Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Chipyong-ni

Hoengsong and “Massacre Valley” — February 12, 1951

I first learned about Hoengsong and “Massacre Valley” when I read Stanley Sandler’s Korean War history, No Victors, No Vanquished in 2000, but it wasn’t until May 2001, when I had the chance to sit down with Oscar Cortez, when I learned more about “Massacre Valley” and what happened to elements of the 2nd Infantry Division.

When I started to write my Korean War novel War Remains in the fall of 2009, I remembered that interview I had with Oscar on our way to another Korean War battlefield, Chipyong-ni when he described the battle he was in north of Hoengseong in February 1951. That’s when I knew how my novel would begin and end and one of the battles which would figure prominently in the book. I wanted readers to know about this battle and to remember the men who lost their lives there.

This is anotheMassacre Valley Nov 6 2010 012r view of the valley and the monument which was dedicated to the United States Second Infantry Division (which is still stationed in South Korea). That’s another irony of this so-called “forgotten war.” One of the divisions which fought in the war, is still here and ready to fight.

And let’s not forget that there are still over 7,900 American service members from that war still listed as MIAs.

Of course, for the family members still waiting for their loved ones to come from that war, it has never been a forgotten war for them.

Three of my Facebook friends and their families are waiting for their loved ones to come home. One of those friends lost an uncle in this very same battle.

Massacre Valley Nov 6 2010 003

It’s been almost four years since I published this novel about the Korean War. I am proud of it and the lives it has touched.

Genesis of a novel

Oscar Cortez outside War Memorial Museum, Seoul 2001

One day last September, I was thinking about these articles I had written for the Korea Times back in 2000 and 2001 when I was covering various commemorative events for the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Korean War when I first started thinking about writing this novel.

In particular, I thought about three articles I had written in May 2001 when some Second Infantry Division Korean War veterans came back to Korea to commemorate the Battle of Chipyong-ni. I accompanied the veterans to the Chipyong-ni battlefield as well as to the War Memorial Museum and a Repatriation Ceremony at Yongsan, headquarters of the Eighth Army.

Korean War veterans at Chipyong-ni, May 2001

With the 60th anniversary of the Korean War approaching, I wanted to something more than what I had done from 2000-2003 when I covered many of the commemorative events for the Times. At first, I thought about compiling all those articles I wrote on the Korean War commemoration events and put them into a book. But then I thought—“wait a minute, maybe I could take these articles and write a novel instead.”

It was that article about Chipyong-ni that became the genesis for the novel as well as my interview and subsequent article with Oscar Cortez who was captured by the Chinese at Hoengsong on February 12, 1951 and spent the rest of the war in a Chinese POW camp. I knew right from the start what I wanted to write, how the novel would begin and how it would end.

To be sure, even before I started writing I saw the story more as a movie than a novel. I think visualizing the story before I started writing helped me to see the entire book as a whole.

Courage Under Fire

This article originally appeared in the Korea Times on May 9, 2001 as a two-part story on American Korean War Veterans who fought at the Battle of Chipyong-ni in February 1951. Today, I would like to share it here on the 58th anniversary of the start of the Korean War.

 CHIPYONG-NI, South Korea – Last week, on a peaceful verdant hill overlooking a fertile valley of rice paddies and fields sprouting an assortment of vegetables, Eduardo “Ed” Fernandez returned to the battlefield where he had been wounded 50 years ago.

This time he walked back up the hill.

“That’s where the airdrops landed,” said Fernandez as he pointed to a freshly tilled field that had been readied for spring planting.

Surrounded by the four Chinese divisions, airdrops in a valley just a couple of hundred yards from the perimeter re-supplied the besieged forces of the 23rd Regimental Combat Team and other units. It was also where a Chinese mortar had zeroed in on him and Lou Jurado as they hurriedly recovered badly needed medical supplies and ammunition.

Severely wounded and passing in and out of consciousness, Fernandez was carried by Jurado-who also had been hit by shrapnel from the mortar-a couple hundred yards back to their perimeter.

They have a name for that: “courage under fire.” However, Lou was only doing what anyone would do in that situation when someone’s life was in jeopardy. 50 years later, time has not diminished the memories of that battle and of that camaraderie under fire.

Both Fernandez and Jurado were back in Korea for the first time to commemorate the Battle of Chipyong-ni and perhaps, heal some of those emotional wounds of 50 years ago.

“It’s a little scary being back here,” said Fernandez.

