March 26, 1953 – The Battle of Old Baldy The Colombian Battalion refers to a series of five engagements over a period of 10 months for Hill 266 in west-central Korea, though there was also vicious fighting both before and after these engagements. Colombia was the only Latin American country participating with the United Nations Forces in Korea. A frigate, the ARC Almirante Padilla and an infantry battalion with 1080 men was sent to join the UN Forces. The presence of the Colombian ground forces had been awarded for their exemplary performance in previous fighting and combat, Operations Nomad, Thunderbolt, Climber(Hill 400) and Barbula (Hill 180) with Presidential Citations from the United States and South Korea and U.S. Legion of Merit, Silver Stars and Bronze Stars awarded to the men. At the time of Old Baldy, the Colombian Battalion was within the 7th Division under Major General Wayne C. Smith. The South American unit was the fourth battalion in the 31st Regiment commanded by Colonel William Kern who had ordered Lt. Colonel Alberto Ruiz Novoa, the Colombian commander to relieve the Regiment’s 1st Battalion on Old Baldy. The Colombian Unit had just been in the Battle of Yeoncheon Hill (Bárbula) in which its troops attacked the Communist’s outpost, 500m from the enemy’s main defense line, while carrying out preliminary duties at Mageo-ri, northwest of Yeoncheon. At dawn the Colombian Battalion C Company initiated an operation to capture Hill No.180, a strongly built outpost by the Chinese Communist Army but faced the enemy’s stiff resistance in the pursuing struggle. After capturing Hill No.180, the C Company destroyed the enemy’s defense facilities. But the intel of the Regiment had failed. The attack should have been carried out by at least one full battalion and not just one Company. The Colombian ground forces had been hit hard and had 11 men KIA, 43 WIA, and 10 were missing in action. Intercepted communications from the Chinese confirmed the struggle and hand to hand combat. The casualties were too high for C Company. They couldn’t hold their positions and were ordered to retreat. In the late afternoon the men regrouped and in silence carried their wounded and dead back to camp. As they passed U.S. troops along the line, the Americans applauded, showing their admiration and respect for the Colombian warriors returning from duty. Two days later the Battalion received orders for Old Baldy. On their new post, Company A was placed at Dale and B Company on Old Baldy, going west to east and C Company was behind both, between them. The fourth Company of the Colombian Battalion was used to fill in the missing men in the other three Companies which meant the whole battalion was used in the frontline. Lt. Colonel Ruiz Novoa asked the Regiment Commander Kern for reserve troops and a U.S. Company from the Regiment was assigned to the Battalion as a reserve unit. Lt Alfredo Forero Parra, B Company on Old Baldy: “Once I finished signing the act in which I received and assumed responsibility over my section, I asked the Puertorican sargent whom I was replacing about the time on the position and the situation surrounding it.” “Lt. we’ve been here for five days and the troops we replaced lasted here just about the same. This is a real cemetery. It’s been taken and recovered by us about a hundred times. Our men are rotated about every five to eight days because it’s hit hard by enemy fire causing innumerable casualties, demoralization and sheer tiredness.” From the moment of arrival, the Colombians were battered by cannon, mortar and machine gun fire. On the 20th of March artillery fire was felt all over the 31st Regiment. The Colombian Battalion was on Baldy, the Second Battalion was to its left and the Third Battalion was on Pork Chop Hill which placed the Colombian troops in the middle of the two U.S. Company units. Such heavy artillery fire prepares an attack. Intercepted communications from the Chinese command and deserters confirmed the imminence of the attack, Regiment Commander Kern remained skeptical and disdainful with the South Americans. On the 21st, five bodies were exposed by the Chinese on the crest of Hill 180. Four Colombians and an American. The enemy wanted to tempt the Colombians in trying to recover them. The Colombian Commander ordered a rescue mission which caused complete awe in the Regiment and Division Commanders. The mission concluded with the entering enemy lines by a patrol of voluntary men from C Company. Private Alejandro Martínez Roa reached the crest, deactivated a mine under one of the bodies, descended with one of the corpses, escaped enemy fire and when he encountered other Colombian troops, returned to the crest with Corporal Pedro Limas Medina and the patrol and rescued the others. The heroic action was rewarded with four silver stars on the combat grounds. On the 22nd the softening of the Colombian position on Baldy was increased. More than 2000 rounds of cannon fire was dropped over the area. On the 23rd, since B Company had been on the line of fire for 11 days, Colonel Kern ordered C Company to rotate with B. Lt Colonel Ruiz immediately objected the order. He was expecting a Chinese attack on Baldy and considered a mistake to move his