Korean War Legacy Project

Gustavo Mendez


Gustavo Mendez’s full interview video is available for viewing. A primary review, which will include the creation of a bio and highlighted clips with summaries, is forthcoming. Please check back for updates.

Video Transcript


INTERVIEWER: This is February 14th, 2016 Lajas, Puerto Rico. it is my pleasure and honor to have a chance to talk to you about your service. Let me speak very poor Spanish. En nombre de Corea gracias por todo (On Korea’s behalf, thanks for everything)


MENDEZ GUSTAVO: Gracias, Gracias. (Thank you, Thank you).


I: Muchas gracias. (Thank you very much).


MG: Gracias por el esfuerzo que hace. (Thank you for the effort you make).




I: I don’t know.


THIRD SPEAKER: Thank you for the effort you make. 


I: Oh, thank you sir okay. Please introduce yourself your name and spell it for the audience 


MG: My name is Gustavo Mendez.


I: Spell it. 


MG: I’m gonna spell it. G U S T A V O   M E N D E Z


I: What is your birthday?


MG: I was born in April 




MG: 27 1929.


I: 29 the year of Great Depression?


MG: I am 86 now.


I: So, you born here in Puerto Rico? 


MG: I was born in Las Marias Puerto Rico.


I: Mmm. Yeah, and tell me about your family when you were growing up.




MG: In Spanish or English?


I: English.


MG: English. Well, I was born in a small town, Las Marias is very small town. I was born in a farm, a big farm that we had in the barrio (neighbor), the barrio (neighbor) was called




MG: Funias, or also they call it Alto Sano.


I: Mhm.


MG: I studied, near my house there was a small school, and I went to school a couple of, until of the third grade, 




MG: and then I moved to a big school, that where I could be graduated to fourth grade high school. From my house to that high… 




MG: high school, the highest grade I had to walk about two or three miles. Walk, I have to walk crossing jungles, rivers.


I: Jungles, rivers?


MG: Jungles, rivers. 


I: Mhm.


MG: And also,




MG: there were some cows and wild…. female cows. How are you saying?


I: Cow? 


MG: Yeah, female cows,


I: Mhm.


MG: In Spanish Toros (Bulls).


I: Mhm.


MG: They were wild at night. I had to be…




MG: In fact, I was afraid of them, you know? The only thing that I know that they had the Corral (Corral), you know? and I had to cross that corral, and then I had to run crossing that special part of the of the of the journey, and then also I had to cross




MG: A river, and sometimes the river was high, a lot of rains, you know? So, took me, in fact for us, for boys like me growing in that kind of the kind of… 




MG: Places, I enjoy that I used to enjoy living there, you know? we had farms, my father used to own many acres, but from there we moved to another place where we had a 




MG: better house, because the house where I lived, where I was born,


I: Mhm.


MG: Where I was raised, it was made out of palms, palm trees, branches, but the thing is that…




I: Let me ask more about your Korean War service. Yeah, that’s better because we have a limited time.


MG: I see, I see.


I: So, when did you join the army?


MG: Well, when I came to Mayaguez, biggest city, from there I went to the




MG: To the United State, I went to New York.


I: Ahh.


MG: Yes, and then there I was drafted there in New York. 


I: You were drafted. 


MG: And I came, and I asked permission to come back to Puerto Rico to receive training, and they allowed me to come, and I came to Puerto Rico I went to camp Tortuguero.




I: When was that?


MG: That was in 1951. 1951 


I: Mhm.


MG: And I…


I: So, you knew that already a Korean War broke out?


MG: Oh yes, yes.


I: What did you feel about it? did you… did you think that you were going to be there?


MG: Well, let me tell you, I am a Christian, I go I visit a Christian Church, when I got the call in the in New York




MG: That they used to call it “gradients”, you know it?


I: Mhm.


MG: “You got gradients”, and they gave me that…


I: Hahaha. 


MG: When I… The first thing I asked the Lord as I walked to my house, because I got the letter, 


I: Yeah, drat letter.


MG: Draft letter few blocks away… 


I: Yeah.


MG: From the place I lived, and I asked the Lord “what if I go to 




MG: the army? and then I have to go to war? and I have to kill?”


