For a US soldier, the worst place in the world to be was a gaunt, freezing pass in North Korea’s high country: Kunu-ri.
Charles Rangel knows it well; even the name has a grim, hollow ring. Hearing it spoken 70 years later it “brings chills to my spine,” Rangel said in a telephone interview from his office at the City College of New York, where he is currently statesman in residence.
Now 90, the retired African-American congressman from Harlem was in the epicenter of the maelstrom as a 20-year-old soldier fighting in the battle of the Korean War that remains, to this day, the bloodiest battlefield defeat America has suffered since 1945.
In November 1950, the North Korean Army that invaded South Korea had been routed, and the US-led United Nations Command, or UNC, had counter-invaded North Korea. It looked like game over. Soldiers were told they would be “home by Christmas.”
The Chinese People’s Volunteer Army had other ideas. In deep cover, the communist troops, who had secretly deployed to North Korea, awaited the UNC columns as they thrust north toward the China border. The terrain was rugged, the temperatures brutal: −30 °F (−34 °C).
In these conditions, Chinese troops sprung the biggest ambush of the 20th century.
Surprise was near-total. Taking advantage of road-bound UNC troops, the Chinese assaulted deep. Their tactic, “the human wave,” was based on Sun Tzu’s advice to “attack like water.” It was simple but brilliant.
Mass frontal assaults fixed UNC units in position. Meanwhile, Chinese sub-units infiltrated around the flanks to establish roadblocks and ambushes in the rear. Once the UNC units broke contact and mounted their vehicles to pull out, they would be driving into a kill zone.
Units were overrun. Chaos reigned. Decontrol threatened.
Kunu-ri Pass was the line of withdrawal for the battered US 2nd Infantry Division, or 2ID. The division’s frontage was collapsing, its flanks were in the air. Turkish troops sent forward to plug gaps in the line were decimated. Getting through the pass became a race against time, for Chinese troops were moving fast, cross-country, to cut 2ID’s retreat.
South of Kunu-ri, the winding mountain track was enfiladed by two Chinese divisions, dominating the ground with machine guns and mortars. A 10-kilometer trap awaited the retreating Americans.
Charles Rangel’s war
Even before entering the pass, after the previous days’ fighting, the nerves of Rangel’s unit, 2ID’s all-black 503rd Artillery Battalion, was stretched taut.
“We were intimidated by the Chinese sending pleas over and explaining in broken English why we should not be in North Korea and why was this all-black outfit in this civil war between Korean people,” Rangel recalled. “On top of that, they had recordings of Americans who were captured and were talking about surrendering and going home.”
Intelligence was lacking. “We knew we were vulnerable,” Rangel said. “But we had no idea that the Chinese had completely surrounded us and cut us off from the rest of the team.”
And leadership was fraying. “We had field-grade officers, colonels and generals, actually being helicoptered out,” he recalled.
On November 30, 2ID entered the pass. The first units – armored vehicles – passed through. But when the miles-long convoy of trucks and jeeps began rumbling through, the Chinese unleashed. 2ID’s death ride had begun.
British troops holding open the southern end of the pass, watching shattered vehicles rattling into their perimeter, were reminded of descriptions of Elizabethan naval battles, when the wooden hulls of warships were shot through and blood ran through the scuppers. The unit’s medical officer, desperately triaging dying Americans, later suffered a nervous breakdown.
The heaviest fire was concentrated on Rangel’s battalion, equipped with heavy guns and prime movers. Soon, the pass was completely blocked by a tangle of burning vehicles. As night descended, bugles – used by the Chinese, who lacked radios, as signaling devices – blared in the darkness. The darkness flickered with fires and fizzling flares.
“I was hit [in the back, by a mortar splinter] and I was left for dead,” Rangel said. “I was under a weapons truck, I could hear the Chinese, I could hear screaming, and I could see the feet of our troops being dragged away,” he said. “I was acting dead.”
Rangel found himself praying – but the only chance to survive was to get out. “I crawled out from under the truck, and I saw one of our first sergeants, from Texas: he was screaming and looking for water – we thought he had lost his mind.”
In the cauldron, there was no leadership. Seeing the chaos on the road, Rangel headed out, over the hills. Though he had no rank, natural leadership asserted itself: Dozens of men attached themselves to Rangel and followed him. He led them to friendly lines on December 1.
