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 2: Dishonoring the Motherland
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.
Chapter 3: A Boricua’s Heart
The colonel addressed the regiment while showing them new Puerto Rican flags. He read out loud the note accompanying the flags.
“The Communist enemy does not have enough ammunition to tear down the Puerto Rican flag. We are sending you another flag to replace our glorious colors now under fire. The flag will continue to fly as long as it continues to inspire a Boricua’s heart.”
The soldiers cheered.
Someone shouted “We will retake Kelly and rename it “Los Jíbaros!”” A chant started “Jíbaros, Jíbaros, Jíbaros.” The whole regiment joined in.
Cordero screamed on the microphone: “And as Los Jíbaros shall be known forever!” He certainly knew how to inspire his men.
Cordero announced, more to the Stars and Stripes and the war correspondents the island had sent than to his men: “From this point onward, if you are chosen to lead an attack, you will carry our flag to victory.”
There would be no retreat for nobody could defeat Puerto Ricans defending their flag.
Most of the men cheered filled with national pride- ready and willing to retake Kelly and raise their island’s flag for all to see.
Camacho and González grinned their teeth. There was no new strategy. They had seen the plans as they were part of the mission. It would be another massacre.
The next night, two platoons from E Company assaulted the outpost. By late afternoon, one platoon had fought its way to the top, while the second platoon was slowly making its way to the crest. The Chinese sent reinforcements and succeeded in slowing down the second platoon. The Borinqueneers at the crest soon found themselves under heavy machine-gun and mortar fire. After taking over thirty casualties, both platoons withdrew to the main line of resistance.
Cordero was ready. He had ordered the first battalion to be ready to launch a full counter attack. As soon as it was dark, A Company approached the hill from the south, while C Company advanced to the base of the hill. Enemy mortar and artillery fire grew heavy as the two companies approached Kelly. The reconstituted B Company, now led by Camacho and González, more as a punishment if anything else, started to move toward Kelly to support the ascent of A and C Companies.
The Chinese artillery scored several direct hits on B Company. Who would order a third company to walk the path two others had taken? “Battling Baker” was reduced to twenty-six men by the bombardment. No matter what Camacho and González tried, their company was in disarray. They have had less than two days to reconstitute a company with cooks and mechanics, and the always excedent replacements, whom, though eager, were so green they were more of a problem than help. B Company’s mission was cancelled, Cordero called it out.
Camacho made sure that the rest of his green company made it back to safety. Then, he started walking towards Kelly again. González followed him.
“End of the road kid” said Camacho.
“I’m going with you sargento, you don’t like it, shoot me” said González.
Camacho said “okay, keep your eyes open.”
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.