I: Mhm.


MG: When I got home, the lady had opened the Bible in the room I lived,


I: Mmm. 


MG: And I read: “Thousands shall fall to your right and thousands to your left and you will receive no harm”.


I: What did you say?


MG: When I…


I: Yeah, the Bible what did it say?




MG: Thousand…


I: Thousand


MG: Si (Yes)… shall fall to your right, and thousands to your left…


I: Mhm.


MG: …and nothing will happen to you.


I: Aha.


MG: In Spanish: “Caerán a tu lado mil y diez mil a tu diestra, mas a ti no llegará”. ()  


I: Mhm.


MG: Nothing will happen to you. So, with that promise I went in the army, from there they sent me to Korea, and I serve in the




MG: 23rd Infantry combating.


I: Yes.


MG: In Korea.


I: Where did you arrive in Korea?


MG: First, we might to Japan, and then from there we got to a place that I forgot the name, but it was in front of a hill




MG: That they call it Old Baldy.


I: Ahh, Old Baldy.  


MG: Old Baldy and…


I: So, you arrived in Incheon, right?


MG: I think so, yeah.


I: Yeah, Incheon and you when went to Old Baldy…


MG: Yeah.


I: Yeah, how was it?


MG: Oh well, you know. I never feel no fear, no. and I wasn’t afraid of anything and…


I: But did you feel that you might kill other people?


MG: Well, 




MG: That’s a good question. You know what happened to me? one day they sent me to a mission, which I knew that I was sent to that mission because the first Sargent hate me, you know, because I didn’t let him fool around with the Puerto Ricans, you know what I mean? They tried to mistreat them, you know what I mean?


I: Aha. 


MG: And…




I: Why, why Puerto Ricans were discriminated?


MG: Because the Sargent was Racista (racist)… what he called racista (racist) in English, they hate the… 


I: Spanish?


MG: Yeah, they hate black people.


I: Color people. 


MG: Color people, yeah. And then, they sent me to that patrol, to  that mission.


I: Hmm.




MG: And when I went to that mission, a Korean fellow that was with me, South Korean fellow, he calls me and said: “Mendez over there, tag as Chinese”, he says, “and you’re jaggery lieutenant”, said on me. I went to the lieutenant and told him: “Sir, Leebo told me that there is a lot of Chinese, right on that hill, he says”. “Mendez…




MG: …I got orders”, he says, I said: “all right, I doubted you have told him”. And then, a few of minutes later we heard enemies coming, and on the lieutenant told us to lay down, lay down, he said: “lay down there and he passed ahead of us 




MG: and he gave him the halt, order to stop, to the enemy that…. to the North Korean they were coming, or Chinese I don’t know. And he opened fire and what happened when he opened fire, we all opened fire, firing to the enemy line, enemy… 




MG: part of the enemy, you know what I mean. And what happened to me? I was what they call a sniper, I can play with a rifle with my eyes closed and I’m like an armed mount and dismount, but when a fire the first, what you called… the first… I forgot how to say that 




MG: in Spanish… the first few bar bullets…


I: Mhm. 


MG: The first… I forgot how to say it. That it was about six bullets.


I: Mhm.


MG: In my M number 1.


I: Aha.


MG: My rifle…


I: Ammo. 


MG: Ammo.  


I: Yeah.


MG: I fired the first six bullets and then when I try to load the rifle again.


I: Mhm.


MG: I couldn’t. 


I: Why not?




MG: I try, I try, I try, I try, I put all my sense trying to load it again, but I can’t do it.


I: Wow.


MG: Imagine that, so, those are things that happen, that are not a exactly easy replaying, but I think is the Lord was telling me… 


I: Mhm. 




MG: …that I don’t need more bullets. You know what I mean?  I don’t need to load the rifle again.


I: Mhm.


MG: So, from there when we receive the order to retreat, up to the hill, I went up to the… there was a hill, when I climbed up the hill…




MG: I saw an enemy, I don’t know if it was a Chinese or North Korean, he was throwing grenades but when I Passed, he didn’t throw no grenades, he led me pass. Then we went down a cliff…


I: Hmm.




