeants) and junior offices and white “American” officers. The 65th was to embark for Wonsan on the east coast of North Korea.  From Wonsan, the 65th was to move immediately north to Yonghung, located midway between Wonsan and Hungnam.  Almond also ordered Harris to operate in this area and extend to the west to link up with the 1st Cavalry Division on the Eighth Army’s right flank.  All the while, the regiment was to engage with enemy in the sector (see map 1and map 2).[1]

An old friend of Harris, Colonel Aubrey D. Smith, was serving as Almond’s supply officer. When Harris received his orders, Smith barked: “Bill, I wouldn’t go where you are being sent unless the corps gave me written orders to do so and at least four infantry divisions.”[2]  While Almond ignored Smith’s comment, Harris could not.  Army intelligence estimated that about 25,000 North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) soldiers were in the area.[3]   The 65th Regimental Combat Team (RCT) counted only about 6,000 men.  To make matters worse “no one really knew even the approximate location of Eighth Army’s right flank.”[4]

3rd Infantry Division Nov 1950

Commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Dammer, the second battalion of the 65th  (2/65) left Wonsan on November 6, 1950.  Unbeknownst to Harris, Almond had diverted the 1/65 and 3/65 and attached them to the 1st Marine Division. Thus the 2/65 proceeded to Yonghung piecemeal and without adequate ammunition (see map 2).[5]

maná del cielo

On the night of November 6-7, the 2/65 received a rude surprise.  Around two o’ clock in the morning, mortar and rifle fire announced the enemy offensive.  Instead of the usual NKPA attack, the Puerto Ricans found themselves fighting Chinese troops.[6]  The attack started on the west side of the 2/65’s perimeter, but soon the whole perimeter was under intense pressure.[7]  An estimated two Chinese regiments participated in the attack.  Throughout the night, the Borinqueneers held the line.  By 4:00 in the morning, however, the 2/65 was running out of ammunition.  So critical was the situation that Harris sent, in the clear, an operational priority message to Almond’s headquarters asking for an airdrop of basic load rifle ammunition and medical supplies.[8]

With the first light of day came seven C-47s with the much-awaited airdrop.  Cheering Borinqueneers came out their foxholes to retrieve the ammunition while yelling “maná del cielo,” or manna from heaven.[9]  The Chinese broke contact after the men of the 2/65 retrieved the airdrop.  Dammer sent a patrol to maintain contact with the enemy.  Scouts reported that the Chinese were holed up in a railroad tunnel.  Several platoons were sent to force the Chinese into the tunnel while another platoon blew up both ends with TNT charges.[10]  Not only did the 2/65 beat off the attack, but it completely destroyed the enemy force.

Eager to see what had happened the night before, General Almond flew to the 2/65’s position right after the airdrop.  Harris informed him that two to three regiments had attacked the perimeter and that he had suffered many wounded but no killed.  En route to the first aid station, Almond told Harris that he “didn’t have much confidence in these colored troops.”[11]  Harris replied: “The men of the 65th are white Puerto Ricans.”  He added that he had some black Puerto Ricans, and a colored artillery battalion and tank company, but even they “have fought like real troopers.”[12]  Even after a fierce demonstration of courage against a superior enemy force, Almond still distrusted the Borinqueneers. The racial discrimination that white and Black Puerto Ricans suffered under their white officers would not end here and in fact eventually crippled the regiment. But that lies years ahead.

On November 13, the 1/65 and 3/65 rejoined the regiment.  Around that date, the rest of the 3rd Division (to which the 65th had been permanently attached) reached Korea.  Soon after the 3rd Division reached the front, X Corps finally assigned well-defined operating zones for the 7th Infantry, 1st Marine, and the 3rd Infantry Divisions.[13]

65th INFANTRY OPERATING IN THE YONGHUNG AREA

 

65th_-1950-in-yonghung-area

Escaping from the Chosin Reservoir

Between November 30 and December 1, 1950, the 65th RCT, which was at this time in the Hamhung-Hungnam area, received four sets of orders.  The 65th RCT proceeded to Yonghung, then south to Wonsan, again to Yonghung and finally back to the Hamhung-Hungnam area.[14]  X Corps had been issuing orders and counter-orders since November 25, when the Communist Chinese Forces (CCF) had launched a major offensive, throwing off balance both the Eighth Army and X Corps.

