Korean War Legacy Project

Jose Vargas Franceschi


Jose Vargas Franceschi’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: Very nice meeting you sir my name is Jongwoo Han, I’m the president Korean War Legacy Foundation I’m here in Ponce Puerto Rico, it is February 13th, 2016, and it’s great honor and pleasure to meet you, and to hear your story about your service during the Korean War. So, please introduce yourself, please say your name and spell it for the audience.


VARGAS FRANCESCHI:  Well, my name is Jose, J O S E, Vargas, V like Victor A R G A S, dash, Franceschi, F R A N C E S C H I.




I: What is your birthday?


VF: Birthday, September 16, 1927.


I: You born two years before the great depression…




I: …very difficult time.


VF: I didn’t remember, but I am originally born here in this city in Ponce.


I: Wow, so, you were born here, right here?


VF: Yeah, I am a native of Ponce, I went through my school here, grammar and until I graduated from ponce a high school…




I: Mhm.


VF: …in 1946.


I: 1946?


VF: Yes.


I: And what did you do after the graduation?


VF: After graduation things were tough like you say in 46 I didn’t have a… it was a big family, I didn’t have an opportunity to go to college, all my friends went to college, so…




VF: …my father was a merchant marine, and he was stationed in San Francisco, California. 


I: Hmm.


VF: It happens that he went to that Puerto Rican Club in San Francisco, and when they are seeing his name, where he was from the president of that club…




VF: …was Puerto Rican and his wife was taken when she was one year old to Hawaii on an immigration.


I: Hmm.


VF: And he say: “well I’m from Ponce, I am married to a lady named Helena Franceschi” and she say: “I am Franceschi too” and you know it happens that it was…




VF: …my mother’s sister.


I: Hmm.


VF: They were born the same week from two different… well, that my grandfather… so I managed to go to San Francisco, looking for…


I: Job?


VF: …for a job.


I: Yeah, so what did you do?…




I: …what kind of job did you?


VF: They gave me a job in a paint factory. Fuller paint factory in San Francisco, California.


I: Did you know anything about Korea around the time?


VF: No, I didn’t know about… well when we take history we more or less know that Korea was closed due to China…




VF: …and Vietnam, on Asia, but we didn’t know too much about Korea at that time. 


I: Hmm. I mean I’m going to ask a lot of questions to you, but after all those years that you’re in Korea, fought for the country what do you think happened to you? what do you think? why did it happen to you? can you… had you ever imagine that…




I: …you will be end up in a country, like Korea, and fight for it, what do you think about this? why is it happening to you?


VF: Well, you know, we belong to the United States we are a colony, we don’t vote for the president, but he has the right to send us to war. so, I was drafted and I have to fight for the country…




VF: …I mean, when you’re a citizen you have to defend your country, and the America was very friendly with South Korea, we were fighting communism at that time, so.


I: At the time US was not really friendly to South Korea, no, we didn’t know each other, but anyway, when were you drafted, do you remember?




VF: Yeah, I was drafted in 1952.


I: Oh. 


VF: At Fort Ord and…


I: Fort Ord? 


VF: Fort Ord. 


I: California.


VF: In California.


I: Yeah, army?


VF: In the Army.


I: Yeah, where did you get the basic?


VF: In Salinas.


I: Salinas?


VF: Salinas in…


I: California.


VF: In California.


I: What was your specialty?


VF: Infantryman…




VF: …and they gave a six-week training, we hardly knew how to fire a rifle, and they put us on board on the general worker ship, seven thousand troops, we were 30 days on the ship.


I: Wow.


VF: Small ship, it wasn’t that Pacific it was terrific…




VF: …until we landed in Yokohama. 


I: It’s a strange because it used to take two weeks. why did it take so long in your case?


VF: I don’t know it took us 30 days from there to…


I: Did you throw up? how was it?


VF: It was tough, thrown up we can hardly… the ship moves so much that…




VF: …we were it was very, very rough.


