To read the prologue and previous chapters of the series, click here. "Pride and Courage" is a fictionalized account of the experience of Puerto Rican soldiers during the Korean War.
Chapter 4: Miracle at Outpost Kelly
Chinese machine-gun, mortar, and time-fused artillery fire were taking their toll on A and C Companies. Most of A Company fell back to reorganize. C Company clung to a small piece of the hill. A few men from both companies held a small perimeter near the crest throughout the night. It was a long, dark and scary night. The Borinqueneers repelled probes and small attacks throughout the night. They held their small position.
With the first rays of light came an artillery barrage pounding the Chinese positions. The order came to fix bayonets. Everyone knew what it meant. As soon as the bombardment ended they continued their ascent to the crest. About half the men were killed or wounded but the rest made it to the crest as the Chinese retreated down the south slope.
“The flag, where is the flag?” asked sergeant Aguilar.
Two privates ran to him, unpacked a flag and handed it to Aguilar. He quickly raised the flag. The Borinqueneers watching the attack from the main line of resistance cheered when they saw the flag waving on top of Kelly.
Aguilar and the two men ran for cover but were cut down by machine gun fire before reaching the trenches. Their bodies laid entangled a few feet from the trench. There were some twenty men still alive in Kelly. They kept their heads down in the trenches as the Chinese fire intensified. Mortar and artillery fire rained on them. They couldn’t fight back- they would have to endure the bombardment. That wasn’t the worst part. The trenches were full of men killed in the previous days. Frozen dead bodies. They were the men of B company. They had been killed in their sleeping bags. The Chinese had used their bodies for cover and as steps to prop themselves up in the trenches. A few men just could not take it, they rather be out in the open than surrounded by their dead brothers. Five soldiers left the relative safety of the trenches and ran toward the flag. Machine gun fire killed them as they tried to lower the flag.
Panic, total panic took over the rest of the men. They were being killed without being able to fight back. Bugles and horns could be heard coming from the south slope. The Chinese infantry was coming back to retake the position. Private Colón, an 18-year-old replacement from Brooklyn, held his rifle as tight as he could- he said a prayer “Santa María madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros…” he finished and kissed his medallion of the Virgin of la Candelaria.
“They are coming. Get ready. Don’t die on your knees,” he said as he started shooting a BAR from the trench. The Chinese formation was so thick he barely had to aim. He kept shooting. Chinese soldiers fell dead or wounded but more kept coming. Colón was hit several times, on the shoulders, his face and neck grazed by bullets. But he kept firing and reloading his BAR. It seems he could take on the whole Chinese company. And just like that he was hit- a bullet to his chest. He plummeted, dissappeared as if a hole had swallowed him. The rest of the men started firing back. Colón’s words had some effect on them, seeing him fight like he did gave them hope, watching him die enraged them, they were no longer afraid to die. The twelve men still alive fought with everything they got. When they ran out of ammo they used Chinese weapons left behind. They tossed grenades and rocks. But the Chinese kept coming.
A few Chinese soldiers made it into the trenches. A brutal hand to hand combat ensued. The Borinqueneers prevailed. But the Chinese kept coming, they were everywhere. The Borinqueneers knew they were about to die but they would die standing. They heard the peculiar sound of a BAR and M1 rifles. It was coming from within the Chinese formation- or so it seemed.
The Chinese had attacked from the South slope. Camacho and González had maneuvered all night and now were hitting the Chinese infantry from the rear and the West flank. The Chinese could not pinpoint the attackers. They had fallen into their own trap. Once on top of Kelly there was barely any cover outside the small trenches. They were being massacred like they massacred company after company of Borinqueneers. But more and more kept coming. The Chinese were brave and they had the numbers to launch wave after wave.
Camacho and González’s attack bought some time for the men in the trenches. As the Chinese momentarily withdrew in disarray they made it to the trenches.
“Who is in charge?” asked Camacho.
“You are sergeant!” said private Rivera.
“We need to get out of here, now!”
“We have orders to hold to the last man,” replied Rivera.
“You already did. All of you are wounded. We do not have more ammo. You will not die in this trench. Let’s go.”
“We can’t leave him behind sergeant, he saved us,” said Rivera while trying to drag Colón’s body. Camacho agreed reluctantly. Carrying a body would slow them down. But he knew that trying to convince them to leave Colón’s body behind was futile.
They started moving. González ran to the pole and retrieved the flag.
The hill was crawling with Chinese patrols. Leaving Kelly was taxing.
“Where are we?”
“God you scared me to death! We thought you were dead” said Rivera.
“What happened” asked Colón as he rubbed his chest visibly in pain. He pulled out his medallion. It had stopped a bullet. They could not believe it. Colón was not particularly religious. His mother gave him the medallion before he left for Korea. He did not know what to think or say. It was not shock- it was profound gratitude. He had been saved by his mother and she was all he could think off.
“Let’s move. We need to get out of here or your miracle would be in vain.”
Everyone followed Camacho. González brought up the rear.
It was dark when they reached friendly lines.
It was a miracle that they had survived.