Jurado, on the other hand had harbored mixed emotions as he walked across the battlefield where he and Ed had fought 50 years ago.

“It’s bittersweet,” added Jurado.

After being pushed back south in November and December of 1950 following China’s entry into the Korean War and suffering many casualties, U.S. UN and ROK forces found themselves on the defensive again, but that was all about to change at places like Chipyong-ni and Wonju about two hours southwest of Seoul.

It was on Feb. 13, 1951, when the Chinese-following a cacophony of bugles, bells, whistles, and drums-first hit according to historian Roy Appleman with a “mortar and artillery barrage from the north, northwest, and southwest that hit the perimeter and inside it at the center. At the same time, enemy infantry ran into the outer defenses of trip flares, antipersonnel mines, and booby-traps in front of C Company at the north end.”

You don’t have to be a military historian to realize that what exactly was happening at that moment: all hell was breaking loose.

“They were coming at us by the thousands,” said Fernandez. “The Chinese were good fighters. They were somebody to be reckoned with. We were surrounded. I never thought we were going to come out of it.”

Twenty-four airdrops helped restock ammunition, rations, and medical supplies. Every available man helped in retrieving the airdrops. Regimental medics worked steadily to relieve the suffering of the wounded and helicopters shuttled in and out of the tight perimeter throughout the day, evacuating the most seriously wounded.

Others were treated and made as safe and comfortable as possible to await the opportunity for evacuation when the roadblocks ringing the garrison could be broken.

“Our supply sergeant had been killed; the mess sergeant had been killed. Everything was in an uproar,” recalled Fernandez who was then a Sergeant First Class. “I gathered the guys who were around me. I said we got to pick up this stuff before the enemy won’t let us.

“They missed the drop zone. The supplies landed in this open valley and the enemy had the high ground. I made the first trip with a couple of guys. One guy had been killed on the first trip. We had to get out of the way because we had this ammo on us. I was on my second or third trip when Lou showed up to help.”

Fernandez and Jurado made two trips together to retrieve the ammo and medical supplies. Jurado knew that by the second trip, the Chinese had zeroed in their mortars.

“I knew that we were either going to be dead before we made it back or we were going to get badly wounded,” recalled Jurado.

When the mortar hit, the first thing Fernandez recalled was that the blood on the snow looked like a cherry ‘snow cone.’

Jurado saw blood coming out everywhere when Fernandez was hit. His one leg was just dangling when Jurado tried to pick him up. Although one of the first things you’re taught in first aid is to put a tourniquet on to stop the bleeding, Jurado had no time to think of such things. When he went to pick him up, he fell down.

At the same time, Jurado didn’t know that he had also been wounded because he had been knocked down by the concussion. The only thing he could think of was to pick Fernandez up and get him to an aid station inside the perimeter.

“So I picked him up again,” said Lou, in a broken voice, as he held back the tears. “I said, ‘God help me.’ I picked him up and I could feel that he was moving. I told Ed that we’re getting out of here. I could see that one leg was just dangling. Somehow or another when things like that happen you get super strong, the adrenaline flows.

“I was able to carry him to the aid station. He had bled so badly that I thought he was going to die on me. So, I told the medics to give him so blood. I didn’t know if he was dead or not. To this day, I don’t know how I was able to carry him.”

But he did and later, he was evacuated to a hospital in the rear. He didn’t know what happened to Ed who was immediately evacuated and whether or not he had lost the leg or if he had died.

“I was at the field hospital for three days. I thought, boy this is a terrific wound. I’ll probably get back to the States on this thing. They patched me up and sent me back to the front lines,” said Jurado. “I never did find out what happened to him. We finally met in 1995 at one of the reunions. He cried; I cried. The wives cried.”

Fernandez was one of the lucky ones. He was evacuated out, but his ordeal was far from being over.

“I had a number of guardian angels with me,” recalled Fernandez.

On his way back to the aid station, that ambulance that he was on was hit by enemy fire. Fernandez, who was sandwiched between two other wounded men, escaped being hit again; the other men weren’t so lucky. Fernandez thinks that they might have died from these rounds. Then, when he arrived at the aid station, he was mistakenly placed with the dead. A French Priest noticed that he was still alive and had him moved.

“They gave me some blood and put me on a chopper,” said Fernandez. Then that chopper got hit. There were two litters. The guy who was on the opposite one got hit a couple of times. The pilot was also hit. They were firing at the chopper. I guess you might say that I had a couple of narrow escapes.”