In an attempt to escape the CCF onslaught, General Almond had decided to evacuate his forces through the port of Hungnam in northeast Korea.  But first, the 1st Marine and the 7th Infantry Division had to break loose from the Chosin Reservoir.

The Chinese offensive had nearly encircled the 1st Marine Division.  By November 27, however, the Marines were fighting their way southwards.  Four Chinese armies, with an estimated force of 120,000 soldiers, pursued the retreating column.

Task Force Dog

Major General Robert H. Soule, the 3rd Division’s commander, sent Task Force Dog to meet the retreating column south of Koto.  Task Force Dog included the 65th’s three infantry battalions, the third battalion of the 7th division (3/7), and the “Colored” 3/15.  The “Colored” tank and artillery units of the 65th and the self-propelled 155-mm guns of the 999th and 92nd FAB completed the task force.[15]

On December 7, Task Force Dog began to move north.  The 65th led the way.  Dammer’s 2/65 went forward to Majon, and Lt. Colonel Jerry Allen’s 3/65 to Oro.  Farther south, Lieutenant Colonel Howard B. St. Clair’s 1/65 and Lieutenant Colonel Edward L. Farrel’s 3/15 established a baseline near Oro.  On December 7, the rest of Task Force Dog, with the 3/7 and G Company of the 2/65, jumped off from the 65th’s positions and continued north to Chinhung.  Chinhung was a few miles from the Funchilin Pass, where the CCF had blown a bridge, and eight treadway bridges had to be airdropped to allow the retreating marines to continue south.  From the Funchilin Pass to Chinhung, the 1st Battalion of the 1st Marine Regiment and forward elements of Task Force Dog protected the retreating column.[16]

As they proceeded south, the retreating Marines received protection from the 2/65 and 3/65.  By December 10, the 1st Marine Division had cleared the 2/65 and 3/65’s positions.  At Majon, where the retreating Marines and soldiers boarded trains and trucks, the men of the 65th gave them what food they had.[17]

More than five decades later, Juan Mercado Santana, a 65th veteran from Barranquitas, still saddened by the sight of the battered marines commented: “They came through our lines when we were heating our rations.  We felt so bad for them that we gave them our food, some cigarettes, and tried to cheer them up.”[18]

Last to Get Out, últimos en salir

By December 13, the entire covering force had withdrawn within the protective lines of the 65th Infantry and the 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment.  From this point on, the 65th’s three infantry battalions and the 3/15 secured the roads to Hungnam.

On December 15, the 1st Marine Division finally sailed from Hungnam.  During the month of December, the 65th lost thirty-six men KIA, seventy-five wounded, and twelve missing in action, “compared to almost eight times that many lost by the enemy in their engagements with the regiment.”[19] 

The evacuation of Hungnam was not yet concluded.  General Almond deployed his 3rd and 7th Divisions in an arc-shaped perimeter to defend Hungnam.  Army engineers demolished Hamhung on December 16.  On the seventeenth, I Corps of the Republic of Korea’s Army (ROKA) evacuated Hungnam.  On the eighteenth, the 3rd Division assumed responsibility for the whole perimeter and the 7th Division left Hungnam on the twenty-first.  On December 22, the 3rd Division began to withdraw.

The last infantry formation from the 3rd Division left Hungnam on Christmas Eve.  Lupercio Ortíz, a sergeant from the 65th’s headquarters company, was the last man to leave the beachhead.[20]  On December 26, El Mundo revealed: “Now the island can breathe easy and receive the New Year with greater optimism and hope than it had at Christmas.” The editorial added, “The 65th is safe and back in Pusan and has covered itself with glory by its valiant service in protecting the embarkation of marines and soldiers.”[21] 

More was in store for the Puerto Rican regiment and the Borinqueneers. But the news that they were safe and had been the last ones to evacuate the besieged port brought much relief and pride to an oppressed and colonized people.

