Colombian troops in a jeep in Korea. The harsh winter weather and jagged terrain – which made resupply arduous and evacuation of the wounded agonizing – is clear. Photo: Gilberto Diaz Velasco

Gilberto Diaz Velasco is 86, but the night of March 23, 1953, is seared onto his memory.

The then 19-year-old Colombian soldier was far from home, on the peak of “Old Baldy” – a dominant feature in the Korean War’s west-central front. Stripped of vegetation by shellfire, the battered hill had been fought over for more than one year.

It was known to US and Colombian soldiers as a “cemetery.”

After dark, the Chinese attacked the men of the Colombian battalion with massive force. Old Baldy became an inferno.

“That night there was heavy artillery, there were airplanes, and the hill was taken by Chinese troops,” Velasco recalled. “We ran out of ammunition.”  

Pushed off the summit, the Colombians retreated though the roaring, flashing darkness across a carpet of dead and dying men. “One of my closest friends was killed,” Velasco said. “But it was not easy to know which body was enemy, which body was friendly.”

Determined not to leave his comrade behind, he resorted to a grim measure in the field of corpses. “My friend had a mustache – not so many had mustaches in those days – so I touched the faces,” he said. “I found my friend, and took him away.”

Velasco was recounting his memories from his home in Colombia to an audience of reporters in a Seoul hotel via a Zoom link on Tuesday morning.

With the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War falling this Thursday, the event, arranged by the Colombian Embassy, was a precursor to an exhibition of hundreds of Velasco’s photos, taken during his tour of duty in Korea.

Setting his images apart from the vast majority of photos taken during the war, Velasco’s images are not black and white, but full color.

“The pictures were an energy, a boost for my soul,” he said. “I realized I had pure history in my hand.”

The exhibition will open at the National War Memorial of Korea in Seoul on Friday.

Beyond his hobby of photography – his official position was part of a mortar squad – Velasco’s experiences in 1950s Korea were not entirely grim.

As a soldier in the only Latin American army to deploy to Korea to fight under the US-led United Nations Command, which fought for South Korea in the 1950-53 conflict, Velasco told reporters of his interest in Asian culture, his experience of living through “four seasons,” and of course, the photography he undertook.

In 2017, he was able to visit the country he had fought for, thanks to a revisit program arranged by the South Korean Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs. The devastated, poverty-struck Korea of the 1950s was gone – replaced by the vibrant, high-tech G11 that is South Korea today.

“I was extremely impressed,” he said. “The buildings and the infrastructure … I could not even have imagined.”

The crew of an 81mm mortar pose with their weapon. On the Korean War’s jagged, mountainous battlegrounds, mortars were critical. Not only did they shoot in a vertical arc, but they also delivered heavy firepower at a rapid rate – essential when fighting a manpower-heavy enemy. Photo: Gilberto Diaz Velasquez
Colombian troops among wild azaleas in the Korean spring. After the hideous winters of the conflict, soldiers of all nations were relieved when spring, with its wildflowers, arrived. Photo: Gilberto Diaz Velasquez
Colombian troops parade at an in-theater award ceremony after combat. Photo: Gilberto Diaz Velasquez
Velasco with the camera he acquired in Tokyo for $5 and carried during his tour of duty in Korea, speaks to reporters in Seoul, Tuesday, via a Zoom link. ‘This camera was my best friend, and today, it continues to be a big part of my life,’ he said. Photo: Asia Times/Andrew Salmon