Men who answered the “why?”: The American soldier
***This article was originally written at the behest of MoH recipient Gen. Raymond Davis, USMC ret., and he had a segment of it run in Graybeards magazine two years ago.***
PFC Ricardo Carrasco is a name that I have determined will not fall into the anonymity of the abyss of time.
Well, I’m not sure I’m wise enough to answer such a simply complicated question, but I love a challenge and will at least make the attempt.
One would think that Ricardo’s story would be explanation enough. I agree; however, it sat for forty years collecting dust and slowly fading from memories. This disturbed me greatly. How could so perfect, so beautiful a sacrifice be forgotten?
I came to find out that it was forgotten because the full story had never been known in the first place. The truth of it was more stunning, more inspiring than anything man could have imagined.
Ricardo Carrasco arrived in Korea and landed on Old Baldy Hill in late March, 1953, just in time to join Company “A” of the 32nd Infantry Regiment of the 7th Division in a battle extraordinaire against Chinese Communist Forces. Baldy and its sister, the infamous Pork Chop Hill, would be his world for the next three months. He was 19, and had lived all of his life in El Paso, TX. Born during the depression and raised during WWII, Ricardo would cut his teeth on this first war against communism. He was the sixth of eight kids, and had wanted to be a career soldier like those men he had so admired in the newsreels of WWII. He received a terrible blow when he learned he could not be part of his beloved 82nd Airborne as he’d always dreamed; he was slightly nearsighted, and with no particular skills, was assigned to the infantry.
He was cocky at boot camp; his letters gently teasing friends back home for not volunteering like he had. But his first day in Korea knocked the macho right out of him. His letters home now begged friends not to join up. He was terrified and a million miles from those he loved. He wanted nothing more than to go home. He never could have imagined that the opportunity would present itself on a silver platter.
Director Owen Crump knew war. He had filmed much of WWII in the Army Air Corps and was a full-bird by the end of the war. However, something about this new war ate at him, and he finally realized what it was. They weren’t showing the whole picture. He wanted to do just that, but wasn’t sure how. His inspiration came in the form of a newspaper article written by Scripps-Howard war correspondent Jim Lucas. One simple line would instigate a movie: ” It was a quiet day on the front with limited patrol action.” Knowing war as he did, Crump knew there was no such thing as a “quiet day” for front-line soldiers. He wondered how those front-liners would write that line, and decided to do it for them. He had a revolutionary idea.
Crump approached Paramount Pictures producer Hal Wallis for help. He pitched his idea for the first movie ever filmed entirely on the front lines of a war. It would be in black and white to give it a documentary feel. Every soldier would be played by-of all things-a real front-line solder. No actors for this movie. Every explosion, every bullet would be the real, government-issued thing. Wallis loved the idea, and sent Crump and a skeletal crew to Korea to pick their men for the movie’s plot.
The movie was to be set on the last day of the war. A squad of 13 men, knowing that the cease fire would be declared that night, must still take a hill and set up an observation post. These are the most intense, most frightening moments of any war; everyone knows it’s over, but the bullets are still flying. Crump wanted to show the heartbreak of coming so close to the end, then dying anyway. He wanted the world to know the loss. One of the Americans in the fiction movie would die within hours of that cease fire.
Crump hand-picked his 13 American soldiers and one ROK soldier to play their parts. Among them was PFC Ricardo Carrasco. He would be the American to die in the movie.
Ricardo was livid at being chosen for the movie, but it was written up as a TDY, so he obeyed and went. He’d been squad leader when Crump had informed him of his new assignment, and he worried incessantly about his men. It was mid-June, 1953, and everyone knew the summer would out-live this war. It was over. But Ricardo knew of the Chinese desire to take Pork Chop, where he was fighting, and their habit of nighttime attacks. Every morning at the War Correspondents Building in Seoul-where the cast and crew were staying–he would run to a reporter and ask if the Chinese had attacked Pork Chop yet. Every night his prayers were the same: Please, God. Please don’t let the Chinese attack before I can get back. So far, he had been “lucky”-at least in his way of thinking. He knew that hill, and he knew the horror. The thought of his “fellahs,” as he called them, fighting and dying while he was getting the star treatment sickened him. He felt that he was shirking his duties, letting down his friends. The war had become for Ricardo what it becomes for all good men: it was no longer about democracy, America, or even the damned hill-it was about his love for his friends. He could never live with himself if one of them died in his place or because he wasn’t there to help. His love over-ruled his fear.
The rumors of Chinese amassing around Pork Chop flew as the filming began. Every day Ricardo begged Crump to “kill” his character off so he could get back to his fellahs. Every day Crump told him they weren’t ready to film that scene yet. The other soldier/actors puzzled over this quiet, moody young man who had the opportunity of a lifetime. They loved this life! Good food served to them on tablecloths, by waiters no less, plenty of booze, and no one trying to kill them. They could not figure the kid out.
