*Author's note: "This is fictionalized story about the experience of Puerto Rican soldiers during the Korean War. The story covers from the initial deployment to the return of the soldiers and the war's aftermath. There are actual events and characters depicted in this story but the main characters are composite versions of the many stories I dug up or were told to me by the Puerto Rican soldiers themselves. I hope I do them justice. Any failure on this account is all mine.
Prologue: The Boys Are Gone, Adiós a los muchachos...
Mario ran “jalda arriba” as fast as he could—more goat than man. He was supposed to be in class. That is what his mother wanted. He would be the first one in his family to finish high school, not fourth grade or eight grade like the enlightened people in their barrio in Naranjito—but real high school, all the way to twelve grade, and perhaps, even attend one of the vocational schools being built all over the island. He knew his mother would not be happy to see him out of school, but he had a good excuse.
It was October 12, 1950 and as Puerto Rican newspapers and radio announced that the men of the 65th (el sesenta y cinco) were fighting in Korea, the whole island seemed to have erupted in celebration.
Horns, sirens, whistles.
Professional and amateur musicians played “La despedida” on every corner, bar and tavern.
Government officials, politicians and patriarchs made announcements and gave patriotic speeches.
The day resembled a holiday more than anything else.
The island’s newspapers were full of stories and pictures of the 65th and the ceremonies held previous to their secret departure. A local newspaper proclaimed: “As it was yet another symbol of the United Nations, under the American flag flies the flag of the 65th Infantry Regiment, this flag flies today in Korea.” Yes, the public tone was celebratory and someone unfamiliar with Puerto Rican culture could’ve thought that the news had announced the end of the war and not that the island’s men had just been sent into combat, into war.
Mario made it into his mother’s rustic house. She was coming back from the yard with a chicken she had just killed and that would the main ingredient in several meals.
“Mamá, the men are gone, the men are gone.”
Camila’s heart sank. Her husband had gone to Michigan to work in beet fields almost six months earlier and she knew why Mario was so excited.
“Mamá they are recruiting men for the war and I’m going to volunteer!”
Camila barely let Mario finish “You are only sixteen years-old and you are going to finish high school like you promised me and your father. You can join the army when you are done with school.”
“But mama, the war will be over by then.”
“There will always be another war Mario, there will always be another war” said Camila hoping that the war would be over by the time she could no longer stop her only son from joining the army.
Mario knew that his mother’s word was final. Joining the celebrations to give los muchachos a proper farewell was all Mario could do, for now.
Chapter 1: Of Ghosts and Family
Sargent Camacho sat in the back of an army GMC two and half ton truck. The “deuce and a half” was part of a convoy making its way north. The army engineers had done their best to flatten the Korean landscape and create roads. Their best was not good enough. The ride was bumpy, but Camacho was used to it. After two years up and down the Korean peninsula, he could even sleep in the back of the truck using his helmet as a hard pillow. But this time he wasn’t sleeping. He kept peering through the flapping green canvas.
The line of trucks, jeeps, halftracks, and tanks was a spectacle worth watching. It seemed the whole U.S. Army was rushing to the Main Line of Resistance. How things had changed. The first time he had seen a convoy this large he thought that the war would be over soon. How could the North Koreans withstand such power? But the war did not end in 1950. The Chinese had prevented the war from ending, and now, two years after he arrived in Korea, Camacho had no illusions that the next battle would bring the war closer to an end.
He put that thought out of his mind and focused on the Korean hills, thousands of hills that now were the main target for both the United Nations and the Chinese and North Koreans. The hills were stained with the blood of hundreds of thousands of men from all over the world. Despite all that, the hills always reminded Camacho of Sierra Bermeja, where he used to escape as a kid a lifetime ago back in Puerto Rico.
Two years. In that time, Camacho had seen men killed and maimed. Some were close friends, others were strangers. Some were World War II veterans, whom like him, had their baptism of fire in Korea. But most of those veterans were now gone from the regiment. Some had gained battlefield commissions- which was a great distinction for an enlisted man. Many had been rotated back to Puerto Rico. Points, everyone counted their points hoping that rotation would come before death, or even worse, before being maimed and rendered useless, turned into a broken man.
Camacho had more than twice the points he needed to be rotated. He had fulfilled his enlistment contract and reenlisted with the condition that he would be allowed to stay with the regiment. For most of the men it was the other way around. Many of those reenlisting had done so with the understanding that they would serve elsewhere as garrison soldiers. A few had decided to stay in Korea because they thought it would advance their careers. Camacho, however, stayed with the regiment because it was the closest thing to a family, to a home, he ever had.
As the son of a perennially unemployed drunk, and orphaned by his mother when he was ten years old, Camacho had learned to fend for himself. He avoided becoming a ward of the state by dragging his drunk father home whenever a social worker visited his shack investigating rumors of a child living on his own among the sugar cane cutters. Other times he convinced a worker of the cane to pose as his father. Sometimes he just escaped into the hills for days. The social workers stopped coming and Camacho grew up, between the sugar plantation and the hills, into a man whose skin and bones figure hid a formidable inner strength.
He was one of the last recruits to join the 65th Infantry, the Puerto Rican Regiment, before it left the island during WWII. For over three years he trained, ate and live with the men of B Company. Like most of the men in the 65th, Camacho did not see any action during WWII. They were not trusted under fire. Ironically, this meant that the regiment returned to Puerto Rico after suffering very few combat casualties. Because of this, many veterans had stayed with the regiment after the war. Others reenlisted as soon as the 65th was ordered to Korea.
Camacho had stayed because in those three years the men of B company, and the whole regiment, had become his family. The 65th was his home. Thus, even though veterans left and replacements came by the boatload- Camacho stayed in Korea. Even after the rotation of most of the initial rank and file, he still considered the regiment, and even the new green replacements- his family. But things had changed.
Camacho was no longer the uninitiated corporal who landed in Pusan as the summer of 1950 came to an end. He had been in many battles. He had seen life escaping the eyes of dying men, friends and enemies alike. He did not sleep for days after killing for the first time. The face of the anonymous North Korean soldier he had killed in close combat still visited him at night but he was used to it and even welcomed his ghost’s visits. The enemy soldiers reminded him of the cane cutters he grew up with. Peasants, the enemy soldiers were peasants like him and many of the Puerto Rican soldiers in the regiment. The ghost served to remind him that as a platoon sergeant in B company, his men depended on him. And he would do his best to avoid his men becoming someone else’s ghosts.
The convoy stopped abruptly. Camacho knew what it meant. They would walk the last three miles to their new positions. He ordered his men out. Soldiers fell into combat formation looking more like pack mules than men. Soon, the whole regiment was moving towards their positions. There wasn’t any activity along the main line of resistance. The only noises disturbing that peaceful and warm late summer day were those of shovels, hammers, and men talking loudly as they dig fox holes, fortified bunkers, filled up sand bags, and set up their positions.
It was a peaceful day indeed, but these were the front lines. The men of the 65th were not to have many more days like this one.
To continue reading Chapters 2 and 3, click here.