MG: And there were some others of my friends down there, you know what I mean? I saw they the enemy, the Chinese or the soldiers, the enemy throwing, he was throwing grenades, but when I got there, he let me pass, he didn’t throw grenades to me. The next guy that came behind me he received eight




MG: No, seven, seven rifle shots. 


I: Wow.


MG: And they took him away, they took him away, the first aid patrol took him away with them, but he didn’t die.


I: Even after the seven bullets?


MG: Right, the enemy came and took him away as a prisoner 




MG: and didn’t die, then about two months ago (later), there was an intercambio ¿Como se dice? (exchange, how do you say it?).


TS: An exchange.


MG: An exchange of soldiers.  


I: A PW exchanges. 


MG: Aha. And pure and they… there is another word, but they exchange




MG: Seven soldiers as example to take the…  to see the way they were going to do the big exchange, and he exchanged seven soldiers as a practice, to see how they were gonna do the… the word, it doesn’t come to mi mind. 




MG: Canje (exchange), no, no, no, canje (exchange), an exchange, and you know what? Tony the one that got shot seven times 


I: Yeah.


MG: on the hill. 


I: He was?


MG: He was number seven on that exchange.


I: Wow.


MG: When he came back to Puerto Rico, 




MG: When he came back to Puerto Rico, I asked him: “Tony alright, let me know what happened after I?” because that happened before he got shot in the withdrawn, he fell, he fell down and I lift him them up, and he was laughing like…and I told him: “this it’s not a joke, tell me joke so I can laugh also, 




MG: …this is the war it’s not or Tortuguero”, Tortuguero is the place where we took training, you know? So, but anyway he got back and I when I got there I said: “what happened?”, he says. “Well, over there in the hill, where we’re in the hill, when I was coming behind You, they shot me seven times”.




I: And?


MG: And then, they took him as a prisoner, they keep him there for two months, and in two months, when there was an exchange, you know? For practice, he was number seven in that exchange.


I: What was the most difficult thing during your service? what did you hate most?




MG: Well, to tell you the truth, I was tough, I was a tough guy, let me tell you. I don’t like nobody for fool around with me, you know what I mean? But this guy, this Sargent, he tried to give me a hard time, you know? But I…


I: Because you operate to recon.


MG: Yeah, yeah. When he sent me… 




MG: …to that Patrol to that mission, the idea was that I get killed on hill.


I: Oh, my goodness.


MG: Yeah, but it didn’t happen. In fact, you know something. One day I was… they sent me to an outpost to bring the food to the to the guys in the outpost.


I: Yeah.




MG: And in some place in the way to that outpost we had to walk right in front of the enemy, you know what I mean? Right in front of the enemy position, and I told the guy that was carrying the [inaudible 0:20:26]… what you call it?


I: Bucket?


MG: The package yeah. 


I: Hmm.




MG: Bucket, bucket right. We were kind… I told him, when we get to a place that we had the enemy position right in from of us, I told the guy: “I bet you they’re gonna shoot us”, and right away they threw the first… the first…




MG: What you call it? Was a grenade or some like you’re saying. But what happened? Because my friend, the one that was with me, he looked just like a Korean.


I: Hmm.


MG: [inaudible 0:21:21]… and they probably, they didn’t throw any more, you know? only one and we… nothing happened to us thanks God.




I: If you are… if you if I ask you to make a comment about this bad treatment by the white boss to the Puerto Ricans soldiers and you are still territory, right? You are American citizen, but you don’t have a right to vote, and you are still territory the Puerto Rico and his territory 




I: it’s not state, what would you say to them including the treatment that you received during the soldier and the war?


MG: Well, I can tell my friends, my country fellows, they are drafted and they go to the army, to clip his pride high.




MG: Don’t let no one fool around with them, to us them or respect like if they were here in Puerto Rico that we have respect for everyone else, you know? and I asked him not to let no big shot to fool around with them,




MG: You know? just ask for the rights to be respected no and don’t be afraid to defend his pride, you know what I mean? that’s what I am, be a Puerto Rican. You know what I mean?


I: Yeah.