Fernandez would be in out of hospitals for the next couple of years. All total, he would undergo over 76 operations-minor and major-including skin grafts. He gets around these days with the use of a cane.

According to historian Max Hastings, “the Chipyong-ni battle represented not only a fine performance by American units, but also an important stage in the rehabilitation and revival of the morale of the 2nd Division, which had been so desperately mauled at Kunu-ri.” This battle was China’s first tactical defeat during the war, and served to bolster the flagging morale of U.N. troops.

“It was the first battle we whipped the Chinese,” said Jurado. “It made us feel good and boosted our morale.”

However, Fernandez and Jurado almost didn’t come back for this special commemoration trip. It was only after their family members persuaded them to come back as well as knowing that the other one would be here-that they finally decided to come.

“I had no desire to come back,” said Fernandez, “but my wife was instrumental in persuading me. Of course, I needed Lou to be here.”

The trip also helped both men deal with those ghosts from the past.

“It brought us closer together,” said Jurado whose kids played a big part in convincing him to make the journey back to Korea with Ed. “It was a healing process for the both of us-to know that we had come out of this.”

Fernandez was awarded the Bronze Star for his actions during the Battle of Chipyong-ni. Part of his citation read: “Sergeant First Class Fernandez during the ‘siege’ of Chipyong-ni, repeatedly and under intense hostile small arms and mortar fire, secured the supplies that were delivered by air from the drop zone and brought them into the 23rd Infantry’s perimeter.”

But some things are just hard to forget. Even 50 years later.

“It’s emotional knowing that in this immediate area you lost guys that you had known and were attached to,” said Fernandez with a shaky voice, “Guys that talked about their wives and their babies. We lost so many good men.”

Fernandez, who wanted to remember this trip back to Korea and his special friendship with Jurado offered a small token of this remembrance and friendship forged in blood on the Chipyong-ni battleground.

Sitting in the lobby of their hotel the other night, Jurado pulled out nondescript beige stone from his pocket.

“Look at this. Ed gave it to me today,” said Jurado, his voice shaky as he ran his thumb over the smooth stone, a tear in his eye, “He picked up one for himself and me from the battlefield. I thought that was really special.”

My 2001 interview with Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré — Part 2

It doesn’t take long for the young men and women who are assigned to the 2ID to feel part of the team, either. Honoré pointed out that although these young men and women are here without their families, they are not here without relatives. He reminds them that they join a family when they come to the 2ID. 

“We got that ‘Hooah’ thing going on all the time. And you hear us say it all the time,” explained Honoré.

‘Hooah’ is a term heard often in the 2ID. It’s a multipurpose, magical word that can mean just about anything, but more often than not is used to express something good.  

“Although the soldiers come to Korea from other great units, it doesn’t take them long after they’ve arrived in Korea to know that they are with the best,” he said.  He also had much praise for the sergeants who take many of these young soldiers under their wings, which is reminiscent of the Spartan army where senior warriors took junior warriors on.  

“Our sergeants are the keepers of the standard,” said Honoré. “By golly, we have great sergeants here. That’s what makes serving in Warrior Country so ‘Hooah!’” 

The 2ID, which first saw action in Korea during the Pusan Perimeter in the summer of 1950, came to Korea with a distinguished history and service record. The division, one of the few active units organized on foreign soil, was formed on October 26, 1917 at Bourmont, France. During WWII, the division landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day + 1. The division would prove itself time and time again as the “Indianheads” blasted their way through the hedgerows of Normandy to liberate the vital port of Brest, and later played an important role during The Battle of the Bulge. 

The first big test for the 2ID during the Korean War came when the North Koreans struck in a desperate human-wave attack on the night of August 31, 1950. In the 16-day battle that followed, the division’s clerks, bandsmen, technical and supply personnel joined in the fight. Later, the division would be the first unit to break out of the Pusan Perimeter.  

However, disaster would befall the division as it raced toward the Yalu River. The Chinese intervention in the conflict spelled disaster for the 2ID at Kunu-ri, where the division lost nearly one-third of its strength. After withdrawing south, the division repulsed a powerful Chinese offensive at Chipyong-ni and Wonju in February 1951.  

Following these battles, the division would continue to prove itself in battle until the end of the war. This strong sense of history is not lost on the soldiers who are assigned to the 2ID.  