I: Hmm. Were you afraid that you’re going to Korea to fight there?


VF: Afraid? you’re always afraid, you’re always afraid so when we landed there, they took us off…


I: When did you arrive in Korea and where?


VF: Well, we landed in Korea…




VF: …because they took us from Yokohama on a train to Sasebo.


I: Yeah.


VF: And from Sasebo they put us on big boat, and they went to Pusan.


I: Pusan. Okay.


VF: But you know what happened how lucky I was that I took commercial course in Puerto Rico and there was a…




VF: …there was a captain, he said: who knows how to type? and I took typewriting, so they did they sent me on a typewriter there all my friends went… all my friends went to the… they put them on trucks, they give you the rifle…




VF: …and ammunition, and about 30 days later I suffered an accident, I felt from a truck, and then I broke my kneecap…


I: Uhh.


VF: …and in Pusan, I was there so they evacuated me to…


I: Hospital ship?




VF: No, no, they did, they took me to took to Kanaoca. 


I: Ah, Okinawa.


VF: No in Kyoto, Japan.


I: Kyoto, ok.


VF: I have it here.


I: Yeah.


VF: I have some notes here, they took me to Osaka in Japan. 


I: Ok.


VF: And I…




VF: …I was there for 48 weeks, they put me in a cast.


I: Yeah.


VF: …and they use me as an interpreter because when the people from the 66 infantry…


I: Uh-hum


VF: …came, all the wounded soldiers.


I: You mean 65th.




VF: 65th Infantry…


I: Yes. 


VF: …was fighting in Korea.


I: Yeah.


VF: So, at that time I didn’t know, I knew that there were Puerto Rican troops in there, but I didn’t know anything about the 65th infantry, so in Japan they use me as an interpreter for all the…


I: Puerto Ricans.


VF: …Spanish-speaking…




VF: …so, they send me back again to Pusan.


I: So, you have such a good luck with the jobs, you are able to type, so typewriting, and then now you speak Spanish so that your interpretation.


VF: Yes, I am an interpreter. So, I manage they used to put all the Spanish-speaking…




VF: …soldiers, they put them to the third division in which this 65th infantry, belongs to.


I: Mhm. Do you remember when you arrived in Pusan? what the month? 


VF: Oh sure, I have it here.


I: Mhm.


VF: I have some notes in there…




VF: …in the… I gave it to the lady…


I: It’s okay, was it September or what? was it some or? 


VF: The lady…


I: Yeah.


VF: I have the pamphlet… 


I: Its ok, its ok. how was Busan at the time that you were there? tell me, describe the scene and the people there…




I: …how was it?


VF: It was crowded because all the… they were just trying to get away from the fighting, it was you can hardly walk on the streets there. 


I: Wow.


VF: So many people, and people sleeping on the street or wherever they could find. It was very tough, I tell you.




I: I guess that they would not have much food to eat, right?


VF: That’s right.


I: Tell me those things, I mean.


VF: Well at that time the roads were not very good, they were dirt roads, the transportation was… they use of people these cars, that they pull it…




VF: …it was it was a very tough in 1946, life.


I: What were you thinking when you saw so many people, unfortunately, living in the street without much things to eat, what were you thinking when you saw them?


VF: Well, when I saw them I figure it out the life in the United States at that time, what a difference.


I: What a difference.


VF: It was a big different…




VF: …I didn’t know how much poverty was.


I: Mhm


VF: It was so a lot of… I tell you, even the women, the girls they used to… instead to get some money they offer themselves for…


I: Prostitution.


VF: Prostitute, yeah.




I: Yeah. That’s a cruel days.


VF: It was very, very sad, very cruel.


I: So, what was your… what was your unit? where did you belong to and what did you? do tell me about the typical days of your routine works.


VF: Well, when I went to Pusan…




VF: I was assigned to a post office job, I used to work in the post office taking the letters and packages for people, for soldiers…


I: Mhm.


