Korean War Legacy Project

Charles Rangel


Charles Rangel was born June 11, 1930 in Harlem, New York.  At the age of seventeen, he enlisted in the United States military as a way to help support his family.  During the Korean War, Charles Rangel served in the 2nd Infantry Division.  He was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart for leading a group of men out of a Chinese encirclement at Kunu Ri.  He famously has noted that being injured that day was the worst day of his life, and that he has “never had a bad day since.”  Charles Rangel is best known for his life after the military in which he served in the U.S. House of Representatives for New York from 1971-2017.

Video Clips

Korean Resilience

Charles Rangel identified the determination of the Korean people in the aftermath of the Korean war. The resilience and kindness of the Korean people is something that he will never forget. He even has pictures of his time in Korea inside of his office as a United States Representative.

Tags: Civilians,Home front,Impressions of Korea,Modern Korea,Physical destruction,Poverty,Pride,South Koreans

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The Destruction at the Battle of Kunu-Ri

Charles Rangel and other American troops were surrounded by the Chinese Army during the Battle of Kunu Ri in November of 1950. During this battle, more than 5,000 American soldiers were either killed, wounded, or taken as a POW. This battle was on the edge of the Chongchon River.

Tags: Cheongcheongang (River),Chinese,Cold winters,Fear,Front lines,Living conditions,Pride,Weapons

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Segregation in the Armed Forces

Although the military was desegregated in 1948, Charles Rangel still experienced segregation during his military career. The only thing that was integrated, were two units. Even when he returned to the United States after the war, Charles Rangel had segregated barracks back on the military base.

Tags: 1950 Battle of Chosin Reservoir, 11/27-12/13,Cheongcheongang (River),Civilians,Front lines,Home front,Living conditions,Pride