MG: A Puerto Rican. Because I am a Puerto Rican and I’ve been 




MG: In a lot of places and I have always asked for… I always respect people, but I always ask to be respected, you know what I mean?


I: So, would you say the same thing to the white people that discriminated you?


MG: You mean the Americans?


I: Yes.


MG: That discriminate me? Well, I will tell them that…




MG: there is all kind of people in anywhere.


I: You’re Right. Yes


MG: You know what I mean? They can try to fool me, I won’t let them, you know what I mean?


I: Yes. Okay.


MG: I won’t let them.


I: Best answer. Best answer. What is the importance of the Korean War?


MG: Well,




MG: I think that North Koreans,


I: Mhm.


MG: North Koreans, they wanted to mistreat South Korean, because I think it was about the…




MG: the ships or something like that happened when the war started, and I think that they did the right thing.


I: How did right thing? South Koreans?


MG: The South Koreans.


I: Yes.


MG: They defend their rights and they didn’t know one to bother them and disrespect them. And I can tell you as a Puerto Rican




MG: Few days ago, I was thinking that if I have to move to any far away land, I would like to move to South Korea.


I: Oh boy.


MG: Imagine that. 


I: Do you like it? Do you like it Korea much?


MG: Yeah.


I: Why?


MG: What I like…


I: Why?


MG: They…


I: Not just because you fought there, but there should be some good reason…




I: That you want to go back again.


MG: You know why? because they are like us, they laugh, you know? they laugh, they play Jokes, you know what I mean? and they are friendly.


I: Tough and friendly, yes?


MG: Yeah, friendly in fact. They’re: “hey boss Tambe punam ba (in Korean: give me a cigarette)”.


I: Hahaha. You mean smoke? Yeah.


MG: “No, no tambe (in Korean: No, no cigarette)”, They asked me if I had, 




MG: if I smoked.


I: When you said that Koreans are like a Puerto Ricans, yeah, I see the point.


MG: In the mood, the mood.


I: Yeah.


MG: Because they like to say, and they all laugh.


I: Yeah.


MG: I tried a few words, you know? you do want shibsha?


I: Hahaha.


MG: Hahaha.


I: I mean,




I: were there many Koreans around you at the time?


MG: In the company I was there was about ten of them. They used to bring Korean food, but I wasn’t permitted to take it. Those big bowls of 


I: Rice.


MG: Vegetable and rice. But I said: “no, no I can’t”.  




MG: I wasn’t supposed to take nothing, and no one gave me.


I: So, you had a very, many good Korean friends.


MG: Oh yeah. No not only that.


I: Hmm.


MG: One night, I was coming and there was a Korean coming in the opposite way, I was going he was coming,


I: Yeah.


MG: And I heard a 




MG: Two color fellows…


I: Mhm.


MG: When the Korean kick pass, he said: “Hey Li Boo, GI number one?”, 


I: Haha. They really don’t know English, but that’s what they know right?


MG: Yeah. 


I: GI number one?


MG: And Li Boo said: “No, GI ranking ten, Puerto Rican number one”.


I: Aww.




MG: And then he says, excuse me the words, he said: “motherfuckers Puerto Ricans, GI number one”, and you know what I did? we were going the opposite way, you know?


I: Mhm.


MG: When he got to me, he didn’t know I was… it was dark.


I: Yeah.


MG: I grabbed him by the shirt, and I put the knife, 


I: Bayonet.


MG: The bayonet in his belly, 




MG: and I said: “take it back mother”, “and gosh, gosh, I am fooling around”, “well don’t fool around like this with…”.


I: Who’s this Korean or American?


MG: That was American.


I: Yeah.


MG: But I told him: “but don’t fool around like that with the Puerto Rican because he says Puerto Rican number ranking ten…


I: Aha.


MG: …and leave the Koreans alone, okay?”, That’s what I told him. A big color guy but I…




MG: I asked him… No, you know, they respect me. You what I mean?


I: Yeah.


MG: In fact, when I finished, I was coming back to ready to come back to Puerto Rico, the first Sargent, he says: “Mendez stay with me three more months here in Korea, I’ll make you Sargent”, I said: “Sir, hey Chris, why should I stay tree months here to be a Sargent, to become a Sargent…




MG: If I go back tomorrow to my house, if I go home tomorrow to my house next day, I’m a general right”.


