This article originally appeared in the Korea Times on June 25, 2001
Free at Last – Part 1
A Korean War POW returns to Korea
By Jeffrey Miller
The blue United Nations Command bus stopped just a few yards from The Bridge of No Return in the Joint Security Area (JSA)—the last stop on the tour of the JSA, and one steeped with historic meaning.
On board today were a group of Korean War Veterans and some of their wives from San Antonio, Texas. For one of those veterans, Oscar Cortez, this was more than a historic sightseeing trip. For Cortez, it was a journey back in time.
It was across this bridge on August 26, 1953 that Cortez was repatriated back to freedom after having spent over two-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war in a Chinese POW Camp.
With his wife at his side, he wiped away the tears and slowly walked to the center of this bridge that in 1953 was his passage to freedom.
“I’m free,” announced Cortez to the veterans and wives on the bus, his voice shaky as he fought back the tears, “I’m free at last.”
Fifty-one years ago, Cortez—who was only 17 years old when he enlisted in the Army on February 26, 1950—was like the thousands of other young men who joined a branch of the U.S. military so they could see some of the world.
“A friend and I wanted to join the Air Force. We took the test, but I missed it by one point,” he recalled. “So I ended up joining the army instead.”
After basic training, Cortez got his wish to see the world. He had orders for Japan, but the North Koreans were about to change all of that.
“I was on my way to Seattle when the Korean War broke out,” said Cortez. “My buddies and I asked each other, ‘where the heck is Korea?’ They took a bunch of us and sent us over to the 2nd Infantry Division. I wound up with the 15th Field Artillery Battalion.”
When the ship sailed to Korea on July 17th, it was Cortez’s 18th birthday.
They landed in Korea at the end of July and, after they waited for their 105s and trucks, moved to the front lines a few days later. The Division had arrived just in time to take part in the Pusan Perimeter defense. Cortez’s battery was the first to fire on the North Koreans. On the way to the front lines, Cortez saw his first casualties of war: two Korean civilians, a man and a woman killed by the North Koreans lying by the side of the road.
What Cortez remembers most about that long hot summer when U.S./ROK and U.N. forces held the line and prevented the North Koreans from reaching Pusan was the heat, getting fire missions, pulling guard and manning an outpost with a .30 caliber machine gun. However, there was one particular fire mission against the North Koreans when even the cooks helped out.
“It was an offensive strike at the North Koreans. I counted 96 105 casings that our 105 fired on that day and I believe we did it in 12 minutes,” recalled Cortez as he pointed to his shoulders to show how high the casings had piled up. “We had every body helping out; even the cooks.”
Following the Inchon landing and the breakout from the Pusan Perimeter, Cortez pointed out that everyone thought that they had the North Koreans on the run and that they would soon win the war.
“I heard someone say ‘that we are going north like a big ass bird,’” laughed Cortez.
On the way north through many of the small villages and towns Cortez and others saw how much Korea had been ravaged by war. “I remembered seeing a lot of hooches that had been burned, buildings as well, but I’m not sure if the enemy did it or if it was our artillery or infantry, but there was a lot of destruction,” recalled Cortez sadly.
Then there were the reports of the atrocities committed by the North Koreans against South Koreans and the U.S. military. Although Cortez didn’t recall seeing firsthand the atrocities, he did remember reading about them in “Stars and Stripes.” “We had seen pictures in the ‘Stars and Stripes’ of GIs that were killed—shot in the back—with their hands tied behind their backs with wire.’’
Following the euphoria of the Inchon Landing and the breakout from the Pusan Perimeter, the general consensus was that once they reached the Yalu the war would be over. Cortez recalled that many of the men were not even issued cold weather gear—an indication that the war wouldn’t last much longer.
“It was time of jubilation,’’ recalled Cortez, “and after General MacArthur said we were be home by Christmas, we were ready to go home. Then those doggone Chinese came in. I felt robbed of the chance of going home and felt we were going to be there a lot longer.”
It was on Nov. 29, when Chinese forces surrounded, overwhelmed and nearly destroyed the 2nd Infantry Division. Three days later, when it was all over, the command had lost approximately 4,940 men killed or wounded. Following the battle at Kunu-ri, the battered U.S./ROK and U.N. forces withdrew south, first to Pyongyang, and then to Seoul.
“Everyone was confused and of course disappointed because we thought we were going home soon. No one had any idea what impact the Chinese intervention was going to have on us,” said Cortez. “We were driven back all the way to Yongdung-po, to wait for more 105s. All we knew is that we were fighting a different kind of enemy, one we didn’t know nothing about, but it didn’t take long what kind of fighters the Chinese were.”
By early Feb. Cortez and his unit were engaging the Chinese around a small village called Hoengsong. It was to be the turning point of the Korean War, not only for the 2nd ID and other units, but also on a personal level for Cortez.
“I could see the infantry on top of the mountain. That evening I was on guard around my 105’s. I watched some ROK units moving up to the front lines; a few hours later they were moving back. I wondered what was going on,” recalled Cortez. “Pretty soon, I heard those bugles and those drums. I still get goose bumps when I think of those doggone bugles. That was the scariest moment of my life.”
After pulling out from their position and being pinned down for sometime, they started moving south. The Chinese were on the high ground. Cortez saw two KATUSAs hit.
“I saw the bullets coming closer to where I was. I closed my eyes and thought, this is it,” said Cortez. “The bullet hit a stove about 10 inches away from my face, I felt something hit my face; it was some flakes from the stove. That’s as far as the bullets came from hitting me.”
They stopped along the way, pulled in into an open field and started firing point blank at the rushing hoard of Chinese. Then they were given orders to withdraw. They moved south for a while, but they were told to leave the trucks. Cortez helped his section chief, Sgt. Barrett who was wounded. They had gone about a 100 yards when word came down that the wounded would get back in the trucks and they would try to get out.
“We hadn’t had any sleep since the morning of the Feb. 11th and I fell asleep in the back of the truck,” recalled Cortez. “When I awoke the engine was running, I called for the driver in a hushed voice, but no one responded. “Suddenly from the rear, there were a lot of soldiers running towards me. I thought they were GIs, until one of them shot at me. He didn’t hit me but I returned fire with my carbine. I felt something hit me on my stomach and I realized it was a grenade, so I ran to the opposite side of the truck, hit the ground and the grenade went off.”
Cortez then heard a tank firing about 300 yards to the front, and crawled towards it, thinking that if he reached it, he could get out.
“I crawled about 100 yards when the tank stopped firing. I lay there thinking what to do next, when someone came over, took my weapon, looked to see if I had a watch and then moved on. I lay there for quite awhile playing dead. Almost everyone that passed by me looked to see if I had a watch. Finally some North Korean soldier turned me over and shined a flashlight in my face.”