From 1910 to the end of the Second World War, Korea was a single country under Japanese control. While the United States and the Soviet Union had been allies during WWII in order to defeat their common enemies, Germany and Japan, once that war ended, the relationship between the U.S. and the Soviets soured. With the loss of Japanese control, and a distrustful relationship growing between the Soviets and the United States, internal problems on the Korean peninsula resulted in intervention by the United Nations. The UN created a temporary boundary, drawing a line at the latitude of the 38th parallel thereby separating the country into north and south; the north occupied by the Russians and the south by the Americans.
On the morning of June 25, 1950 the invasion of South Korea by the Soviets began. Sitting at his desk in his family’s home in Independence, Missouri, U.S. President Harry Truman received the news. An invading force of 90,000 well-trained troops in Soviet-built T-34 tanks streamed past the 38th parallel effectively converting the peninsula into the first global Cold War battlefield.
North Korea and the Soviet Union received support from the Chinese army and South Korea and the United States from countries allied with the United Nations. A member of the UN, Colombia was the only Latin American country to join the war in a direct military role. As an ally of the United States, Colombia’s mission was to help win the war effort and broker a lasting peace on the Asian peninsula.
Colombia entered the Korean War when newly-elected President Laureano Gómez saw greater U.S. economic support for direct involvement as an ally and a means to “erase any bad lingering impressions caused among U.S. policy makers of his previous attitude of anti-U.S. sentiment during World War II,” as historian David Bushnell recounts in his work The Making of Modern Colombia. On June 15, 1951 the first 1,000 soldiers of the Colombia Battalion under the command of Lt. Colonel Jaime Polanía Puyo disembarked in the Bay of Pusan. For the first time in the Republic’s history, the Colombian national anthem was played in Asia, with the hope that Colombia would show its courage to the world.
Carlos Latorre Franco turned 19 in the middle of the Korean peninsula, fighting a war far from his native Colombia. As 1952 dragged on, two years of relentless combat between North Korea and South Korea left thousands of soldiers from various countries dead and the country in ruins. Carlos, like many of his fighting companions from Colombia, only wanted to hold his country’s reputation high and return home alive.
The 1st Colombia Battalion was a volunteer force of young fighting men, ready to die for their love of country and to secure the freedom of South Korea. Attached to the 24th U.S. Infantry Division, Colombian sailors also did their part, deployed off Korean waters in the country’s only frigate, the Admirante Padilla. Between 1951 and 1954 some 5,100 Colombian soldiers served in Korea.
Of the 5,100 Colombians sent to Korea, most were between 18 and 21 years of age. 131 Colombians died in combat, 10 in service-related accidents and two of natural causes. 476 men were injured, 69 disappeared in combat and 30 were taken POWs.
Although many of the soldiers remain anonymous and their valiant acts in southeast Asia undocumented, the survivors of the 1st Colombia Battalion returned home to face another tragedy: indifference by many Colombians and the rejection of their ideals. Colombia closed the door on them, quickly erased their patriotic efforts and shunned those who bore the wounds of war. The Colombians who served in Korea were admired by their foreign fighting companions but forgotten by their compatriots. The veterans of Korea found themselves fighting for respect and opportunities for work in their homeland. Decades after the last Colombian soldier returned home from Korea, their only recognition was taking part in the Independence Day march on July 20 and a monument was erected in their honor on the Calle 100 with Carrera 7 in Bogotá.
Unfortunately, the Korean War still is not over for many of these veterans. After years of fighting the Colombian government to live up to its responsibilities, the administration of President Andres Pastrana finally approved a law in which Korean War veterans have a right to a pension, housing subsidies and two month’s minimum wage, but only if they can prove they are living as “indigents.” This was a bittersweet victory for these forgotten fighting men. Through their association, ASCOVE, founded in 1958, the veterans continue to demand their rights and respect.
Jaime Díaz Gómez was 19 when he left Girardot and signed up for the 1st Colombia Battalion. Despite being injured during the war, he wrote a heartfelt letter to his mother asking her not to let him be removed from duty as a result of his wounds. He was not looking for praise or glory, having barely survived an attack by North Korean soldiers; he just wanted to keep going, as he knew his companions still had to face the snipers and barrage of gunfire. He was not looking to be labeled a hero; instead, he wanted to be sure he proudly stood for Colombia and for the honor of his fighting mates. Ten years ago, Jaime died without ever receiving a pension nor any recognition for his bravery.
Hugo Monroy belonged to the intelligence division of the Colombia Battalion and was only 16 when he was recruited for the war. As a teenager, he was too young to understand war, but he bravely put his life on the line. Today, Hugo is 74 and remembers sadly his companions who lost their lives in Korea. With a government subsidy and the help of his children, Hugo lives a quiet life in the capital yet begrudges the injustice associated with the word “indigent” in order to make ends meet.
Carlos Latorre Franco was in charge of the navy infantrymen of the Batallón Colombia. To this day he cannot erase the images of war from his mind nor can he ever escape the shrapnel embedded in his flesh from the wounds he received during a night of intense combat. Carlos is grateful for his own economic situation and the pension he receives thanks to years of working independently. He continues to fight for his companions who have not shared the same fortune.
More than 60 years after the beginning of Colombia’s direct involvement in the Korean War, the country has not been able to respond adequately to its veterans’ needs and worse, many of these men are ignored. Of the 4,884 soldiers who returned there are currently only 1,000 men alive, and every year the number falls given that their average age is now 77 years old. As the last survivors of the Korea campaign march on fighting for their rights they remain steadfast in their belief that they can still achieve the recognition they deserve, not just for themselves, but for their place in Colombia’s history.