I: Hahana. General in home, right? Hey Gustavo, right?


MG: Gustavo.


I: Gustavo. You know, I think you’re right. We have our same sentiment because Japan occupied us for 35 years.


MG: Yeah.


I: And then Americans came, and 




I: Soviet Union and the United States divided the whole Peninsula you know separate us,


MG: Yeah.


I: And then there was war so that we have a sense of being attacked so many wars, foreigners attacked a lot. Thousand times recorded in our history.


MG: Yeah


I: Thousand wars, we never attacked any other people.


MG: Yeah.


I: And I think Puerto Rican have their sentiments also.


MG: Yeah, yeah.


I: Yeah. So, I think…




I: You know what…


MG: It was a pleasure.


I: So, you remember Korea was completely destroyed right? 


MG: Yes.


I: You were in the Old Baldy, and do you know what happened to Korea after you left?


MG: Well, I think they are progressing quite a bit




MG: in fact, like I told you I said if I have to move to another land, I’ll moved to South Korea.


I: Do you know about Hyundai Korean automobile, cars made by the Korean company?


MG: I heard some about them.


I: Yeah. You know what? Korea was very poor right you know about it?


MG: Yeah. 


I: You didn’t have much hope about the future of the Korea…




I: …when you left. Right? be honest.


MG: No, no.


I: We are 11th largest economy in the world, 11th largest.


MG: I got some news about that. 


I: China, the United States, Japan, Germany, Great Britain, France, you know and then, 11th is the Korea can you believe that?


MG: Yeah, Yeah. Good, I am glad.


I: And we are strong democracy.


MG: Yeah, yeah.




I: So, you fight, and your love of Korea never been wasted.


MG: Thanks god.


I: It’s a beautiful thing now. 


MG: Yeah.


I: Still, we are divided, we want to be reunified, but at least, we got out of that poverty, that miserable situation, complete devastation, and now, we are exporting, we are the largest shipbuilder in in the world.




MG: Yeah. 


I: Yeah. You know computer, right? 


MG: Yeah.


I: And there is a semiconductor chip. It’s a computer chip, we are the largest maker production manufacturer of the semiconductor.


MG: Yeah.


I: Amazing.


MG: And they sent some of these cars to Puerto Rico.  


I: Minister Park, all patriots and Veterans Affairs came, and they thank you, right?


MG: Yes.




I: Yeah.


MG: I had my nephew he worked in the automobile business; I’m going to ask him about that. What he knows about that.


I: Yeah. Hyundai, Kia…


MG: Ah, Kia Yeah.


I: Yeah, it’s a Korean.


MG: Ah, Korean yes, yes. In fact,




MG: I visited a friend last week looking for… I was looking for a narrow, for a jeep, and he told me that he was looking for a Kia.


I: Yeah.


MG: To buy. 


I: TV made by Samsung, LG, you know? and washing machines.


MG: And how did you get to Puerto Rico?


I: How? 




I: I swam open.


MG: Hahaha.


I: I live in Syracuse, New York.


MG: Aha.


I: Yeah, and I have my own foundation, this is my foundations brochure.


MG: Aha.


I: I came to know of Noemi and Hisela.


MG: Oh, yeah.


I: Yeah, 


MG: You are Noemi?


I: And she is a great, great woman, super woman. Working for the pride of the Puerto Rican veterans, and she helped me.




MG: Good. 


I: That’s why I’m here, but I am so glad, and honored to meet very independent, self-confident, Gustavo Mendez. You know, do you want to go back to Korea? you want to visit?


MG: I visit Korea, yes, I would like that.  


I: You said that you’ll move to Korea.


MG: I would like to live there, in fact, I say if I have to move, you know?


I: Okay. 




MG: But I’ll tell you one thing, in my town, they call me Las Maria’s gentleman. Thanks God I’m very proud of being in my town, everybody respects me, and sometimes when I go to the place, I going to a business, or bar, or something




MG: to say hello to someone, when they see me, they say here comes Las Maria’s gentleman.