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Video Transcript

JH – Dr. Jongwoo Han

CR – US Congressman Charles Rangel

JH This is what i’m doing. This is what I collected from Colonel Barans and this is the picture and letters and calendar that they used at Seoul
CR Yeah
JH Yeah, that’s your pass, 2nd Division
? (laugh)
JH Stars and Stripes and the Korean flag.  You have a whole same set. Thank you for your precious time.
CR Ok.
JH You are the most popular most well known Congressman in Korea, and you have a Korean staff here and you have a popular support from your district the Korean community. Have you imagined, that your life would be so tightly connected strongly connected with the Korean community and the Korean people?
CR No, but I have never seen a, people who have been beneficiaries of uh, any action that the United States was involved in that’s been more appreciative, uh the Korean people, I I I think it’s a cultural thing, uh change attitudes with anybody that they think, was helpful uh to Korea especially during the war, and uh, I’m the beneficiary of people loving Korea and at the same time, uh, loving the United States of America. so you couldn’t find better people to have friends.
JH That’s the consistent message from the Colonel Barans. So, very recently the President Park deliver a speech in both Congress, and uh uh how did you like it? Do you have any special message to the Korean citizens? Greetings?
CR When a President of a great democracy, like South Korea, mentions your name in a speech that she’s giving to the United States Congress and the Supreme Court and everybody involved, it is very flattering and so, uh it made me feel good for the services that I rendered for my country and the benefit of South Korea, but it made my colleagues feel good too that one of their own, and uh John Conyers and uh and uh uh Congressman Johnson, and uh, that that that we were a part not only on talking about democracy but fighting for democracy.
JH Uh huh, uh huh
CR And it’s not many of us left now.
JH (laugh) Any special greetings to the Korean audience?
CR Well Korea has really been a pride of the United Nations and America
JH Uh-uhm
CR that young Koreans may not know or have reason to know, the devastating effect that the Communist invasion had on their country in 1950
JH Uh-uhm
CR and when you couple this with the the the cruel way in which you had the Japanese occupation, then these are classic examples of man’s inhumanity to to mankind, and when you see a bright light, uh where people survive and become stronger, then the Korean people should thank God and that they had the resiliency uh to come from a country one that was suppressed in their self-esteem, uh suppressed in terms of who they were compared with the, uh Japanese, but also in having a country run over, by their own families and friends, in the Civil War
JH Yeah
CR and America’s gone through that and uh you can’t imagine the pain it is, to be fighting in a war but when you’re fighting with your own blood
JH Yeah
CR And the Korea that I left in 1951, there was not a building standing erect I mean uh there no way for me to think that I would ever go back to Korea, but there was never any thought of Korea being restored to the, elevation in terms of civilization that she is now.
JH Yeah
CR To be a world power uh metropolitan industrialized country a democracy a trading partner of the United States, to have so many, Koreans want to become American citizens, uh uh I think completely justifies our intrusion in stopping the Communists
JH Uh uhm uh uhm, uh, I read your short bio and you’re from Harlem and it says that you are a high school dropout, and around the time that the Korean War broke out, what were you doing? What, could you talk about your family background, where you born, your birthday and so on?
CR Yeah uh, I was born in, New York and uh went to school in New York, attended the same public schools as my mother did, uh I didn’t have a father around the house he left us, pretty early in my childhood, I was 5 or 6 years old, and I lived with different relatives when I, was a kid but when I got to reach 17 I decided to, join the army.  My brother had enlisted in the army uh before World War II, and he was tremendous help to my mother and the  family by being able to send home, checks that he received as a military person and I wanted to do the same thing and I did.  Uh, I had no idea, uh, on uh, that day, a Sunday, in December, of uh 1950, when we were alerted that we were going to Korea, and I was glad to go,
JH Uh huh
CR Because I wanted to get out of Fort Lewis Washington, I had no idea where Korea was.
JH You knew nothing about Korea?
CR Nothing about Korea, and they said it was a police action, so I thought there was a riot and I‘d go there and you know, and on the boat it took us 13 days for us to be mentally trained because we were the first, military to leave the United States.
JH Uh-huh
CR The 24th division was in Japan, the 25th division was in Japan,
JH Uh huh
CR and they had lost most all of South Korea, and it was a question whether we could land even in Busan.
JH Uh huh
CR So, we were the trained as a matter of fact just before, Korea, we had just come back from Hawaii we invaded Hawaii with uh artillery, and infantry, and it was a joint force, and we won in Hawaii against uh, enemy forces so, we were prepared  to go to Korea we were able to advance to Busan, pass the 38th Parallel, all the way up pass Pyeonggang, and uh we were sanctioned then on the Yalu River overlooking Manchuria.
JH Uh huh
CR ready to go home before the Chinese came in.
JH Tell me about those two incidents where that uh you got promoted with the Purple Heart and Bronze Star and I, you know, I know that you were uh engaged in single battle with Chinese soldiers. Could you tell me the details about how you got?
CR We had thought that the war was over and uh
JH When are you talking about?
CR In the fall of 1950… North Koreans were surrendering all over.
JH Uh huh
