Remembering the Battlefront
By Geraldine Cook January 01, 2012
A conversation with Colombian General Álvaro Valencia Tovar, Korean War veteran
On June 16, 1951, the Colombia Battalion, composed of 1,060 Colombian
volunteers, 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, and the troops were on their way to liberate the occupied
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 U.N. Security
Council after adopting Resolution 83, which called on 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,” said 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
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 knew.
“I feel that our [Colombia Battalion’s] feat was a huge effort, a great sacrifice,
not only in fighting for a country that had been invaded and whose liberty was
threatened, but in fighting for an ideal, that of liberty,” said Gen. Valencia
Tovar, who had been selected to be part of the Colombia Battalion because of his
knowledge of the English language and the contact he had with the United States and
its Army through an armor course he had attended at Fort Knox, Kentucky.
“It was a really extraordinary experience,” he reminisced about the almost
two years (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 … resisting subzero temperatures, but that was all part of a chapter
in my life that I’ve always regarded with great sympathy and pleasant memories,” he
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 Battalion to its 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 United
His achievements were so acclaimed 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 events that Gen. Valencia Tovar remembers 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 Lt.
Col. Polanía agreed to send me,” said 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.”
The U.S. Army honored Capt. Valencia Tovar with the Bronze Star and the
Legion of Merit for his actions in the 21st Infantry Regiment combined staff and
subsequently within the 31st Infantry Regiment combined staff. 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 years old, 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. He is also a historian, a published author of numerous
books, and an acting member of the Colombian Academy of History and of the Colombian
Geographical Society. He still maintains strong friendships with his brothers in
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 that resembled a bald head. “We took these three
hills by assault on the initiation of the attack on October 13, 1951,” said General
Álvaro Valencia Tovar. Because of it, five Colombians earned Silver Stars and Bronze
Stars with the ‘V’ device for valor; two officers and three noncommissioned 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 advanced as the tip of the spear, would be able to dominate the entire
valley,” said Gen. Valencia Tovar.
During the rest and recuperation periods, or R&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 talked of going to and returning from aranar.
Post-World War II Tokyo was in the midst of rebuilding, and Geisha
communities could still be seen 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 said as he evoked old
Japanese love songs and old war loves.
It is an honor for me to know the history of our veteran soldiers. I can’t find words to express how much I would have liked to fight for freedom by their side. I love Colombia, I love my army and the National Guard. I am a proud marine of the reserve…always ready to serve these causes!!! The lights have gone out for my General…the three hills were called La Teta, Don Polo and El Chamizo. In all truth, the bloodiest battle of the Colombia battalion was fought on the Old Baldy hill in March, 1953, were almost 100 died. It was the bloodiest operation fought by the battalion, where, although they had to give up the hill, they were able to stem the advance of a whole division of the Chinese army. I deeply admire these forgotten heroes and fifty years after their sacrifice we still owe them the honors that they never received. Our film makers, so dedicated to showing stories of drug trafficking, they owe these true heroes a film.