Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Oscar Cortez

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.

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.

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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