troops, his reserve unit was the American Company which he did not know, and C Company had been hit very hard on Hill 180 so he did not want to expose them yet, to another hell of heavy fire. But Kern kept the order and the Companies started rotation. The movement began toward 1500 hours under heavy fire, making it very difficult for C Company to advance toward their new position. Once again the Company began receiving heavy loses. B Company was completely demoralized and demotivated. It had been under constant artillery fire since their arrival. Men were eager to rotate as soon as they heard the new orders. It came to them as a blessing. Many men had fallen and numbers were getting short. Lt Alfredo Forero Parra: “By that day our positions were seriously weakened by the enemy artillery fire. The position for my men was on the crest of Old Baldy. We were the Second Platoon in B Company. Past noon, I received orders to prepare my men to be relieved by C Company, next to us.” “All of us, from our combat positions were anxious to be relieved, but C Company did not arrive. I was convinced we were in for a major attack so I went and spoke with American tank Commander which supported our position, and I convinced him to give us a .30 machine gun in order to enhance our defense. We had everything ready, including the flamethrower assigned to us.” The 1st Battalion of the Chinese 423rd Regiment, 141st Division, commanded by Hou Yung-chun, was selected to assault Old Baldy. The unit’s political officer hand picked the 3rd Company to lead the attack and plant the “Victory Flag” on the hill. The Chinese were directly facing the battered Colombian B Company. At 2030 hours, Second Lt. Alvaro Perdomo from A Company on Dale was attacked brutally. After a tenacious resistance and heavy support from B and C Companies he had to give up his position.” Pork Chop Hill was also hit with the same heavy fire. The Third Battalion could not hold its position and lost the hill. Coronel Kern thinking that the main objective of the attack had been Pork Chop Hill sent in two Companies to reinforce the men in the 3rd Battalion, but the fighting diminished making it possible for the 3rd Battalion to retake its position on the hill two hours later with the reinforcements received from the Regiment Command. “Forty minutes after the attack on Dale and Pork Chop Hill, tremendously heavy artillery and mortar fire fell on Old Baldy. The earth shook as if in an earthquake accompanied by flashing and deafening explosions all around B Company’s position. The fleeting silhouettes of men, weapons and weakened fortifications seemed ghosts within the enemy bursts. Cries of anguish and agony mingled with our own and enemy machine gun rattle. The battle raged at every moment. We could hear at a short distance the firing of 60 and 82 mm. mortars from the enemy. Communications were lost, no one answered, not even the squadron commanders. Suddenly, I was reported the death of my platoon Sergeant replacement, Azael Salazar Osorio, then the commander of the third squad, Corporal Jose Narvaez Moncayo, who had been severed by the waist and shouted near death, to be lifted by the feet to relieve his suffering. Nothing could be done for him. At my battle station the death of Corporal Ernesto Gonzalez Varela, commander of the second squadron, was atrocious. We were almost touching elbows. He fired his machine gun on an onslaught of Chinese who came upon us when a bazooka shell hit him on the face, leaving his head tangling on his back. I thought I was living a nightmare or horror movie until new explosions on my bunker brought me back to reality. I encouraged my men and I continued to communicate with machine guns and gave instructions for a corporal to take out the flamethrower and prepare himself to shoot the enemy when they appeared.” “A few minutes later two soldiers came running to my trench shouting, the Chinese are coming, the Chinese are coming! The enemy was trying to overcome our position shouting and shooting their machine guns and throwing granades.” The attack was unsuccessful. They were stopped at the wired trenches which soon were filled with enemy corpses. A new wave of Chinese again attacked, breaking the defense and heading for our trenches. That moment C Company started arriving to relieve B Company. They were totally unaware of the ammo deposits, trench and foxhole distribution and defense sectors. B Company still had command over the position on the crest of the hill, but half of the men were C Company. Lt Colonel Ruiz was right, the attack was imminent and what was worse, the main attack was on Baldy, not Pork Chop Hill, as Coronel Kern had considered. The rotation in which Kern, commander of the regiment, had insisted, had left in a very poor situation the two South American companies involved. Now the Colombians were paying for it. C Company which had been hard hit in Hill 180 still had its men under the influence of that nightmare, and now unable to fully come to occupy their combat positions in Baldy. A perfectly synchronized Chinese regiment had launched the attack on Dale. While the command of the regiment was distracted by with the previous attack that touched the U.S. battalion adjacent to