They were safe, for now.
Chapter 5: Far From Home
Camacho slept for two full days at the aid station. He had several minor wounds and was dehydrated and exhausted after three days of fighting and no sleep. González was sitting on a stretcher with a guitar on his lap playing melancholic songs that transported Camacho back home, to Lajas.
He dreamed of when he was a barefoot kid playing on dirt roads with nothing but a stick. He dreamed of the war coming and he rushing to the recruiting station just to be turned down several times. “You are too skinny muchacho. How can you possibly carry a rifle? Put some weight on and comeback.” He gained weight, and in the middle of a German submarine campaign aimed at starving Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.
Camacho was resourceful. He knew where to find tubers. The monte had always provided, a mount of Yucca here; Yams of all kinds there; eels from the creek. What no one would eat he would. He worked as a messenger boy, as a porter, as anything people needed. With every penny he made he bought lard. And any meal he ate he topped with lard. He gained weight fast. He travelled to Cabo Rojo to enlist as he had tried all the recruiting stations in Lajas. It took him all day.
After a day of health and fitness test and officer asked: “Name?”
“You are not a boy anymore. Full name!”
The officer looked at the record for a minute and then looked up at him: “Welcome to the U.S. Army Private Camacho. You leave in four days for Tortuguero. Get your personal affairs in order and report back here on Friday at 0400.”
“Sir excuse me, when…”
“4:00 A.M. private, 4:00 A.M.”
González stopped playing his guitar interrupting Camacho’s daydreaming. “Hey you are awake sergeant- welcome back- you slept for two full days.”
Camacho sat on his stretcher and started looking around for his uniform and gear. A nurse approached him and told him that he was not cleared to leave the station yet- that he needed rest. González agreed but he knew Camacho needed to leave the station.
On the way to the tent González told Camacho that while they were in the aid station Cordero had ordered the whole First Battalion to attack Kelly again. Even the Division’s commander was there to witness the attack. A full artillery barrage, a tank company, and the whole battalion, and they got chewed up by the Chinese. The Chinese no longer contested Kelly. They simply let company after company take the crest and then tear them to pieces with artillery. They Regiment lost over five hundred men dead and wounded trying to take and hold Outpost Kelly. 500 men for an useless outpost impossible to defend.
Camacho hurried into the tent and opened his foot locker. He grabbed his side arm, a Colt 45, 1911 Model. He walked to Cordero’s Command Post. González kept talking but Camacho was not listening. Cordero had to answer for this. On his way to the C.P. Camacho thought about Sergeant Guilloti. Back in 1950 he had died from “friendly” fire. He didn’t even step in Korea proper. He received a shot in the back as soon as the troop transport lowered its rampart. A soldier claimed his weapon had discharged accidentally. But Guilloti had been an abusive sergeant who mistreated his men. And the soldier who “accidentally” discharged his weapon and killed him had been a target of Guilloti’s rage.
Maybe it was an accident, maybe not. It did not matter. The situation was chaotic when the 65th made it to Korea. The Americans had broken out of the Pusan perimeter and were in full pursuit of the North Korean armies. There was no front and American units found themselves going up and down, west and east, finding and eliminating the enemy. No, there was no time for inquiries so the shooter was transferred to another company and Corporal Camacho was promoted to Squad Sargent. Camacho hated his first promotion to Sargent happened under these circumstances.
But this was different. Guilloti had been abusive but he never got anyone killed. Camacho thought that Cordero was responsible for all those dead, for a useless outpost!
He made his way into Cordero’s tent.
“What the hell are you doing in my tent Sargent?” said a voice in a Southern accent.
“I’m looking for Colonel Cordero sir!”
“He is gone son- count yourself lucky” said Colonel De Gavre in the most condescending of tones. “There are going to be changes around here. We are not in the business of losing wars. You have been pampered by Cordero. It is his fault you have grown weak. He treated you like children, not like American soldiers. We can still make men out of you, maybe, even good soldiers.”
Camacho could not believe his ears. What gave the new Colonel the impression they needed to be turned into men, into soldiers. He thought about reaching for his side arm. But González interrupted his thought. “Yes sir. Thank you, sir!”
“One more thing boys. You need to shave off your mustaches. Prove that you are men in combat and you may grow them again. I already issue the order. By the end of the day you will have shaved off your mustache.”
“Yes sir” said González while grabbing Camacho by the arm and walking him outside.
“Sargent you need let it go. Cordero is gone.”
“It is not Cordero. De Gavre wants to humiliate us for losing a battle. You were there. Are we cowards? Are we boys?”
“It does not matter Sargent. We will grow it back.”
“I know. I know.”
It had been a rude awakening for Camacho. The regiment had been his family since he joined in 1942. He had been in Korea for two years and sometimes he even felt as home in the field.
But they were not home. They were far from it.
Harry Franqui-Rivera, a former Centro researcher, is a a Professor of History at Bloomfield College. His forthcoming book Soldiers of the Nation: Military Service and Modern Puerto Rico, 1898-1952 will be published by Nebraska Press University.