Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Korean War veterans

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.”

Free at Last — Part 2

On Feb. 13, 1951, Oscar Cortez had become a POW. The North Koreans took Cortez after the Chinese went through. He had Korean guards all along until he and the rest of the prisoners were turned over to the Chinese in Sept. 1951. 

“The North Korean guards were brutal; they would hit you with their rifle butts and starve you to death,” said Cortez. “My weight went down to around 85 pounds.”

 One of those guards hit Cortez in the ear with his rifle butt and punctured Cortez’s eardrum. Cortez suffered not only permanent hearing loss from this incident, but also other ailments from his imprisonment during the war.  

To be sure, life in the POW camps was severe and harsh. Under the North Koreans, they had hardly anything to eat. They would eat fish heads, millet (they called it bird seed), and sorghum. If they were lucky, they could hunt for frogs to eat the legs. On the other hand, the Chinese gave them rice, pork, bean curd, bread, all cooked by other GIs. They even had tobacco and sugar rations, but when the talks went bad, the Chinese would cut those rations off.  

“We knew when things were not going good at the armistice talks,” said Cortez. “The Chinese would be in a bad mood and our rations were cut. If things were going well, they would treat us better.”  

They didn’t get any Red Cross packages. When they asked the Chinese about them, the Chinese answered that they didn’t belong to the Geneva Convention and wouldn’t allow those packages. On the other hand, when it was to their advantage the Chinese would always tell us about the Geneva Convention.  

“We were told that we could write home but we refused because of the return address, which was our name c/o The Chinese People Volunteer Army and Against American Aggression Peking, China,” Cortez pointed out. “They relented after awhile and removed the `and against’. We were allowed to write I believe one letter a month. I wrote every month but only a few came through.”  

The lowest point of the war for Cortez was when he was at Kangdong, few miles east of Pyongyang, often referred to as the ‘death camp.’ Cortez recalled that GIs were dying right and left. He contracted beriberi while he was there. His body from the waist down was all swollen.  

“I was about to give up. I didn’t know if I was going to live or die,” said Cortez. “I guess the Good Lord sent an Angel in the form of a doctor. He gave me an injection. I didn’t know what it was, but in a week or so, the beriberi went away.”  

The second lowest point of the war for Cortez was Christmas 1952, who still gets choked up when he remembers it.  

“Our airplanes had come by and dropped some tinsel-like stuff to jam the Chinese radar. The Chinese tried to burn it, but that stuff wouldn’t burn. So, we picked this stuff up and decorated the little tree that we had.

“It was at night, Christmas Eve and someone started singing ‘Silent Night.’ Soon everyone had joined in. You could hear the whole camp singing. Every time I hear that song, it gets to me,” Cortez said, as his eyes filled up with tears.  

Cortez and his Mexican-American friends spoke Spanish to each other, but when the Chinese spoke to them, they spoke in English. However, there was one incident when Cortez didn’t speak English.  

“We had this little dog,” recalled Cortez. “We gave him scraps of food. He would follow us when we went on a march for exercise. That little puppy would run between us as we marched.  

“One day, on the way back to camp, I saw that puppy on the road and picked him up. A Chinese guard came up to me and tried to take him away from me. I told him in English that he couldn’t have him. Then the interpreter came over and told me that the dog had killed a little baby chicken. He told us that this guard liked chicken and if the chicken had lived, he would have had eggs. You know the story.  

“Well, I said, no you can’t have the dog, but the guard ordered me to give up the dog. I said ‘no you s*n of a b*tch you can’t have him.’ And he said, ‘what did you say?’ And I told him again. Then the guard took my dog, swung him against the rocky side of a mountain and killed him.  

“When we got back to the camp I was called in by the Political Commissar, he started to interrogate me. I told him to ‘go to hell’ in Spanish. They told me to talk in English to them. I told them again to ‘go to hell’. I thought for sure they were going to put me in the hole.  

“They took me around the back near the backwaters of the Yalu River and I was supposed to be standing there at attention. I was picking up rocks and throwing them at the water. Finally, they told me to go back to my room.”  

Chinese camp administrators rigorously controlled the prisoners, forced them to participate in constant “re-education” and self-criticism sessions, and subjected them to severe living conditions. The Chinese also subjected the prisoners to grueling interrogation sessions and attempted to get signed confessions from them.  

“The Chinese tried to brainwash us and indoctrinate us in the beginning, but they didn’t get anywhere with us, especially the Mexican-Americans. They put us into little groups and designated one person as the monitor. We were supposed to criticize ourselves,” said Cortez. “We had to write down whatever we discussed. They were five of us Hispanics. And we sat there and talked in Spanish. We didn’t know what to talk about, so we talked about anything to just keep on talking. The interpreter came by and listened. He didn’t know what we were talking about. He didn’t know if we were criticizing ourselves or what.” 

After the war, Cortez learned that the Chinese had been afraid of the Mexican-Americans because they had always been united and the Chinese couldn’t do anything about it.  Cortez and his fellow POWs found other ways to fight back. One time, when they were being moved to another camp and had to go to the bathroom, they had to holler “benjo” to get permission to go. Then the guard watching them would tell them “OK.”  

“Well, some started hollering ‘s*n of a b*tch’ and the guard still said, ‘OK.’ Others used other derogatory words and the guard still said, ‘OK,’” laughed Cortez.  “Everyone started laughing. He finally figured out what was going on. He started hollering at us in Chinese, put a round in his rifle and that stopped our fun.”  

Once prisoners had settled into a POW camp, their lives became more of a routine. Prisoners would get up, go for a morning walk for exercise, eat breakfast, and then wait for dinner. They would eat twice a day until a few months before the Armistice was signed. They also went swimming in the backwaters of the Yalu River and unloaded the barges that brought food from China. Every day past noon they would go to the river and wait for the U.S. fighters to come over and tangle with the MiGs. Their POW camp was right near MiG alley.  

“When the armistice had been signed, we didn’t know that it had been signed,” recalled Cortez. “They got all of us together in this large building and announced that we were going to be going home. Then they told us to be sure to tell everyone in America that we had been treated with leniency and that they had been good to us. Everyone started booing. We didn’t believe them because of all the lies they told us.”

 It wasn’t until some Sabre jets flew over the camp did they know the armistice had been signed and the war was over.  

“One of them came over our camp and did a victory roll. Then we knew it was true,” said Cortez. “Everybody got so excited.”  He was one of the last POWs to be repatriated from his camp.  “There was this guy Chico and myself,” said Cortez. “We thought they were going to keep us for all the bad things we did in the camp.”  

And once he came across Freedom Bridge, what was the first thing he wanted?

 “I had a chocolate ice cream cone,” laughed Cortez.  

Cortez stayed in the army until he retired in 1970. He would also fight in another war, Vietnam. Today, though, Cortez has no regrets for being a prisoner of war. He harbors no ill feelings against the Chinese, but not the North Koreans.  

“They were the most brutal. More than the Chinese,” said Cortez. “They would beat you. They would shoot you.”  

At the same time, as Cortez looked back on the personal sacrifices he made as a POW, there is no bitterness or disdain.  “Yes, it was worth it, even after being a Prisoner-of-War,” noted Cortez. “What we accomplished in Korea stopped Communism from spreading to other places in the world. The small part I had during the war is but my part in seeing what I saw when I was there. The Koreans were most appreciative of our effort in stopping the aggressors from the north. The recognition we received was rewarding enough for me.”  

Back on the tour bus, all the veterans and their wives applauded as Cortez took his seat along side of his wife.  As the bus slowly drove away, Cortez took one last look at the bridge. 

Free at last.

© 2019 Jeffrey Miller

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