Still he continued to pester the director, who firmly reminded him that he was to obey his orders. Crump liked the kid, but couldn’t reckon him. Maybe he loved the battle and terror, or maybe he was bucking for a promotion or a medal. Or maybe it was like he said; that his friends were up there. Crump figured the problem would be solved one day in early July when he received a wire from producer Hal Wallis. Wallis had seen the first rushes of the movie and had been so impressed by one young man in particular that he wanted Crump to get the boy to sign a contract with Paramount. Wallis knew a star when he saw one. In fact, in Hollywood he was referred to as “The Starmaker”; everyone he’d ever tagged to be a star had become one. And now he had Ricardo Carrasco pegged as the next star he would mold and create.
Crump grinned as he ordered Ricardo aside from the other men. As he explained that Hal Wallis wanted to make the young man a star, he held his breath and waited for the reaction: a yelp, weak knees, all the color draining from his face…something to indicate his shock and excitement. But Ricardo stood still, the only movement being that of his head slightly lowering. Crump furrowed his brow, but before he could say anything, Ricardo spoke.
“No thank you, sir.”
Now it was Crump who lost all color. He asked for an explanation. How could this kid turn down such an incredible offer from the most powerful producer in Hollywood? And how the hell was he supposed to tell Wallis?
At first Ricardo skirted the question, simply saying that it was time to get back and they didn’t really need him here to make the movie, even though his part was a pivotal one. Crump could see that it was something else, and finally pried it out of the boy. Why did he want his character killed ahead of schedule? Why was he turning down once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to go back and fight in a war that would be over in a matter of days now? Why had he nagged the director from day one to get back to the mud and the digging and the fighting and the dying?
Ricardo’s voice was low and husky. After an eternity, he raised his head up and looked the director in the eye. He just had to go back. Crump had to let him go back. The director was angry now. Was the kid a martyr? Why was he beating a dead horse? Ricardo’s explanation would do little to quell his angst and frustration with this odd young man.
He told Crump that the men at the front were under his command. There was no hiding the tenderness he felt toward those men, or the responsibility. He pleaded with the director to let him go back and help his friends in the final battle he knew was brewing on Pork Chop. That was infinitely more important to him than a movie. The respect and safety of his fellahs meant so much more. He could not bear the thought of them up there, fighting and dying, while he was back in a safety zone being treated like royalty. It was not right.
Crump and Carrasco argued for the next hour. The director finally gave up and dismissed the private. He wired back to Hal Wallis that his offer had been declined.
Wallis was furious. He’d never been turned down before, especially not by a punk kid on some glory kick! But after he calmed down, he decided that since the war was going to be over soon, he’d give the boy a chance to serve his country and fulfill his sense of obligation; then he’d bring him home and make him Audy Murphy.
The young, lone private continued to ask the director to kill him off, in spite of that scene being about two weeks away. Crump finally gave up. They began shooting his death scene that same week, and finished the close-ups on the morning of July 6. Ricardo was enormously relieved when he learned that the Chinese had not yet made the rumored attack on Pork Chop, but he knew his luck would not hold for long. So that very afternoon he insisted on going back. Fellow actor Otis Wright drove the jeep, cussing Ricardo out the whole way for being a “damned fool.” But Ricardo was quiet, only smiling or nodding his head, occasionally speaking of his mother. They arrived in the late afternoon; Ricardo turned to wave goodbye over his shoulder. His “luck” had held; he was back with his men before the final assault. He let out a sigh of relief. He’d made it back in time…but barely.
After darkness fell, Chinese Communist Forces began the final attack on Pork Chop Hill. It was brutal, and the cost for it would be high. So high, in fact, that American military leaders made a moral decision to pull off on July 10, only four days later.
It would not be in time for Ricardo. At about 2330 that night of July 6, a scant nine hours after wrapping up his movie death, a mortar round took out the left side of his head, wrapping up his life. Not many men can say they died twice in one day.
I don’t know what happened that night. Oh, I have the casualty report and some documentation. But what has made the past twelve years of research into this story so agonizing is that I’ve yet to find anyone who knew Ricardo and was with him that night. I must find someone. I must know if his going back made any difference to them that night. More importantly, I want them to know what Ricardo sacrificed to be there for them. Through my research and tracking down men, I have been astonished to learn that none of his fellow temporary thespians knew that he had been offered that contract from Wallis. I’m willing to bet that the men for whom he sacrificed such an opportunity do not know just how much he gave up to be there with them that night. I’ll bet they don’t know that he didn’t have to be there that night, wasn’t supposed to be there that night, and had nagged and pestered and “killed” himself off early so he could be there that night. I’ll bet they don’t know the eeriness of him dying in both “reel” life and “real” life, on the very same day. I’ll bet they don’t know that he did what he did out of his love and concern for them. I’ll bet they don’t know why.
“Cease Fire!”, as it would be titled, came out in November of 1953 with its all- soldier cast. Most of the men were flown to the New York and Los Angeles premieres in high style. They appeared on Ed Sullivan and the Gary Moore Show. But Ricardo was rarely mentioned. Out of respect for the Carrasco family, Crump re-shot the death scene later using an extra. He knew that watching her son die on the screen would be too much for Mrs. Carrasco to bear. He also edited Ricardo out of as many places as he could in the film, but his part was too important. He could not be totally eliminated.