Two of 2ID’s three regiments were wiped out in combat at Kunu-ri. The sub-unit which took the heaviest casualties was Rangel’s 503rd Artillery, which lost all its guns. After Kunu-ri, the UNC’s retreat from North Korea became a panicked rout: “The Big Bug Out.”
Kunu-ri, and its wider engagement, the battle of the Chonchong River, remains, to this day, the worst defeat suffered by the US since World War II. 2ID’s doomed breakout won a grim nickname: “The Gauntlet.”
It was an incredible achievement for China’s peasant soldiers. They had liberated North Korea and comprehensively defeated the high-tech United States. A historical turning point has been reached for a nation which had, for over a century, faced multiple humiliations at the hands of outside powers.
For Rangel, who won a Bronze Star for gallantry and a Purple Heart for his wounds, it had been “a waking nightmare.”
Though he recovered from his wounds, and left the army in 1952, Rangel was profoundly impacted by his experience.
“Since that horrible day, I could not see why human beings would choose to destroy each other in such a manner,” he said. “Those who have seen the horrors of war and seen bodies torn apart and realized that these used to be adoring, loving infants, that grow to be monsters destroying each other – there must a be a better, more peaceful way of living.”
He was irked by the war fever he encountered at home among those without first-hand experience of it.
“What bothered me the most was to find how many people were anxious for the US to go to war and not realize what a horror war could be,” he said.
Leaving the US Army as a staff sergeant in 1952, he leveraged the GI Bill to enroll in and graduate from New York University.
He subsequently embarked upon a legal career, but his natural leadership could not be denied. He entered politics, winning a Congressional seat for New York. He held office from 1971-2016, making him one of the Democratic Party’s longest-serving politicians. A founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, he was also the first African-American chairman of the House’s Ways and Means Committee.
Throughout his career, he was noted for his genial manner and sense of humor.
Despite his distinguished political career, he believes that conflict resolution – including that currently wracking the United States – should not be left to politicians.
“I ask the question, “Where are our religious leaders in all this?’’” he said. “It is clear to me that human beings will continue to fight…. but you don’t find Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims coming together.”
Religious leaders, he says, should take on the responsibility and have representation in the UN.
The gift of Kunu-ri
The 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, June 25th, falls today. Looking at the current strife in the US, Rangel sympathizes with those who wonder how Korea’s division can be resolved after so much time has passed and so much bitterness has accrued.
“You could ask the same thing – ‘How do you feel about the Union winning the Civil War?’ ‘How does a Confederate feel about losing it?’” he said. “We are still working on that now. The scars of war aren’t easily removed.”
So was America’s intervention in an inter-Korean conflict just? On that, Rangel is clear on the responsibility of the US and the great powers that divided Korean as an afterthought at the end of World War II.
“No. No! The decision to split Korean into two parts is an idea that does not make any sense at all – why would you take a people with a great history and arbitrarily draw a line?” he said. “You can justify defending South Korea, but that does not show the war was justified.”
He added, “Anyone who can justify war is not sane.”
Rangel himself bears no grudges and has, in fact, met former enemies.
“Once the bugles stop and the mortars are silent…it turns out that [ex-enemies] are human beings: they laugh, they smile, they know how to make you feel better,” he said.
In 1982, he was greeted by then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who joked that Rangel was returning to China. When Rangel responded that he had never visited before, Deng insisted that he had almost done so, uninvited – when the UNC had advanced to just south of the Yalu River, Korea’s border with China.
“When I talked to the Chinese, I asked them, ‘Why the hell did you intervene for North Korea?’” he said. “They said, ‘General MacArthur was talking about invading…he thought he was the leader of the free world.’”
Rangel disagrees strongly with those who believe China and the US are on the path to war.
“Their whole idea is rebuilding the economy, and China has found the technology that is necessary to educate billions of people,” he said. “We should be working with all countries to improve the quality of life of all people all over the world.”
Kunu-ri never left Rangel. But it did offer him a legacy gift he has carried for 70 years.
“I say that I have never had a bad day since November 30, 1950,” he said. “How could a 20-year-old kid who dropped out of high school become a member of the House of Representatives? I have been through hell and God blessed me.”
Asia Times thanks Hannah Kim of Remember 7.27 and Michelle Stent of the City College of New York for enabling this interview.