VF: …and I worked as a clerk in there.


I: That’s very interesting you must have saw seen so many…




I: …different kinds of items, right? what are those? I mean, tell me, I did interview a lot of Korean War veterans and they told me that they wrote letter, back to them, and they received the letters from their family, sometimes they receive the cookies or something, something to eat from their own family while they were in Korea, that’s amazing.


VF: Yeah, but what happened is here in Puerto Rico…




VF: …they used to pack and send to Korea typical food in cans, they put it in there and they put it and they sent any kind of typical food and then people used to hide letters to soldiers even if they don’t know them…




VF: …telling them, you know, so they can bring the morale up.


I: Yeah. That’s nice.


VF: To the soldiers. It was it was a tradition of Puerto Rican.


I: How many letters did you processed? on average, how many letters?


VF: Thousand, thousands of letters, it was amazing, sometimes the soldiers received them two or three…




VF: …months after they were written because they move the units from one place to the other, so we send letters to show, but by that time the unit was some other place so they send them back for us to hold it until we can… they gave us instruction where they will be so we forwarded them then.




I: Then there must have been so many letters has had not been delivered to the soldiers.


VF: Correcto.


I: Right?


VF: We have cases, I was reading an article in which a soldier received a letter about 40 years after…


I: Hahaha.


VF: …it was written. Yeah, it happens.


I: Letters of 40 years. 


VF: 40 years.


I: What did you do with the letters that has not been delivered?




VF: We send them to the headquarters, what they do? and the letters that came, they there was a section in which they opened the letters and read them before they give into the soldiers.


I: Oh really?


VF: Oh yeah, it happens.


I: You, do you censor every letter?


VF: Not every letter.


I: Random.


VF: Yeah, random letters they take…




VF: …they know who the guy was and the United States of America have a very good system of tracking, if they don’t trust you they follow you, even today it happens even our country today it happens. 


I: What was the most difficult thing during your service in Korea in Pusan…




I: …you were in Pusan only?


VF: I was in Pusan.


I: What was the most difficult thing to you?


VF: The Weather. 


I: Oh, tell me.


VF: Was it cold, sometimes I put heavy clothes on it and then we were still cold, but then I follow a tradition on the Korean people, I used to see them that they put newspaper…




VF: …around the on the shoes, and then they put the shoes on, and we follow that tradition, the newspaper is very warm.


I: Really?


VF: Yeah, you put newspaper…


I: Around your foot and then…?


VF: Around your foot, then put the boat and de stocking and it keeps you… try that out.


I: Maybe that’s absorbs the moistures, so that makes your feet dry…




I: …Maybe that’s the case.


VF: Probably.


I: Where there any dangerous moments during your service?


VF: Yep.


I: Tell me.


VF: Well, we could not… in Pusan we could not go from our unit, if we go to town, we have to be two or three guys together and one of them have to carry a weapon…




VF: …a carabine, because there were so many North Korea infiltrated, you won’t know who was from the North and who was from the South. Sometimes even when we were having dinner showed in the line, sometimes appeared one guy in North Korean guy shooting.


I: Hmm.


VF: You could not…




VF: …distinguish. 


I: That’s right.


VF: The North from the South.


I: They wear the civilian clothes, right? and they are all Koreans?


VF: All Koreans.


I: So, you never tell.


VF: That’s right.


I: Were you afraid?


VF: Yes sir. Yeah.


I: Did you write a letter back to your family did you have a girlfriend at the time or…?


VF: I was married.


I: You were married? 


VF: Yeah, I was married at that time…




VF: …and then I was working on the office, on the headquarters, and there was a memorandum in which they say that: “any Spanish-speaking personal can be, can ask to be traded to the 66 infantry”. 


I: Why?




VF: Because there were some soldiers like me, at that that time, that could not… we couldn’t speak the language so good at that time, so cannot follow the instructions.


I: Right. So, did you actually transfer yourself to the 65th.


