Above the 38th Parallel
I meant it with all my heart when I wrote a book titled, “And I Haven’t Had a Bad Day Since.” The “since” refers to the fateful day in North Korea when I almost died during my service in the Korean War.
I enlisted in the United States Army and served from 1948 to 1952. I was an operations specialist for the all-black 503rd Field Artillery Battalion in the 2nd Infantry Division. In late November 1950, after the Chinese intervention into the war, our unit was caught up in heavy fighting in North Korea as the United Nations forces retreated from the Yalu River.
The 2nd Infantry was assigned to hold a road position near Kunuri while the rest of the Eighth Army retreated to Sunchon, 21 miles further south. On the night of November 29, my unit was attacked by gradually encircling forces of the Chinese Army. During the day of November 30, the order came to withdraw the 2nd Infantry in phases, but the 503rd Artillery Battalion was sixth of eight in the order and could not get out in daylight when air cover was possible. On the sub-zero night of November 30, I was part of a retreating vehicle column that was trapped and attacked by Chinese forces and was injured in the back by shrapnel from a Chinese shell. The blast threw me into a ditch and I prayed fervently to God to spare my life.
Then I saw Chinese soldiers walking over dead bodies as they advanced up the hill toward us. The moment I saw a way to escape the path of the Chinese, I took it. The other soldiers in my unit saw me go and I urged them to follow, even though I was just a Private First Class. I eventually led 40 men to escape over the mountains, and was awarded a Purple Heart for my wounds, the Bronze Star with Valor for my actions in the face of death and three battle stars.
After an honorable discharge from the Army in 1952 with the rank of staff sergeant, I knew I could not get back to the same life I had left. Nearly half of my battalion was killed in the overall battle, and more than 50,000 soldiers did not make it back home to America. Yet I was fortunate to return home alive. With the help of the G.I. Bill I finished high school, went on to receive a law degree and then became elected a New York State Assemblyman, and ultimately, a member of the U.S. Congress in 1971 representing the people of Harlem.
Over the past 44 years, I have fought for equality and justice and could not be more pleased to witness great progress in democracy, including the election of President Barack Obama as our 44th President of the United States, as well as the election of President Park Geun-hye, the first female president of the Republic of Korea.
While I was disheartened that President Park’s scheduled visit to Washington, D.C. in June was postponed due to the growing outbreak of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronavirus in South Korea, I am confident in her leadership and the resilience of the Korean people during this difficult time.
I am proud that the country I have defended has risen out of the ashes of war to become one of the major players in the world and America’s sixth largest trading partner. South Korea is among the closest allies of the United States, having contributed troops in support of United States operations during the Vietnam War, Gulf War and operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, while also supporting numerous United Nations peacekeeping missions. Throughout America, Koreans have inspired us with their industriousness. As we commemorate the 65th anniversary of the Korean War and the 70th anniversary of Korea’s independence, I am pleased to reaffirm my commitment to strengthening the U.S.-Korea alliance as a Member of the U.S. Congress.
It is heartbreaking that it has been almost 65 years since I fought above the DMZ in the battle of Kunuri and yet the Korean Peninsula remains divided. I have been pushing to pass my bill in Congress that encourages North Korea to allow reunions of divided Korean-American families, who are hoping to see their long lost loved ones.
Nothing is more tragic than the separation of families. The division on the Korean Peninsula has separated millions of Korean relatives, including some who are now citizens of the United States. I recently hosted a congressional screening of “Ode to My Father” to show the plight of families separated by the Korean War. The film’s record-breaking success in Korea speaks to the longing for reunions of families. The need is there. And they are long overdue.
As a Korean War veteran, I hope to see a unified Korea in my lifetime. Until then, I hope I can at least help reunite divided families whose dying wish is to meet loved ones who live above the 38th parallel, where I almost died 65 years ago.
*The author is serving his 23rd term in the U.S. Congress, representing New York’s 13th congressional district, which includes Harlem and the Bronx. He is a decorated Korean War veteran with a Purple Heart and Bronze Star Medal.
by Charles B. Rangel