(Based on real events of the Korean War)
Nearby, he heard the voice of Sergeant Ben complaining about the awful cold and that he could not feel his legs. Around them, bursts of shooting and exploding mortars continued its deadly symphony. He knew the well-known slogan of the army was “leave no man behind,” but the Chinese and North Korean counterattack had been so furious and decimating that he did not expect help from anyone.
Roland had enlisted for the U.S. Army at the age of eighteen and had already undergone two years of combat in the bloody Korean War. This conflict lasted from 1950 to 1953 and left a total of five million military and civilian casualties along the frontlines of South Korea, who was backed by the United States and twenty eight countries from the United Nations against North Korea, who received support from the Soviet Union, China, and five countries in Eastern Europe. Japan had occupied Korea since 1910 until its surrender in World War II in 1945. Following the withdrawal of Japanese troops, Korea was occupied in the north by the Soviet Union and in the south by the United States. It was essentially World War III, although it would never be recognized by that name.
At the beginning of the war, forty thousand American troops supported by ten thousand UN soldiers drove the North Korean military back, pushing them almost entirely into Chinese territory. Feeling threatened, China attacked with three hundred thousand soldiers equipped with Soviet weapons and aircraft which would have annihilated the South Korean and UN military if it were not for the heroism of the Marines who had to withdraw quickly from the northern border of Korea and its harsh, Siberian climate to the opposite and contrasting tropical southern region.
Roland spoke French and Spanish and had served as a translator alongside troops who spoke these languages. In Han Harbor, he was amazed at seeing American war ships alongside frigates from France, England, Spain, Holland, Colombia, and other nations, a Babel of vessels with its troops ready at the service for the UN.
And now during the great retreat, he saw many of his foreign friends die as a result of the advancement of enemy troops, who in the same manner fired against military personnel and civilians, murdering thousands without compassion. The Marines made a superhuman effort to contain the enemy above all else in the frontlines in which Ronald was in. Battles transpired every day, each one spilling more blood than the previous one, fighting occurred for both large and small territories of land, valley to valley, hill to hill, house to house. There was no time to collect the dead and wounded in the frantic retreat. Among the dead that were left behind, trying not to become one of them, Roland recognized a Frenchman, an Australian, a Turk and a Colombian with whom he had drank a few whiskeys with at the beginning of the campaign, when there was talk about a swift and easy victory which never arrived.
In a last and desperate attempt to maintain a fraction of the South Korean territory, the fight turned epic as if it were a Greek tragedy. Marines, UN forces and South Korean troops all fought to survive, highlighted by the 65th infantry Regiment comprised of Puerto Ricans, who fought furiously in the frontlines even with nearly no ammunition, having to gather what they could from their fallen comrades, and even throwing back enemy grenades before they exploded. An important action by the 65th Regiment was the momentary containment of the Chinese who outnumbered them immensely, thus providing time for the wounded to be evacuated, but ultimately suffering a large number of casualties in their valiant effort.
In that maelstrom of a battle, they hardly slept and they only ate what they could find, war is never complacent especially with an army in retreat. It was in those moments that an artillery shell exploded a few meters from him. He saw a blinding light and felt a scorching breeze that picked him up and threw him to the ground as he lost consciousness. When he recovered he did not know how long it had been and was just hoping for the fatal outcome, he knew that no one would help him.
While anticipating death, he heard the weakening voice of Sergeant Ben, who was Jewish and asking that he pray for him. Roland was Catholic and tried to articulate a prayer, the words reached his throat with difficulty; it had been a long time since he had prayed. He thought of his remote Maine, where his parents would soon weep due to his departure from this world. He remembered them in their bakery store, and his brothers, in joyful and difficult moments, including when he played irritating jokes that they had become accustomed to due to his quarrelsome character.
“ … Pray for us now and at the hour of our death, amen”... Roland concluded the prayer and called out to Ben but he did not receive a response. He heard multiple approaching steps in the mud, he saw the North Korean soldier, who was pointing his revolver towards his face, he entrusted his soul and saw an officer lower the soldier’s weapon, he understood without comprehending what they said, they had to conserve bullets, he was already dying and the fierce instinct of the officer preferred a painful agony for his enemy. He was left alone again until he saw a South Korean soldier who told him in broken English to hold unto him and just like that, with perhaps a height of little more than five feet five and weighing about one hundred fifty pounds, he put unto his shoulders the over six feet tall and two hundred pounds of Ronald’s humanity. Thanks to the heroism of the 65th Regiment, Roland was rescued.
In the hospital he was reunited with one of the few survivors of his platoon, Private Giuseppe Rozzi, who was dying from an incurable cancer rather than from his wounds. They talked of war and about how the Allied counterattack had repulsed the Chinese and North Koreans up to the 38thparallel forming two Koreas. They remembered the many dead, the wounded and missing of a world war fought in a single country. A bloody war full of atrocities and heroism. The day that Giuseppe died, he made a solemn promise with Roland that he would look for his wife and their three children.
Upon returning to his country, Roland fulfilled his promise; he married Giuseppe’s widow and raised her three small children as if they were his own, and he lived to the fullest for the next sixty years of his life.
He was a man rescued from death who came to replace the life of another. Every day that he woke up, he prayed the same prayer that he had shared with Ben Sergeant, whose remains, as well as thousands of other combatants, were never found. He prayed for his family, for himself and his friends who had remained in that faraway land. Life had given him a second chance; however, the nightmares of those three years of war pursued him while he slept and even when he was awake until the last day of his existence.
Pablo D. Perleche