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 territory.
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 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 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 said.
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 States.
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 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 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.