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.”