Yes, even though many may not know it, Colombia took part in the Korean War with a military contingent, and it did so as a combatant, the only one from a Latin American country, by the way (Cuba and El Salvador were also there but in a medical support role). It cost them more than half a thousand casualties, although, strategic objectives aside, the participation had a positive outcome in another area: the modernization of its army. It was called the Colombia Battalion.

Until not long ago, military missions used to be mere interventions in the internal affairs of other countries, mainly by major powers, to “defend national interests”, a common euphemism that concealed the political convenience of the state carrying out the campaign and often boiled down to supporting a dictator or changing one regime for another. However, in recent times, this landscape has been changing, and such missions tend to be carried out under the auspices of the UN and in the form of quite diverse international coalitions. In many cases, that political intent is still maintained, of course, but smaller participating armies have their own objectives, usually involving training and modernization.

This is what happened to Colombia during the Korean War, even though that conflict transcended the character of a mere intervention and ended up becoming a long and entrenched three-year struggle. In 1945, at the end of World War II, the US and the USSR had agreed to divide the Korean peninsula into two parts, resulting in two separate republics: one in the south, aligned with American capitalism, and the other in the north under communist influence, both divided by the 38th parallel. Negotiations in the following years for reunification failed, as was the case in Germany and Europe in general, and the growing tension culminated on June 25, 1950, with a surprise invasion by the North Koreans.

The push was so strong that South Korea was confined to the so-called Pusan Perimeter, an area in the southeastern extremity of the peninsula surrounded by about 225 kilometers of the Nakdong River. Faced with the danger of losing it, as South Korea was also embroiled in a de facto civil war, US forces intervened, restoring the border but also inducing direct Chinese intervention with Soviet military support. However, the Americans had not acted alone but led a coalition, given the shortage of forces they had there, still in the midst of demobilization.

This alliance, established two days after the invasion, included nations as diverse as the United Kingdom, France, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Turkey, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, South Africa, Ethiopia, Thailand, New Zealand, Greece, and the Philippines. Through the OAS (Organization of American States) and with the excuse of stopping communism that was beginning to spread in the American continent, the incorporation of Ibero-American countries was also requested, with contributions according to their capabilities, whether with regiments (Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Chile) or companies (the rest). But all of them refused, considering that the confrontation was just another episode in the rivalry between the US and the USSR. There were only two exceptions: first, Puerto Rico, where its peculiar status required the US Congress to authorize the organization of Regiment 65, formed exclusively by volunteers.

The other exception was Colombia, which, despite the reservations expressed by the liberals, responded positively by offering first a naval unit and later an infantry battalion. The president, conservative Laureano Gómez, recently elected (that same year; he would be ousted in 1953 by a coup), wanted to restore good relations with the US after the policy of neutrality in World War II adopted by Alfonso López Pumarejo and Eduardo Santos until the end of 1943. There was also the need to erase the favorable image of Germany that many citizens had and to guarantee economic cooperation (the US accounted for 80% of coffee exports and 50% of banana exports). Also, in the background, was the possibility of obtaining technical and armament assistance against guerrilla movements, as Gómez was a fervent anti-communist.

Thus, the frigate Almirante Padilla immediately set sail from Cartagena de Indias to the San Diego naval base, under the command of Corvette Captain Julio César Reyes Canal, with the aim of undergoing specific modernization and training; later, it would be replaced by the Capitán Tono and then by the Almirante Brión, as all three were old ships provided by the US Navy (USS Tollberg, USS Bisbee, and USS Burlington, respectively). Integrated into the Seventh Fleet, they would perform patrol, mine destruction, logistics, and escort duties. Simultaneously, the Infantry Battalion No. 1 Colombia was created, theoretically with volunteers, although in practice not so much due to the scarcity of enlistments. In total, 5,100 soldiers and 300 sailors undertook the long Pacific journey to Asia. Along with the rest of the allies, they relied on the favorable vote of the UN, as expressed in Resolution 83.

The Colombians were distributed among two American infantry divisions, the 7th and the 25th, which needed reinforcements (the first only had 9,000 men). Therefore, they had to be bolstered with South Korean soldiers as well. The first had been one of those leading the Inchon counterattack, designed by General MacArthur to break the Pusan siege in September 1950, while the second managed to enter enemy territory and reach the vicinity of Pyongyang before the Chinese intervention resulted in the restoration of the border at the 38th parallel.