I: Hmm.


MG: Like that.


I: You know, you look like a movie star?


MG: Well, in fact a lot of… I write poems, I sing, tangos… “Tomo y obligo, mándese un trago, que hoy necesito el recuerdo matar,




MG: sin un amigo, lejos del pago, quiero en su pecho mi pena volcar”. (Lyrics from Tomo y Obligo by Carlos Gardel) Hahaha. 


I: What are you doing? Dance salsa. No not salsa. I know.


MG: And I wrote poems, and I’m very proud of living in my town, because everybody respects me a lot.


I: Yeah.




MG: I got five acres of land, I plant all kind of tropical roots, bananas also, plantains. 


I: I should try your bananas.


MG: Yeah, well. 


I: So, hold on… are you proud of your service? are you proud that you fought during the war?


MG: Yes, yes, I’m proud




MG: that I accomplished my duty, you know what I mean? And besides, I am glad that I know that God didn’t let me kill no one. You know what I mean?


I: You didn’t kill anybody?


MG: No, no, no. I told you when I went to that…


I: I know but even after that you have…


MG: No, no, no, no,


I: You have no chance to kill anybody?


MG: No, that was the only place, the only time that we had 




MG: to go very close to the enemy, because at that time we had our position, a line of  nobody and the other position. Sometimes…


I: Then you were bad soldier. Hahaha.


MG: No, no, no. because there wasn’t much action in that time, you know.


I: What year was that? 19…




MG: That was 1953.


I: What month?


MG: Almost, since 1952 there wasn’t much action there, you know? There was no action, no, no, no…


I: No there was a severe battle. Even the days before the ceasefire.


MG: Yeah. There were what?


I: There were severe battles.




MG: I know don’t remember.


I: Where were you?


MG: I was in front of Old Baldy.


I: And there wasn’t much action?


MG: No, no, no. We wasn’t advancing, you know.


I: Okay.


MG: We had our position, and we just go out in patrols at night.


I: Mhm.


MG: You know, we used to make believe…




I: Maybe in the other section there was a very severe battles, yes. 


MG: Well, I don’t remember.


I: Okay.


MG: I don’t remember.


I: All right. 


MG: I know that we were apart of about… I would say about close to a mile, you know. Away…


I: Yeah.


MG: We are apart, our position on the enemy position. Hmm.




I: So, any other conclusion you want to leave to this.


MG: No. I mean, I will say that thank you for seeking this…   taking some of your time.


I: Mhm.




MG: I planned to write some, to investigate that someone it’s working on that, on this investigation, you know what I mean?


I: It’s not investigation. I want to preserve your memory.


MG: Good, good. 


I: And keep the lesson to our young children.


MG: Yeah exactly.


I: It’s a historically very important war.




I: But it’s been regarded as forgotten.


MG: Yes.


I: That’s stupid. That’s a stupid of our education system.


MG: Yeah.


I: So, we want to make a digital history textbook, we want to invite the history teachers, and let them use this interview, so they will listen to you, okay?


MG: Good, good, yeah.


I: Very nice to meet you. A beautiful man.


MG: If any time you want to go to Las Maria’s




MG: maybe I can buy you a lunch of rice and beans. Hahaha.


I: Hahaha. Very nice of view.


MG: You know sometimes we have different parties the orange days, you know?


I: Days yeah.


MG: And also, the catholic church they got another parties, you know?


I: Mhm.


MG: But if you for Gustavo, everybody knows me there,




MG: At Las Marias.  


I: My honor to know of you, to be able to talk to you, and I’ll do my best because Korean government has a program called “Revisit Korea” and inviting veterans back to Korea 


MG: Yeah.


I: To show what’s been changed. So, I’ll try to walk with your Noemi and Hisela, you know? so that you guys can what come back.


MG: Well…




MG: You know something? I can to travel, I travel a lot already, you know what I mean? I travel in that since I was a kid, young, to young, I travel around the United States I went to South America, you know what I mean? I’m already 86.


I: You’re too young.




MG: I think I should stay home.


I: Okay.


MG: Under my pillow and under my sheets.


I: All right.


[End of Recorded Material]