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Pride and Courge, A Borinqueneers Story: Chapters 6 & 7

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 6: Before the Fall

Sergeant Camacho was not having it.

“It is an order. You will shave your mustaches by the end of the day or face disciplinary action!”

No one moved. No one dared say anything. They just stood in attention, still in disbelief.  Camacho, a veteran of two wars, poured cold water from his canteen cup into his mess kit. He applied some soapy water to his face and started shaving off his mustache with a straight razor. The soldiers from B company started doing the same.

Camacho fell ill, unnerved. He finished hurriedly and walk outside the tent.  The snow was thick even though it was only October. But he kept walking- he felt the need to be as far away from his men as possible. Once within the tree line he stopped and started puking, fell to his knees and punched the white ground until his fists hurt.

As always, he had led by example. But this time was different. He was a good sergeant. He knew his job was to enforce the officers’ orders but this was too much. His men were not boys, much less cowards. They had been defeated back to back and forced to withdraw recently. But that was happening all along the lines, from the Turks and Brits further east and the whole American forces and South Koreans to the west. Why then would his men, and the whole regiment, be single out as boys, as cowards who needed to prove in combat that they were brave men? Why them? All of a sudden, he no longer felt American and Puerto Rican. He thought he could never be both.  He made his way back to the lines and into the tent, briefed his men and went to bed- always the last to bed and the first one to get up.

Tomorrow would be another day, but things had changed.

The battle for Outpost Kelly had been a major catastrophe for the Borinqueneers; soon a worse calamity would befall them.  This time, however, they would not hold to the last man.

Chapter 7: Jackson Heights

The 65th moved back into the line to relieve the 51st Republic of Korean Army Regiment on the night of October 23. In war, sometimes, you just can’t catch a break. Right after the battle for Outpost Kelly, the regiment moved off the line and went through intensive training and receive more green replacements. But it was but ten days off the line- not enough time to lick their wounds. But to the front they went, where they were needed.

When the 65th move back to the front it looked just like another U.S. Army regiment. Mustaches were gone. The white “Borinqueneers” markings painted on the regiment vehicles were covered with Army Green paint. Even the regiment’s Mambo Boys, whom had made a name entertaining G.I.s and allies while in the rear, were disbanded, their piano used as target practice. With Colonel De Gavre, Jim Crow came to the 65th. Even Puerto Rican officers could not shower in the same shower as Continental Americans.

Thus, the respite that the men of the 65th were supposed to get while off the line was never there. These policies were racist, and the men knew it. But it was worse than that. Something happens to men in war when they can’t find a moment, a safe place to recoup. When De Gavre assumed command, he deprived the men of the 65th of that place, of that moment. Worse, he tried to erase everything that would keep them fighting against all odds. He put into question their manhood and forced them to erase anything that reminds them of their heritage and anything that was overtly Puerto Rican. Many Continental American junior officers knew better, and against the Colonel’s order, appealed to their national pride as Boricuas to encourage them not to give up. But this kind of officers were few. The men of the 65th were now fighting on two fronts. The trust between the American officers and the Puerto Rican men was no longer there.

New Positions

The men of B Company moved toward their positions on the main Line of Resistance. On their way to the front, they witnessed an ominous sign. A South Korean Colonel, a battalion commander from the 51st, sat on a wooden case of .45 ammunition firing his pistol at C Rations cans. Some of his battered, weary men sat nearby. He was drunk. His men were spent, in shock. An American lieutenant asked him where he had been.  He pointed at Hill 391, drew his finger across his throat, and continued firing his pistol.

Soon enough, Hill 391 would be known as Jackson Heights. Hill 391 was the first bald knoll in a ridgeline. Two Chinese held-elevations, Hill 386, known as Iron Horse, in the immediate front of Jackson Heights, and Hill 488, named Camel’s Back, on its right, completely dominated Jackson Heights, which at its highest point rose to only 360 meters.  There wasn’t a spot of the outpost that wasn’t under constant enemy observation and open to enemy bombardment. There was no way to dig in- Jackson Heights was solid rock. Many Boricuas would die there protecting another indefensible outpost.

G Company, led by Captain Jackson, took the first crack at defending the outpost. On the afternoon of the 25, the Chinese began to direct 76-mm gunfire against Jackson Heights. Soon thereafter, they were also hitting the position with 82-mm and 120-mm mortar fire.  The Chinese spent the night sending small probes against the outpost. They were repulsed by G Company’s own 60-mm mortar fire but the Borinqueneers suffered nine casualties. Small attacks continued throughout the night and the next day. What it seemed just like another probe at daybreak turned into a full Chinese attack. The attack was repelled but the Chinese gave no respite to the Borinqueneers afterwards.

It had been two hellish nights for the men of G Company.  On both nights, the outpost lost communication with its parent battalion.  A sense of isolation was beginning to envelop the soldiers.  The situation was hopeless for the soldiers at Jackson Heights, subjected to uninterrupted enemy harassing fire all day long and they, seeing no enemy, unable to fire back until Chinese infantry attacked. Platoon leaders asked Captain Jackson about withdrawing late in the afternoon. They simply couldn’t withdraw until the dead and wounded were evacuated. They would have to spend another night in that hill.

The Chinese opened up again from Camel Back Hill with their 76-mm guns.  This time an enemy round scored a direct hit on the mortar ammunition supply. The shelling continued to take its toll throughout the day.  The mortar platoon had been reduced to two mortars and seven men.  The second platoon had lost both its platoon leader and platoon sergeant.  As sunset approached, Chinese artillery and mortar fire intensified, announcing an imminent attack. Captain Jackson requested that smoke be laid about the heights in an attempt to conceal his position from Chinese gunners.  The smoke never came, but the Chinese did.

The fighting continued throughout the night. Wave after wave of Chinese soldiers were repulsed just to have another wave follow. Around 2100 hours, scouts detected a massive Chinese formation approaching from the east and west.  Jackson immediately called for artillery fire.  “Sorry Captain, but we have only 100 rounds of H & I tonight.”

The Chinese moved undisturbed to their assault positions.

A thirty-minute artillery and mortar barrage pummeled Jackson Heights.  More than 1,000 rounds hit the outpost. They scored another direct hit on the mortar ammunition dump.  Although all but three men from the mortar section were killed or wounded, these men continued to fire until their mortars were destroyed.

At 2200 hours, the Chinese cut off the platoon nearest the crest of Hill 391 and decimated it.  Half an hour later, Chinese companies struck from both the south and north flanks.  The onslaught had fanned out and become general on all sides.  Jackson called for final defensive fire on his own position.

Casualties had been heavy.  G Company had sustained 15 men killed, 70 wounded, and 2 missing since they occupied the outpost in the night of the 24.

The company communications sergeant called battalion and reported that there were only three men left in his area and asked permission to withdraw. The battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Betances, assumed that the request came from Jackson, and ordered G Company to withdraw. Since G Company was engaged in close combat, much hand-to-hand combat occurred during the withdrawal. Casualties continued to mount. The men of G Company continued their withdrawal through Outpost Harry, which lay in between Kelly and the Main Line of Resistance.

The Stars & Stripes had closely followed the battle for Hill 391 and named it, the “Battle for Jackson Heights.”

The Borinqueneers knew they would have to counterattack.

Hopelessness spread throughout the ranks.

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.