The Colombian Battalion did not arrive in time to participate in those actions, as it barely landed in Pusan (now Busan) on June 15 of that year, commanded by Colonel Jaime Polanía Puyo. But it would have plenty of opportunities to engage in other actions. After some skirmishes, it escalated in Operation Thunderbolt, which took place between January 25 and February 20, 1951, constituting the first offensive of the coalition after the Chinese intervention. Led by General Matthew Ridgway, US, British, Turkish, and South Korean troops, along with the Colombian forces integrated into the aforementioned 25th Division, managed to advance and position the front on the southern bank of the Han River.

On June 26, 1952, the second significant battle for the South Americans took place, the Battle of Old Baldy, which was the most important of their commitments. It lasted ten months, during which attempts were made to take a dozen positions from the Chinese that compromised the allied forces. One of them was a hill that intense artillery fire had stripped of all vegetation, leaving it bare (hence its name), and whose capture was assigned to the Colombia Battalion for its splendid performance in another called Bárbula (Yeoncheon Hill or Hill 180), where they even fought hand-to-hand in numerical inferiority, suffering 11 casualties, 43 wounded, and 10 missing.

Despite their skill, they had not succeeded in Bárbula because only one company was sent on the mission, but the entire battalion participated in Old Baldy. To everyone’s surprise, the Colombians accepted the challenge of the Chinese, who exposed the bodies of their comrades as bait, and charged uphill to recover them. They succeeded, earning the four rescuers the Silver Star. They had to defend the gained ground and withstand both the mortar barrage that fell on them and the waves of Chinese soldiers attempting to assault the hill to dislodge them.

But, even though the Americans left them alone by allocating the reinforcement companies to assist their own positions, the Colombians resisted and, in turn, tried to take control of the summit. Neither side succeeded, and the position changed hands several times until the high command ordered the abandonment of Hill 180 so that the air force could bombard it. Thus, paradoxically, many Colombians who had been isolated or were injured perished from the bombs dropped by their allies, and the unit lost 20% of its personnel.

Another notable battle was the Battle of Triangle Hill, another topographic elevation, in this case, wooded, where fierce fighting took place from October 14 to November 25, 1952, to dislodge the Chinese occupying it, as it was a good site for their snipers. Here, the Colombians who participated were from the 7th Division, along with South Korean and Ethiopian forces. Bayonet fighting even took place to capture the summit, which then had to be defended against the Chinese counterattack, which suffered four thousand casualties in just ten days. However, their ability to replenish them allowed them to regain the position, and UN troops had to withdraw with significant damages since, on the contrary, they could not cover them.

In reality, the Colombia Battalion participated in more actions, such as Operation Nomad, the assault on the formidable Hill 400 (Climber), or the reconquest of Gyeongiu (a city in South Korea where the front line was located for a time at the beginning of the North Korean invasion). All of this caused them to lose 163 soldiers, added to 448 wounded, 60 missing, and 30 prisoners. Still, it also resulted in some of their comrades earning a considerable series of decorations, including the PUC (Presidential Unit Citation, awarded to units demonstrating extraordinary heroism), the LOM (Legion of Merit), and the Silver (18) and Bronze (31) stars.

However, the armed forces of Colombia as a whole were the main beneficiaries because, as we mentioned at the beginning, the experience gained by the 111 officers and 590 non-commissioned officers sent served to advise them upon their return in a significant modernization process, rounded off with a bilateral Military Aid Pact with the US signed in 1952, two years before the end of the war.


This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on July 19, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en Cuando un batallón de colombianos combatió en la Guerra de Corea

Sources

Carter Malkasian, The Korean War | Bruce Cumings, The Korean War. A history | Adolfo León Atehortúa Cruz, Colombia en la Guerra de Corea | Edgar Vieira Posada y Adriana Roldán Pérez, Colombia y Corea del Sur: hacia una asociación estratégica de cooperación | Álvaro Valencia Tovar y Jairo Sandoval Franky, Colombia en la Guerra de Corea. La historia secreta | Guerra en Corea. El Batallón Colombia | Wikipedia


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