the Colombian company, another Chinese regiment moved amid the darkness to Old Baldy, taking assault positions as an awful rain of artillery shells fell upon B Company’s position on the crest of the hill. The relentless bombing of that and previous days had weakened the Colombian positions, destroying much of the barbed wire and mines, leaving defenses open to a direct attack. All night they fought fiercely in the midst of the confusion caused by darkness and by the presence of the two Colombian units, half of B and half of C Companies. The situation for the defense could not be weaker. A full Chinese battalion attacking, reinforced by two additional companies was too great a force against mere three companies of the Colombian Battalion. Colonel Ruiz advised his intention to use the U.S. reserve Company assigned to the battalion in order to counterattack, protect the troops engaged in combat and retake the lost positions. The U.S. liaison officer paled when he heard the order. With trembling voice said that the reserves had been used to contain the Chinese penetration on Pork Chop Hill in defense of the U.S. Third Battalion. With it, Pork Chop Hill had been recovered and had helped the Americans. There had been no notice or warning mediated to Colonel Ruiz. The Colombia was on its own. The unit had no reserves to counterattack and fight back. Company A had had to retreat with the ferocity of the attack that preceded the one on Old Baldy, but was determined to recover their positions from the Chinese without any backup or reinforcements. B and C, in middle of the confusion of the rotation, could do absolutely nothing but try to survive. Despite the adversity, the Colombian troops almost broke force of the assault, as was it was known by an anguished communication intercepted by Division intelligence, in which the Chinese battalion commander Hou Yung-chun said the assault was unsuccessful and the capture of Hill 266 (Old Baldy) was impossible. The Chinese response was a ruthless command: take it or suffer the consequences. Moments later, they announced the dispatch of reinforcements. The efforts in defending the position depleted dramatically as the number of attackers increased and the defenders were reduced by casualties. The smell of gunpowder and blood filled the air. It became an inferno. However, the Colombians fought with their customary and recognized bravery . The assailants, taking advantage of their enormous numerical superiority, had to conquer the position trench by trench, stronghold by stronghold in fierce hand to hand combat. At about 1am, both parties, UN Forces and Chinese, believing that the other had captured the hill, began bombing with heavy artillery fire. Both armies despite having troops on the battlegrounds, downloaded a rain of bullets and shells on the men stranded in hand to hand combat trying maintain their positions. Casualties came from friendly and enemy fire alike. At midnight only one platoon had managed to reach West View and tried to help contain part of the attack. There Colombians awaited for reinforcements to retake the lost position. These of course never arrived. Alfredo Forero: “At 4:30 AM we were only six men left in B Company’s Second rifle platoon, with exhausted ammunition and harassed by the enemy. We made our way towards the tank path, losing three more men due to the continuous artillery fire.” “Before midnight, the tanks in the valley were removed, leaving free entrance to the enemy. A truck with our ammunition stopped at the entrance of the position on road in the valley. From it descended Lieutenants Leonidas Parra and Miguel Ospina Rodríguez, the sappers and transmission officers, as a heavy fog covered the morning and we could hear sporadic gunshots and screams.” Lieutenant Ospina arrived with orders to try to restore communications with the Command of the Battalion, but in the stark reality of Old Baldy and there was nothing to do. At 8:00 am a U.S. platoon arrived and was asked by the Colombians for fire support in order to retake the lost hill, but after a short reconnaissance they withdrew. If not for the heroic resistance of the Colombian troops at Old Baldy, the Chinese forces could have broken the 7th Division’s Main Line of Resistance, entering deep into allied territory with very serious consequences, since the road could lead troops and armored enemy vehicles directly to Seoul. At this point the command of the Division orders the hill a no man’s land, and the most fearsome bombardment begins on Old Baldy. The Colombian Battalion had been unable to regain her men behind lines, stranded, wounded or dead. All were at the mercy of the U.S. Air Force, relentless in its action. Unfortunately this time everything played against the Colombia. It was not because of its men. It was the tactical errors and the overwhelming numerical superiority of the attacking Chinese forces who caused the final loss of the hill. The Chinese had attacked one flank to make the Regiment Command assign all its defenses there. Then It hit the other flank in order to take Hill 266. The Regiment Commander, Coronel Kern had fallen into the trap and sacrificed the South American troops.
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