CR And this is after the Inchon landing where United Nations forces landed behind the North Koreans, so you had us coming up from the South, and you had the international, home forces surrounding the North Koreans, so the war was really over as far as we were concerned, there was a big dispute between General MacArthur and the President Truman, a lot of it had to do with whether or not we should continue to move into China, but, I don’t understand even as I talk with you why we were unaware, that tens of thousands of Chinese would be able to cross the Yalu River and completely surround, my division and the 8th army, how that happened
JH Uh huh
CR when we had air superiority, I’ll never never know, but it happened, and so, it was late November, that some of the advance teams were reporting, that some people were captured, by Chinese, no one believed them, in any event uh what happened was, they would come back to the outfit we would send them home, because of this experience that they had, and then finally it, became a reality that we were surrounded,
and we had, officers being helicoptered out, from the, and, when the Chinese hit they, for 3 days they talked to us in perfect English
JH Oh really
CR Telling us to surrender, that it was not our war, that we were black troops, and that  we were not treated equally and that this was a Civil War and that we should surrender and then they would put on people that they had captured from your own outfit
JH Uh huh
CR and I remember this is Sergeant Willie Thompson, the Chinese, are right, we should surrender shouldn’t be here, they been treating me good and then they would put on the names of, so many people that they had captured, but, and at night, they would just blow the bugles and you hear these voices that are telling you, that if you don’t give up you’re going to be killed and we don’t want to kill you so, psychologically we were, there were so many soldiers that, froze to death because they fell asleep, and they, they just froze to death, in any event, when the Chinese hit on November 30th, I got caught in it, I was on a tractor
JH Remember when was that?
CR November 30th
CR 1950
JH Uh huh
CR It’s called the battle of Kumaray
JH Kumaray, yeah
CR And it’s, oh there we got, beaten up pretty badly, a lot of, people were captured, a lot of people were wounded, a lot of people were killed, and so, I was able even though I was wounded to
JH Yeah
CR go to a mountain that I saw to somebody go up the mountain and I didn’t know where I was going, but I knew I was getting away from the mountain pass, and, a lot of people followed me
JH What was your rank at the time?
CR I was Acting Sergeant
JH Oh ok
CR And, after we looked back and we looked down after we climbed the mountain you could see the Chinese were like ants going through the vehicles and, taking away Americans and, searching the Americans, it was a terrible sight to see, and then, American planes would come over, to kill the Chinese, and blow up American equipment, and we were so afraid that they were going to blow us up with it, but we kept, walking, and marching, and sticking together, and finally a, US glider saw us, and dropped food to us
CR and uh, circled us, and gave us the direction, which we should go, and it seems as though some people were saying, that if we got pass this body of water was like a brook, not a river,
JH Uh huh
CR but a brook, if we got over that and didn’t come back, the Chinese would not follow us and so, they had a raft, that was made by somebody, and they put us on this raft, and it must have been over 40 of us, and then they had ambulances on the other side, and they took us to a hospital, all of us, but, that was the worst day I ever had in my life,
CR so I wrote a book saying that since November 30th, I haven’t had a bad day since that time because what could be worse, mentally and physically, and I really thought, it was no chance for me to live
JH Amazing that you were wounded but your were not caught as a prisoner of war and you were able to lead all those your your friends ? there
CR Uh, uh, you know when you’re in a situation like I was in, you’re not even aware about what you’re doing, you do it for survival, and that’s what military training allows you, when I look at map today I get lost, somehow I was able to read that map that we had, someone had a map, and I was able for things that they were teaching us in training, and I wasn’t even listening to, but all of these things came back uh, to me
JH So you got those knowledge from the basic military training
CR No, I didn’t get it from my hometown, (laugh)
JH (laugh)
CR You’re right
JH So, you were infantry right, you were infantry
CR Yeah
JH What is your special unit? What was your specialty?
CR Well actually, I was in an infantry division, but we were trained in artillery
JH Uhm
CR 14 And you had the, 1-0-5s and you had the, 1-5-5s, I was trained, to direct fire for the 1-5-5 millimeter howitzers
JH Uhm uh
CR but we lost our guns so quickly when got there and we weren’t, prepared, to have these tractor driven guns to be able to negotiate those mountain passes, so when you hit one tank or you hit one tractor or you hit one gun you you you you stop the communication on the mountain pass, so many of the guns and trucks had to be pushed over the mountain, because they were disabled
CR And what happened to us is that we better became infantry
JH Really fast
CR Real infantry so we lost our guns, more than once, more than once and then, everybody was everybody was infantry, it was chaotic it was no such thing as what is your specialty, your specialty was kill or being killed, and uh that was uh amazingly, a rough, period of time
JH Do you still keep in contact with those people that you led?
CR Most all of them are gone, we used to meet regularly, as a matter of fact, sometime in 19 53, I got out the army in 1952, and, a lot the prisoners were being released, and they weren’t allowed to reenlist, they were not.
JH Uhm
CR Now they have had 4 years before the Korean War, they were kept 4 years, so they had about 10 years service, in more 10 years they would have retirement, so they wanted to, stay in the army, but reports of their behavior as prisoners of war, said that they, were not eligible because they, were not true to the American flag
JH Uhm