“Here you have a unit that is forward deployed on the same ground it fought on during the Korean War. Almost anywhere you go in our area of operations you can make reference to a historic battle that the division was probably involved in,” explained Honoré. “You can say the same thing about the ROK Army here. If you go up to many of these ROK divisions, many of them fought on this same ground.”  

Following the Korean War, the Division would be deployed back to the States, but would return to Korea in 1965. During this time North Korea increased border incursions and infiltration attempts and the 2ID was called upon to help halt these attacks. On November 2, 1966 six soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry were killed in an ambush by North Korean forces. The following year, another 16 American soldiers were killed.  

In August 1976, the division took part in Operation Paul Bunyan in response to the Panmunjom ax murder incident, when North Korean soldiers in the JSA killed two American officers.  

Today, the division continues to serve an important role as part of the ROK-U.S. alliance.  

With more than 14,000 personnel assigned to it, maintaining good community relations with when soldiers are off-duty is of the utmost importance. Unfortunately, incidents involving U.S. service members with Koreans have, when they occurred, created a negative image of the military and fueled anti-American sentiment.  However, as Honoré pointed out, given the number of personnel assigned to the 2ID, the likelihood of anything happening is “quite low.”  

“Things do happen, and when they do, we try to resolve the issue at the lowest level possible,” he said. “We have a close relationship with the local government. If something should occur, contact is made immediately with local officials to ensure not only transparency, but also to resolve the issue promptly by the SOFA.”  

In addition to the SOFA, Honoré stressed that the Uniform Code of Military Justice system and good leadership from NCOs and junior officers are not only strong safeguards, but work to resolve any issues at the lowest level.  Then there’s the division’s good neighbor policy with local communities, involving it in many community outreach programs. For example, the division supports more than 10 orphanages in the area. Also, this past Arbor Day, soldiers planted more than 1,100 trees. In the past soldiers have helped the farmers harvest rice. Others are participating in the Habitat for Humanity program.  

“We want to be known as good neighbors,” explained Honoré, who regularly meets with local officials.  

In times of disaster the division is ready to lend a helping hand, whether with manpower or equipment. Recently, soldiers assisted farmers in Tongduchon to pump more than 500,000 gallons of water into fields during one of the worst droughts to hit the peninsula.  Honoré believes this sends a strong message to local communities that the division is not just here to maintain peace and stability in the region, but also to help out people in time of need. 

 Being a good neighbor also means being environmentally conscious. The division is constantly working on the enduring problem of infrastructure. There are also “environmental police” that routinely inspect work areas and do on-the-spot corrections and training. Honoré stressed that NCOs and junior officers also set a good standard by being good stewards of our environment.

“Soldiers today, more than at another time in our army, are environmentally smarter,” said Honoré. “If there’s a problem, we get it fixed. When something does happen, usually with our equipment, we put every resource we have to correct the situation.  

“I think local governments are pretty comfortable with us. If they point something out to us we get right on it and fix it. I think that has been a confidence-builder for them.”  

In addition to being environmentally conscious, Honoré talked about the importance of cooperation with local governments for training exercises. Without question, with four ROK corps and a U.S. division, it’s going to get loud now and again. Honoré likened the situation to having a guard dog in one’s backyard.  

“Every once in awhile it’s going to bark,” he said.  

Honoré had praise for the local governments who have supported the division. He pointed out that they always let the local governments or farmers know the areas they are going to be in.  

“This is the most dynamic civil-military operation I have seen in my life,” he said. “The Korean’s appreciation for what it takes to maintain this military and alliance is also second to none.  

“Last year during (operation) Foal Eagle, we went out in the middle of the night. We didn’t know that we were driving over some rice on the road. We paid the farmers for the rice that was lost and at the end of the training; we invited all the farmers over for a big dinner. We know that we are going to be an inconvenience at times, so, how do you compensate for that? By coordination and cooperation, as well as being respectful of people’s livelihood.”

 Whether it’s being prepared to fight tonight, ensuring good community relations or transparency in dealing with local governments, Honoré is proud to play an important role in the ROK – U.S. alliance.  

“It has been exciting serving here. It has been the most fulfilling experience I’ve ever been a part of,” said Honoré. “This isn’t a bad gig.”  

When our interview was over, the general was not about to let me leave without trying my hand one last time at the fine art of throwing a tomahawk.  On the first throw, I miss the target completely. The second one though hits the target with a resounding thump, a few inches from the bull’s-eye.  

“Hooah!”

Free at Last — A Korean War POW returns to Korea — Part 1

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

Feature Writer 

Oscar Cortez

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.”

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