VF: I asked because that’s why when my wife was going to have a baby…




VF: …then there was a memorandum in which I could ask for an emergency leave, and then I asked for an emergency leave through the Red Cross, and it was granted to me.


I: Hmm.


VF: And from Pusan I came to Puerto Rico.


I: That’s very good.


VF: And then I expend…  I was transferred to Japan from Japan to Guam…




VF: …from Guam to Hawaii, from Hawaii to San Francisco because I was drafted in San Francisco, but my wife was here in Puerto Rico, they told me you are your own, if you are going to go to Puerto Rico you have to be on your own.


I: Hmm.


VF: So, I went to the Red Cross and asked the Red Cross for…




VF: …for money for transportation, so they gave me money and then I crossed the United States on train, and on greyhound until I came to Mobile Airforce Base in Alabama.


I: Hmm.


VF: And from Alabama I stayed there, I saw a lot of Puerto Rican soldiers and there was a…




VF: …they were going to go to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey, but then I saw them stranded looking around for their too, I have to wait until I have transportation, free transportation on that base to fly to Puerto Rico, there was a Puerto Rican officer that was from Benning Georgia all dressed up sharp and a nice…




VF: …when you come from Korea to Japan, they take all your clothes, the only thing they leave you with the shoes, the boots that’s to… we don’t bring any disease, any infection. So, my clothes that they gave me, it was not as sharp as I am looking in the picture…




VF: …they were not tied to… this lieutenant, Puerto Rican lieutenant because he showed me the third division and the Puerto Rican “Garita”, that I have in my shoulder, they told me you don’t look like a soldier, and I say: “well sir I come from Korea…




VF: …and I’m lucky that I am here now, you say you were from Fort Benning, Georgia, you just graduated from Fort Benning Georgia, you’re going to go to Korea now, and in Korea the first one that goes in front are the lieutenant’s, second lieutenants, when you’re fighting the second lieutenant is the leader, that is in front…


I: Yeah.


VF: …and that’s the guy that gets killed first”.




I: Yeah.


VF: So, I told him: “I hope you can make it back”


I: Hmm.


VF: I made it back, I had problem with him because he was coming to Puerto Rico too, and there was a list of 17 seats and he was number 17, but when I came I had…




VF: …emergency leave 1A, that the only one that can bounce you from the plane is the president of the United States, so, when I came and make number one and he was 17 he was stand by…


I: Hahaha.


VF: He something happened that…


I: He hated you.


VF: No, something happens or when he found that out…




VF: …that I was number one and he was stunned by, something happened that one soldier didn’t showed up and he made the plane.


I: Oh. Ok.


VF: Went to Puerto Rico. I landed in Aguadilla from there I found a friend of mine that was in the Air Force it was a Sergeant, he told me: “were you going from? where you go coming from?” I said: “from Korea but I’m home” …




VF: …and he said: “Yeah, the letters here it says you will arrive in Puerto Rico on or about, it doesn’t say the date, so I’m going to give you a fake ID, you go to Mayaguez, and from Mayaguez go to Ponce, stay at home two or three days or a week and they go to for Buchanan” …




VF: …and that’s, that’s what I did.


I: You are lucky man.


VF: And when I went to Buchanan, that I presented myself the Sergeant there told me, he say: “where you come from?”, and I said: “from Mobile Airforce Base Alabama” and they told me: “there was no flights because I am the one in charge that goes to pick the people in Aguadilla”…




VF: …who shows up?”, that lieutenant.


I: Hahaha.


VF: And he looked at me, the name is Piñero as I did remember, and he lies he said: “Ace, lieutenant you know what this PFCs telling me that he arrived today?”, and he say “Well, he arrived with me a couple of weeks ago in the same…”


I: Same flight.




VF: And then they, they put me in trouble. 


I: Yeah right.


VF: Because they say that I was a wall. 


I: Yeah.