Remembering los muchachos

In the early 2000s, Pepita could not contain a big smile as she finished telling me her story and fully remembering the relief and joy she felt reading the news and listening to the radio; “Our boys” were safe.

Almost two decades after Pepita told me her triste navidad an American graduate student studying in the Netherlands sent me an email in which she shared that her grandfather was one of those Marines who, when they reached American lines and safety, were met by men from Puerto Rico. She wrote that she is forever grateful and so was his grandfather.

 

ultimos-en-salir-2

Corporal Julio Guzman and Master Sgt. Lupercio Ortíz “Ultimos en salir” December 24th 1950. Hugnan, Korea.

Lupercio Ortíz still had a picture of himself and his assistant as they left the beachhead.  The picture was first published on Life Magazine and reprinted by the press in Puerto Rico.  See El Imparcial de Puerto Rico: Periódico Ilustrado, 27 December 1951.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

[1] See Roy B. Appleman, U.S. Army in the Korean War: South to the Naktong North to the Yalu (Washington D.C.: Office of the Chief of Military History, 1966), 722-23; Blair, The Forgotten War, 407-408; and Harris, Puerto Rico’s Fighting 65th, 88.

[2] Harris Puerto Rico’s Fighting 65th, 87-88.

[3] Appleman, South to the Naktong North to the Yalu, 725.

[4] Harris, Puerto Rico’s Fighting 65th, 85-86.

[5] Blair, Forgotten War, 409; Harris Puerto Rico’s Fighting 65th, 91.

[6] Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union, supported North Korea’s aggression thinking that “it would benefit the geopolitical position of the USSR in the Far East.”  In a gross miscalculation, Stalin believed that the United States would not intervene.  Immediately after the U.N. forces crossed the 38th parallel and with Kim Il-Sung’s regime crumbling, Stalin “dictated a telegram to Mao Zedong [Communist China’s leader] advising the Chinese to mobilize five or six divisions to the 38th parallel.”  On October 25, 1951, the Chinese Communist Forces (CCF) launched their first phase offensive of the Korean War.  Intelligence reports, however, disregarded the presence of large numbers of Chinese soldiers in North Korea until the CCF launched a large scale offensive on November 25, 1951.  Vladimir Zubok, and Constantine Pleshakov, Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War: From Stalin to Khrushchev,  (Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1996), 54, 65.

[7] Harris Puerto Rico’s Fighting 65th, 97-99.

[8] Ibid., 99.

[9] Maná del cielo is a biblical reference to the manna that fell on the Hebrews during their exodus from Egypt.  Vargas Interview; Harris, Puerto Rico’s Fighting 65th, 102-103.

[10] Harris, Puerto Rico’s Fighting 65th, 105.

[11] Harris, Puerto Rico’s Fighting 65th, 104. Luis Raul Rodríguez commanded Company F of the 2/65 from December 12, 1950, to January 29, 1951.  Rodríguez did not like Almond because he referred to the 65th as the Rum and Coke outfit.  See Luis R. Rodríguez, interview by author, audiocassette, Miami, Florida, 27 September 2001.  Not only did Almond distrust black troops, but he also opposed racial integration.  Twenty years after the Korean War, in a letter to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Almond continued to condemn the integration of the armed forces based on his belief that “the basic characteristics of Negro and White are fundamentally different.”  He added: “There is no question in my mind of the inherent differences in races.”  See McGregor, Integration of the Armed Forces, 440-41.

[12] Harris, Puerto Rico’s Fighting 65th,105.

[13] Ibid., 109.

[14] Ibid., 119.

[15] Ibid., 119-20.

[16] Blair, Forgotten War, 541-42.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Mercado Santana Interview.

[19] Harris, Puerto Rico’s Fighting 65th, 135.

[20]  See Blair, Forgotten War, 542-44; Lupercio Ortíz Interview.  Lupercio Ortíz still had a picture of himself and his assistant as they left the beachhead.  The picture was first published on Life Magazine and reprinted by the press in Puerto Rico.  See El Imparcial de Puerto Rico: Periódico Ilustrado, 27 December 1951.

[21] Periódico El Mundo (San Juan), 27 December 1950.

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