Remembering The Battle Front: A Conversation With A Colombian Veteran Of The Korean War
By Dialogo November 10, 2011
“Successful combat is not measured by the number of casualties or liters of blood. It is in recovering occupied territories and the populations that inhabit them.” – Gen. Álvaro Valencia Tovar
On June 16, 1951, 1,060 Colombian volunteers comprising the Colombia Battalion crossed the Pacific Ocean aboard the U.S. Navy ship Aiken Victory, en route to the Korean peninsula. The North Korean communist forces had attacked their neighbor to the south.
Initially, the Colombia Battalion was assigned to the 21st Regiment of the 24th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, and together, they were the first representatives of the United Nations Allied Forces to disembark very close to the 38th Parallel, the dividing line between North and South Korea.
More notably, Colombia was the only Latin American country to heed the call of the UN Security Council after adopting Resolution 83, which recommended the members to offer assistance in repelling the communists’ armed attack and restore international peace and security in the area.
“It was a battalion of volunteers,” says General Álvaro Valencia Tovar, one of the few Colombian veterans of the Korean War still alive. “And though I was deployed on a mission in the U.S. when Colombia agreed to support the allies, naturally I came forward when I read my name in the paper among the volunteers to deploy.”
Diálogo spoke with Gen. Valencia Tovar at his home in Bogotá, about his experiences in a foreign war, in a completely different world than the one he came from and knew.
Gen. Valencia Tovar had been selected to be part of the Colombia Battalion because of his knowledge of English and the contact he had with the United States and its Army through an armor course he had attended in Fort Knox, Kentucky.
“It was a really extraordinary experience”, he reminisces about the year-and-a-half (1951-52) he served his country and the Allied Forces against the North Korean communists, who were supported by China and the Soviet Union. “I never regretted going, despite the hardships suffered during war, the bitter winter we lived through there…resisting subzero temperatures, but that was all part of a chapter in my life that I’ve always regarded with great sympathy and with pleasant memories,” he recounts.
The Colombia Battalion’s first combat mission took place on August 7, 1951 under the command of then Captain Álvaro Valencia Tovar. That day, Colonel Ginés Pérez, an American of Spanish descent, led the 21st Infantry Regiment into the valley of Pukhan, sending the “Colombia” to their baptism of fire as the tip of the spear in an advance with three offensive reconnaissance patrols, among which was Capt. Valencia Tovar’s company.
In addition to being bilingual, Capt. Valencia Tovar distinguished himself during the Korean War for his experience in operations. Both factors allowed him to occupy critical positions as director of intelligence and subsequently of operations, and serve as the battalion’s interpreter, facilitating communication between the Allies, among which were Australia, Belgium, Canada, Ethiopia, France, Greece, Luxembourg, New Zealand, the Netherlands, the Philippines, and the U.S.
So much so, that Colonel Noel M. Cox, the American commander of the 31st Regiment –the Polar Bears–, asked Lieutenant Colonel Jaime Polanía Puyo, commander of the Colombia Battalion, to transfer Capt. Valencia Tovar from intelligence to Operations within the 31st Regiment. This honor is one of the two memories that Gen. Valencia Tovar holds most fondly today.
“Naturally, I felt obliged to do it; it was the first time that a foreign officer (non-American) participated in regimental operations of the 8th Army, so LTC Polanía agreed to send me,” tells Gen. Valencia Tovar, highlighting that “being in or belonging to regimental operations requires ample experience and practice because three infantry battalions, in addition to the Colombia Battalion, formed part of the 31st Infantry Regiment.”
Because of his actions in the 21st Infantry Regiment combined staff and subsequently, within the 31st Infantry Regiment’s staff, the U.S. Army honored Capt. Valencia Tovar with the Bronze Star and the Legion of Merit.
Upon his return to Colombia, Capt. Valencia Tovar became professor and director of the Army Infantry School and also headed the Colombian Army Command, where he was able to turn into doctrine everything he had learned during the irregular and regular warfare in Korea to help rebuild the Colombian Military.
Today, at 88, Gen. Valencia Tovar remains very active: he writes for Colombian daily El País, serves as dean of the country’s retired generals and dean of the veterans of war; is a historian, published author of numerous books and acting member of the Colombian Academy of History and of the Colombian Geographical Society. He still maintains strong friendships with his brothers in arms.
Some of the General’s Anecdotes:
Operation Nomad started in October, 1951. It was the last mobilized operation of the Korean War. The U.S. Army had given tactical names to three strategic hills: 23, 24 and 25, but the Colombian Battalion renamed them Cerro de la Teta (Breast Hill) because of its “suggestive” shape, Don Polo, after Commander Polanía and Old Baldy because it was a barren area with no vegetation that resembled a bald head.
“We took these three hills by assault on the initiation of the attack, on October 13, 1951. Because of it, five Colombians earned Silver Stars and Bronze Stars with the V device for valor; two officers and three non-commissioned officers earned the first awards of the war during the attack on those hills.”
“They [the Chinese] never imagined that the advance by the army corps which executed Operation Nomad would be so quick, and less so that the Colombia Battalion, which led as the tip of the spear, would be able to dominate the entire valley.”
During the Rest and Recovery periods, or R and R, the battalions had a week off in which many traveled to the nearby city of Tokyo, Japan. Since many of the Colombian men did not speak English, they called it by its phonetic name “Aranar”, and made it a verb, talking of going to and returning from “aranar”.