CR for conduct that they had. Now I was in law school at the time, and I knew the people that they were talking about that were in prison, and I went to to the army even though I was a lawyer, and asked how could you possibly judge the conduct, of an American that’s being denied medical treatment being denied food, and you’re saying he was unkind to another prisoner, whatever conduct they they conducted themselves in was under this type of inhumane treatment, and then it got into the newspapers, and a lot of these veterans, were allowed to reenlist, and so we met uh, quite often after that, a lot of the, people that were enlisted people, were allowed to stay in Korea becomes lieutenants, and so one of the guys that was a corporal, under me, came home as a colonel, because he stayed he never came back, from Korea
JH Uhm
CR And so, yes we did have reunions but unfortunately most all of them died
CR You know you have to be at least, 81 years old, you had to be in Korea you had to be at least 18 years old
JH Right, that’s why I () from the Colonel Barans do you, were you able to write back to your family, or did you take any pictures, do you have any artifacts that you can share with us?
CR Probably but not where I’m sitting now
JH Laugh
CR No as a matter of fact, I was so lucky that I had a, girlfriend, that uh, when I went into the army she started teaching school,
JH Uh huh
CR and we would write, she would write every day, and there was so many, people in my unit, that had no family and no one to write, and she would have these 6 and 7 year old kids to write all of them, so when mail call came, I was the most popular guy there, because the kids were writing to them, their families sent them boxes
JH Uh huh, uh huh, yeah, yeah
CR of cakes and stuff, but uh I I I have some pictures uh, of Korea I think there’s one over there too you can take a look after the cameras leave
JH Yeah, yeah
CR But I look at all you’ve collected, and all I see is my 2nd infantry patch
JH (laugh)
CR Oh my God
JH That’s all they are looking for, where is my patch? (laugh)
CR That’s it, that’s what you call unit pride, we called it 2nd infantry division, 2nd to none
JH Yeah, there was segregation segregation policy what when you served there right?
CR Yes
JH Tell me about it
CR Well we had heard, that the army was desegregated in 1948 by Executive Order from President Truman,
JH Yeah
CR I can assure by 1952 it did not get down to the troops at all, the only thing that was integrated, in the 2nd infantry division, were 2 units, there was the 3rd regiment of the 9th infantry division, they were all black
JH Uh huh
CR and the 1-5-0-3rd field artillery battalion which I was in which was all black
JH All black?
CR Yes, with the exception of officers
JH Yeah, obviously
CR Now, when I came home, I went to Oklahoma, it still was segregation on the post, now gradually those things have changed, but anyone who tells you that in 1950, the army was integrated that’s just not so
JH Uhm, do you have grandchildren in the age or great-grandchildren in the age of high school or college?
JH No?
CR I have grandchildren that are too young, and children that are much older, my 2 lawyer, one is the mother of my grandkids
JH The Korean War Veterans Digital Memorial Foundation is hosting the first workshop for the descendants of the Korean War Veterans
CR If a Korean veteran was alive or his family was alive and you were making an offer of scholarship, uh to the children, uh, they would have to receive the scholarships rather than just to come for a reunion, because they have nothing in common the fact that their grandparents, were in a war, didn’t bring them any closer together
JH Uhm
CR so that the only thing, that I was saying, it’s a great idea is actually sending these kids, to college
JH This year is the 60th year anniversary of the US-Korea Alliance and at the same time its 60th year anniversary of the Armistice, 60 years, even after the official cease fire and how we can get toward to the peaceful uh settlement in the Korean peninsula?
CR Well I think it’s clear that North Korea economically and politically could not exist if it was not for the People’s Republic of China, and whatever political reasons that they are supporting North Korea, internationally, it’s a very dangerous thing to do
JH Uhm
CR Uh, China has been, responsible as it relates to maintaining international peace, but there’s an assumption that you’re dealing with, rational people who understand, the dangers of war, this does not exist in North Korea today, nobody is confident as to what, the so called leader of North Korea may do, and so it seems to me that we have to put all types of international pressure, on China
JH Uh huh
CR to be working with the allies that she has in Japan and the United States, to make it abundantly clear, that if North Korea continues, to be a threat to South Korea, that all economic assistance and military assistance will be severed
JH Where what is the status of the US-Korea alliance and where should we go for now?
CR The relationship between Korea and the United States could not be better. We have to expand that alliance, to put pressure on North Korea so we can start talking about, a unified, Korea. Just as we had the pain of a Civil War in this country, where people with same blood were fighting and kill each other
JH Uh huh
CR that is the statement that the history that Korea has now, North and South. This is not, will not be treated fairly in terms of history, People killing people is bad enough, but killing each other’s family is even worse
JH Uh huh
JH What do you think your most, important contribution as a Congressman in the United States of America?
CR Being selected for 22 times by, my, constituents my friends and supporters that say, that they in their opinion I was the best, one to represent them, in the United States Congress, it’s a high honor, and a high privilege
JH Final question, any message to the young generations to come from both America and the Republic of Korea?
CR Well, we hope left a better world than what we inherited, but whatever we left, the peace the tranquility of the future, is in their hands, and the experiences that they’ve had, even though they may not seem important today, as they grow older, as fortunately I have been able to do, all of the strengths and spiritual indoctrination, will come to make them better people, for their community their county and therefore the world
JH Uh huh
CR ()
JH Thank you very much, Congressman