VF: And they presented charges in my discharge, I proved them that I was not a wall I just didn’t they made the connections.


I: Did your wife know that you were returning?


VF: My wife?


I: Yeah.




VF: That I…


I: Returning from Korea to see her in Puerto Rico did your wife knew that?


VF: Oh yes, she knew.


I: Okay, what did you say to her when you first came back from Korea?


VF: The first thing I said: “where is the baby? I want to see my baby”.


I: Hmm. You told me about the Pusan, so many people were in a miserable condition, when you left Korea…




I: …when was it actually? when you left Korea? when was it? 1953?


VF: No 1953. 1953 yeah.


I: Did you have any hope about the future of Korea at the time when you left?


VF: No.


I: What were you thinking about the future of Korea?


VF: No, I was thinking about not going back…




VF: …Well, I was afraid to go back on my second, because from Puerto Rico they were going to they put… they got the orders and they told me you ‘re going back to Korea, and then I landed in Camp Kilmer New Jersey. And in Camp Kilmer, there was the first group of the 66th infantry that they were coming back from Korea, and they were in Camp Kilmer…




VF: …in there they called them, “the not speak” because they said: “I don’t speak English, I don’t speak” so I am there with them and then I tell the Captain:  “Captain I can speak the language so I can be your interpreter”, and this Puerto Rican troops, the Puerto Rican they call me all kinds of names, they cost me…




VF: …I am telling you, and I said: “listen you’re going back to Puerto Rico and going back to Korea I want to go with you to Puerto Rico and they send me as an interpreter and then I came to Puerto Rico with the first troops that they were released from Korea. 


I: You know now Korea is very…


VF: Ha… they…




VF: …I work for a Jewish guy that he was also in in Korea, very rich Jewish guy, and he went about ten years ago…


I: Hmm.


VF: To Korean and he told me: “you don’t know how prosperous is South Korea”…




VF: …I never have an opportunity to go back.


I: So, what do you think about this great transformation from the seeing of Pusan you saw, so miserable, now it’s one of the largest economy in the world, 11th largest economy in the world.


VF: Yeah, but you have a very good friend up North that Kang Kum…


I: Hahaha, what do you think that how is it possible? what do you think about that transformation?


VF: Well…




VF: …I tell you; it was for the better because they are hardworking people, the Koreans are a smart people.


I: How do you know?


VF: With the time I was there, I used to see them on the rice…




VF: …on the farms in the rice, they were working day and night, even in the hills they produce. They were hard-working people, they never said no, I don’t know how they could carry so much load on their back, I don’t know if it is a special thing that they do.




I: A frame.


VF: A frame they can carry hundreds of pounds.


I: Yeah. So, you think that it is not surprising or what? what are you saying? 


VF: I would like to go back to Korea, to Pusan, that will be… let’s see if I win the lottery…




VF: …I go back there.


I: You know what, Korean government has a program called re-visit Korea…


VF: Yeah?


I: … and they provide everything almost free at least, and I think you just pay thirty percent of… thirty percent of fifty percent of the airfare, that’s it.


VF: Yeah, put me on that! put me on that list, I think I will…




VF: …Go with me the next guy you’re going to interview.


I: Oh yeah.


VF: That’s Jose Luis… Jose Luis Irizarri, he fought, that’s an engineer him, that’s a rich guy, he doesn’t need it, he is a very rich man.


I: What do you think about your service for Korean War?




VF: Well, I’m very proud of it, they gave me… I was looking for my medals, they were… but I couldn’t find them I don’t know where I put them, but on my discharge, it said the medals they gave me.


I: You are not organized. You’re proud?


VF: I’m very proud yeah, that at least I put a little….




VF: …little share that they fought the community, but I would like to see this guy in there if they can get rid of him.


I: No, no, no, you’re not you don’t want to see him. 


VF: I watched on internet how Korea is now.




I: Tell me about it what did you see?


