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The Colombian Contribution
by Geoff Guilfoyle
This piece is based primarily on a synthesis of "The Colombian Battalion in the Korean War" by Daniel A Fournie and "From Bogota to Old Baldy: Colombia's Contribution" by Les Peate, with additional material from minor sources.
In 1950, the Colombian Army consisted of 15,000 men and its purpose was primarily internal security. On 14 November that year, the government of President Laureano Gomez officially responded to the UN call for troops to counter the North Korean invasion of the South by creating the 1st Infantry Battalion Colombia with 1,036 enlisted men and 43 officers. After training for several months near Bogota, the capital, by a special U.S. Army advisory team, the newly formed unit sailed for Korea on May 21, 1951, arriving at Pusan on 16 June 1951. After six weeks of advanced training, the battalion (officially given the clunky designation of BI-COL) was assigned to General William Hoge's IX Corps and deployed on the Wyoming Line.
The Colombians' first combat experience came on Colombian Independence Day on 7 August when a patrol led by Captain Alvaro Tovar came under heavy rifle and mortar fire five kilometres north of the main line, pinning part of the patrol for three hours before it could be extracted. On 12 October, IX Corps launched an offensive in the Sonbyok Valley with BI-COL among the assault battalions. During the operation, the Colombians flanked and overran a Chinese company at bayonet point and continued to attack until the 22nd. For this performance, the battalion received a US Presidential Unit Citation.
As winter settled in, the battalion alternated between the main line and rear reserve. In both positions they encountered a different enemy: intense cold. Snow and subfreezing temperatures were new to most men of the battalion and frostbite a constant menace. Despite this, patrolling continued.
On New Year's Day, 1952, a 30-man patrol into no man's land on the Kumsong front led to a running battle with a Chinese detachment in and around a snow covered and ruined Korean village. Covering fire from the US 24th Division's artillery allowed the Colombians to eventually withdraw, leaving four dead behind (later recovered).
On 21 June 1952, the Colombian battalion was ordered to seize Hill 400 in the Kumwha Iron Triangle area. A 70-man detachment from Company A led by Lt. Mario Bernal moved by night, undetected, reaching the summit of the hill at 5:00 where they encountered 400 enemy entrenched infantry, vastly more than they were told to expect. The Colombians attacked and after a struggle ejected the occupiers.
The communists launched a number of unsupported infantry counterattacks, all beaten back. The last assault, this time supported by a mortar and artillery, forced the Colombians to withdraw at the cost of four dead and double that injured. The Colombians prided themselves on never leaving a fallen soldier behind. However, this time two of the dead remained on the battlefield, a blow to the morale of the troops.
A Colombian soldier disembarking at Pusan.
October 1952 saw BI-COL join other UN troops in a general advance, gaining three kilometres in the first day against moderate resistance. The battalion seized and held Hoegogae, a strategic hill near the heavily defended city of Kumsong which checked enemy infiltration and provided a firm base for patrols. Chinese counterattacks were beaten off and the hill handed over to ROK units on 15 November.
In early February 1953, BI-COL left the front line to prepare for Operation Barbula: the assault on Hill 180, near 'Old Baldy' (Hill 266) and Hill 255, soon to gain infamy as Pork Chop Hill. It commenced on 10 March with a night attack. Again, the numbers of defenders was underestimated and again the Colombians forced them from their position after a hard fight at the cost of eight dead, eight missing and 46 wounded. The Colombians discovered an elaborate system of trenches and bunkers with underground barracks for over 200 troops. This position taken, the Colombian battalion was shifted across to Old Baldy charged with defending the hill. It did so with only three of its four rifle companies available, D Company having been sent on another mission. Ominously, some 1,500 Chinese artillery shells slammed into the Colombian positions each day from 13 March to 23 March. Clearly a major Chinese offensive was brewing.
The storm broke on the night of March 23. Under the cover of a 8,000 round artillery barrage, the Chinese 67th Division assaulted the US infantry regiment holding Port Chop Hill. Simultaneously, the 1st Battalion of the Chinese 141st Division attacked the Colombian battalion on Old Baldy.
The 1st Battalion Colombia was actually four battalions, each arriving in Korea to relieve the previous incumbent. The benefit of this system is that more Colombians received training than would have had replacements come in the form of individual soldiers. The drawback made itself felt in the struggle for Old Baldy when the Chinese struck not at the combat hardened 1st Battalion Colombia, but at its trained but relatively green replacement whose first real taste of combat came with the taking of the hill on 10 March. The 1st Battalion Colombia was replaced by the 2nd in July 1952; the 2nd by the 3rd in November 1952, and the 3rd by the 4th in June 1953. It stayed in Korea until October 1954.
The Chinese slammed into and overran both B Company and C Company then the battalion headquarters, though a counterattack regained this position. Captain Augusto Bahamon Amatt and A Company, though hard pressed, managed to hold out. A US infantry company arrived to help shore up the position but also came under heavy pressure.
Although their companies were shattered and scattered, the soldiers of B and C Company continued to fight in small squads, holding whatever defensive position they could against overwhelming odds with limited ammunition and no support. The battle raged throughout the night. Despite repeated requests for reinforcement, with Pork Chop Hill also under heavy attack, no further troops could be spared.
Corporal Joe Scheuber of the US 31st Infantry who fought on Pork Chop gives a stark account of the chaos that enveloped both hills: We just got into our foxholes on the finger of Pork Chop when enemy mortar and artillery hit us. To our right, more incoming rounds. Then we saw Chinese behind us and realized we were surrounded. We fell back to the trench line at the top of the hill, but the Chinese had reached it first. Hand-to-hand fighting broke out. There was a tremendous amount of noise. I got nicked in the arm and my helmet got shot off. I worked my way down the hill, killing a Chinese soldier with a grenade. I ended up in a shell hole the remainder of the night, as the enemy artillery lasted most of the night.
Some Colombians seeking shelter from the heavy shelling in the bunkers on Old Baldy were greeted by a group of orientals already there. Their hosts even gave them cigarettes. When the fire was lifted, the former inhabitants left. It was only later that the Colombians found that their involuntary hosts were not friendly ROK troops, but PLA soldiers.
After nine hours of fighting the battle slackened and relief troops, finally dispatched, fought their way up Old Baldy to rescue and evacuate the survivors of BI-COL who were still under heavy artillery fire.
Fighting gradually died down as the Chinese reinforced the newly taken Old Baldy, resupplied their troops, and prepared to assault their next objective - Pork Chop Hill.
Nearly 100 Colombians died on Old Baldy with a similar number wounded. Of the 92 M.I.A., thirty ended up prisoners, with the rest presumed dead. It was the bloodiest day the Colombians suffered during the Korean War.
Reorganised, the Colombian battalion stayed in the line until the end of April then went into reserve. Back on the front line on 28 May, they continued as before with mainly hill defence and patrols. Although it suffered casualties, it saw no heavy action before the war ended.
During its time in Korea, the Colombian Battalion suffered 163 combat deaths and 448 wounded, earned five campaign streamers and a US Presidential Unit Citation, and individual soldiers won a total of 18 Silver Stars and 25 Bronze Stars. The training and combat the Colombians received in Korea was a major factor in the growing professionalism of the Colombian Army.
First Published in The Voice, August 2009