Postwar Tokyo (WWII, 1939-45) was in the midst of rebuilding, and you could still see the Geisha communities, where Japanese women would dress in traditional kimonos, according to Gen. Valencia Tovar. “The suffix -ko was added to the names of Japanese women to signify something like a maiden or lady,” he tells, as he evokes old Japanese love songs and old war loves.
Mr. General Valencia belongs to a group of distinguished officers from the Colombian Army, such as: Ruiz Novoa, Camacho Leyva, Pinzon Caicedo, Gabriel Puyana, Matallana, Landazabal, These generals distinguished themselves by defending the military institution from political attacks, by having an innate ability to lead and the complete support of the officers and their subordinates, today all the generals know how to do is take orders. need information about the colombians who were in tokyo in june 1954 at the geneva peace talks
need pictures too
also i need to know if any of the troops were from tunja
please answer in english only
thank you I'D LIKE TO KNOW WHOM CAN I CONTACT AND INFORM ABOUT A MAN CALLED RAFAEL RIVERA ALEGRIA, WHO WAS IN THE WAR AND DIED FOR THE CAUSE, AND WHOSE BODY WAS REPATRIATED AND BURIED WITH MILITARY HONORS IN THE CEMETERY OF TIMBIO CAUCA, WHERE A MONUMENT WITH A PLAQUE WAS MADE FOR HIM; HE WAS RANDOMLY EXHUMED BY THE PRIEST OF THAT TOWN, HIS GRAVE WAS DESTROYED AND HIS PLAQUE DISAPPEARED. I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW IF THE VETERANS ASSOCIATION OR THE ARMY COMMAND CAN REINSTATE HIS RIGHTS, SINCE HIS REMAINS WERE ABANDONED IN A VAULT IN A CORNER OF THE CEMETERY, BY ORDERS OF THAT PRIEST. I WOULD APPRECIATE YOUR ASSISTANCE SINCE MY MOTHER, SISTER OF THE DECEASED VETERAN, LAMENTS EVERY DAY THE FATE OF HER BROTHERâ€™S REMAINS. SHE WOULD LIKE TO KNOW THAT SHE CAN VISIT HIS GRAVE IN THE CEMETERY, LIKE A VETERAN DESERVES; INSTEAD HIS REMAINS WERE MOVED TO A VAULT IN THE MOST ABANDONED SECTION OF THE CEMETERY. THANK YOU. GEN Alvaro Valencia Tovar was a close friend and working colleague of mine for 40 years. He was, simply put, the greatest military mind of his era, most of which is the second half of the 20th century. A few times that US leaders listened to his wise counsel and did what he suggested, difficult matters became much better. Again, many times US leaders listened to people who think on the liberal/conservative spectrum, or people who believe Latin American military officers are incompetent. In those cases, US policy usually ended up in the tank. When GEN Valencia retired from the Army, he had not really attempted a coup d'etat. That was political dirt-spreading which carried a price, namely, Colombia partially reverted to the big firepower tactics for anti-guerrilla warfare, a concept which never works. GEN Valencia is also a historian of note. Add to that the fact that he was a great novelist and a brilliant strategist on all levels of warfare. The US made a stupid mistake by not working this officer deeply into policy formulation both the the US and the Western Hemisphere countries. But his literary legacy leaves his thoughts clearly for anyone in high office with the will to learn good policy ideas from a genius. /. END Thank you for this very informative post. As an American Korean War veteran, I am always eager to learn more about others who served there, especially those as distinguished as General Tovar. Hello I'm currently looking for gentleman named Oscar Escobar Ponce de Leon he is a very important member of our family and we like to know his whereabouts. He was a Colombian soldier and we know that he was wounded in the Korean War in the earlier 1950 decade, therefore we are hoping that by searching through his military records we may be lucky enough to locate him. We have tried other ways with not very good results.
Thank you very much. His name is Oscar Escobar Burbino Ponse De Leon. I believe he is my father. I am now in the unites states (Miami) I know he is still alive. I am 53 years old on now and I was just informed about him in the last month. I am anxious to contact him.
He was one of the soldiers that was sent to the Korean war from Colombia.
If you have any information, please contact me at email@example.com One month ago.. I was informed that I was the biological daughter of Oscar Escobar Burbino Ponce De Leon, he was a soldier in the Korea war.. I don't have much information from him, only his name and the fact that he serviced his country.
I am 53 years old and I came to the United States when I was 5 years old. If any one can guide me on how to find my biological father I would appreciate the information, I am guiding my self more towards these web-site since I feel that I have a better opportunity to find him.
my phone number is 786-290-333 if you have any information about him, or if you are reading this message and could guide me where I should start looking I would highly appreciate it.
Luz My father Jairo J. Gaviria, who is now 84 years old is a Veteran of the Korean War. He was in Colombia's second battalion and in the battle at Old Baldy.
We live in Los Angeles California, I reacently took his old pictures and War metals and conserved/displayed them in a case for his kids and grandkids to see. As I researched the Korean War and Colombia's involvement, I am amazed so interested and proud of how important my father's service was. My father is also amazed to see these documentaries and information now available for all of us to learn more about this important history for Colombia and the world. Thank you for this post. Hi! my grandfather fought at korean war
he is dead now so please, can yous ask your father if he met a man called Agustin Hernandez?
thank you, have a nice day :)