Remembering the Battlefront

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

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.