VF: Well, how modern they are, but they also show how is the North Korea, the North Korea they said is very… it has a lot of poverty, only a few people on the top level are the one that are living good.




I: That is your legacy. That is what you did, you went to country you never knew before, you fought for them and you gave us opportunity to rebuild our nation.


VF: Yeah.


I: Now South Korea is 11th largest economy in the world, seventh largest trading partner to the United States, we are the largest shipbuilder, LindoWalter.


VF: Listen, tell me something about it…




VF: …that I read I was thinking that they… yesterday, there is a place in North Korea that, how is it that, explain me.  


I: Kaesong Industrial Complex, it’s at north of DMZ in Songdo, no, no, no, Kaesong and North Korean provide the land and labor, and we invested on it with the technology…




I: …So, it’s an industrial complex, but because North Korea tests the missiles and nuclear…


VF: Yeah Correct.


I: …so that we withdraw and closed it so there are a lot of noise there, that’s what’s happening, okay? But that’s the legacy, you did it, you protected against the communism, you know, so that South Korea is now prosperous North Korea one of the most…




I: …isolated country with the poverty, so, that’s why it is important to teach what you did to our young children.


VF: My question will be this do you think South Korea… I know they were well prepared… 


I: He’s now interviewing me. 


VF: But I am thinking one of these days…




VF: …North Korea will invade South Korea. 


I: They may, we don’t want that to be happening, but we are ready now. We are ready, it will the destructive war but we’re going to win because South Korean economy is strong and US forces still there, so I don’t think they will attempt to do it unless they want to suicide, but if they do…




I: …we are ready to repel them and completely destroy them so.


VF: Probably the US is getting very close to China because…


I: Exactly that’s what’s happening.


VF: That’s what it’s happening because, they should be because the Chinese who will go again with no Korea there.


I: You are very smart huh. you’re asking me questions, any other thing that you want to add to this interview?




VF: No, it’s have being a pleasure for me, I’m very proud of…like you said, of being part of it, Korea, I didn’t fought personally, but with the work I did…


I: Yeah.


VF: …in my opinion I think…


I: Everybody has their own place…




I: …in war, in everything, in society and you did your job.


VF: And then after I got licensed, I had the opportunity to come to the University, I finish the at the Catholic University here in Ponce, I finish my bachelor’s degree in commerce, that I do, I am…




VF: …well, I got a good job, I learned the trade of leather factory, I have the opportunity to speak the language daily, and that’s it.


I: Now you rich man.


VF: Well, I’m not rich…




VF: …but I have a… I can make a living. 


I: Some millions in my bank, right? Just kidding.


VF: I have a good gas station, Shell gas station, very few properties so I…


I: Very successful.


VF: Yeah, but I want to go back to Korea.


I: Yes. we’ll make that happening, okay? So thank you very much again…




I: …for your fight for the Korea, and I hope that you can make a revisit to Korea and Pusan, you’re not going to believe your eyes, I just been there Pusan, oh my goodness is clearly, completely transformed, even to my eyes, I’ve been to Busan so many times and the last time that I was there, I was last year and I couldn’t believe my eyes.


VF: You know where I got back…




VF: …I was in the port of Pusan, there were so many hundred ships waiting to unload, what happened in the North that they… there was a sabotage or something that they blowed up the tanks of gasoline and it was the river instead of water it was flames, that came and then in the port of Pusan, and you see…




VF: …you see the flames on top of the water and the ships were burning.


I: When you were there?


VF: I was taking pictures and then a special an MP came and took my camera, he smashed it and confiscated… but I lost those pictures, but it was terrific, it was very… Well sir, for e has been a pleasure…




VF: …I would like if you can give me your…


I: I will give to you.


VF: …your name and I will give you my…


I: Sit, sit. Mr. Vargas Frances…


VF: Franceschi. 


I: Great honor and pleasure to talk with you, and I want to thank you again, okay?


VF: Thank you.


I: Thank you.


VF: Thank you


[End of Recorded Material]