Mrs. Carrasco took it hard. In one of his last letters home discussing the making of the movie, Ricardo had written a line that now seemed ominous and foreboding: “Don’t worry when you see me die, Mom, it’s only acting.” Her heart broke, and 18 months later, she, too died. She was only 47.
Paramount would be there to film Gen. Mark Clark signing the armistice only 21 days after Ricardo died. At one of their last meals together, the cast and crew of “Cease Fire!” raised their glasses to “the one who isn’t here.” He was rarely mentioned thereafter.
Why would he go back to fight in a war that was over anyway? He had been under orders; no one would have thought less of him. In fact, no one had expected him back before the end of the war. They assumed when he was chosen in mid-June that he would be gone the rest of the summer. So why did he go back to fight in a war that was almost over, however tenuous that ending might be? Why would God allow one such as Ricardo to give up so much, but have his sacrifice virtually unknown by the very ones for whom he did everything? I’ve pondered that long and hard myself.
I once listened with great interest to a man explain his interpretation of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. The question had been posed: If God is omniscient, then he knew what Abraham would do. He knew this faithful son loved Him more than even his own long-promised son, and would give him up at his Father’s command. Then why the test at all? Why did God ask Abraham to do what He already knew he would do?
Then came the answer that to me seemed so perfect, so beautiful in its simplicity that it had to be right. God had to prove to Abraham just how strong he was. It wasn’t that God doubted Abraham’s capability…it was that being mortal, Abraham doubted himself. Abraham had to know what Abraham could do. Like everything God does, it was not for His benefit, but for ours. I loved it! This was so very characteristic of our Father in Heaven…to show us, weak as we are, that we have within the seeds of godhood, Deity’s DNA. That we are capable of turning evil that we do or that is done against us into something divine is what makes us most like God; a “God Moment,” as I often call magnanimous acts of mere mortal men.
This analogy is the warrior spirit defined. I have always felt that man is at his most spiritual when he is at war. Now this puzzles many who have heard me say this. Surely war is an evil, murderous event in our existence for which we are punished by God, right? How can it then also be good?
I have been studying the men of the Korean War for twelve years now. These valiant servants of both God and man hesitate to speak of what they’ve seen, what they’ve done. I have seen their tears, slow and trembling on the edge of graying eyelashes, slipping down care-worn cheeks as they recount their tales of war. I have strained to hear their voices, so low with the agony of this cross they bear. Many of their tears are for the brutality and horror inherent in war…the dead and mangled bodies of beloved friends, boys barely old enough to shave now forever frozen in time, never aging another moment in the memories of those who watched them die.
But what has touched me most is their anguish at what they hesitate to share…and that is the memories of what that war forced them to do. These gentle men, who lovingly cup the face of a child or make love with tenderness and sincerity to the woman they adore, sob over the clear and unforgiving images of those they were forced to kill. It is the memories of these long gone screams, these tears, this enemy pain that haunt them most as the years go by. For all of the hatred and anger they may have felt against the enemy, it is still a hard thing to kill another man. However they may have understood the need to kill the enemy, the need to win the war, the price they pay is still the greatest to bear. They did what they had to do, and would do it again if faced with it, but the price such action exacts from a tender soul is no small thing.
This is a most glorious testament to manhood and the warrior spirit…that they bear this arduous burden with quiet dignity so those they love won’t have to. The beauty of this selfless act leaves me in awe. I have long understood the willingness to die for a friend…after all, that is the epitome of what Christ did, and for which we mortals strive. He died that we might live. But those who must live with the memories not only of dead friends but butchered enemies are the closest we, as weak, wretched beings born into this veil of tears, can ever come to knowing what Christ bore. The memories of war are the price that the good man pays; it is out of his deep love for others that he spares them this particular agony. It is perhaps summed up best this way: Upon these two laws doth every commandment hinge-that we love God, and that we love each other. There is no better example on earth of this unconditional love than the American soldier. They would die for their friends, true, but even more heart-breaking and remarkable about such men is that they also live with what they’ve had to do.
The Korean War Veterans who went on to live instead of dying on that distant soil are acutely aware of such suffering. They came home to nothing-no “Thank you’s”, no recognition-just nothingness. America acted as if the Korean War had never happened, in spite of it being the only war from the twentieth century that is still being waged. This was unimaginable to these men who had seen WWII and the honor bestowed upon their fathers, their older brothers, or even themselves. Their homeland wouldn’t even give them the decorum of calling their campaign a war. And yet it is a direct result of what they gave-and gave up-for what they believed and for those they loved that made possible my own existence. I sit and write today because of what they stood and gave yesterday.
Is the soldier man at his most base animal or most spiritual God? Is it the monster coming out in us, or the Deity weaving its way in? This is what I see when I look into the eyes of our warrior brethren. Thrown into the most horrifying concoction of man’s inhumanity to man, it is the fact that these mortals are capable of such unselfish, beautiful acts of humanity-no, Divinity-that reaches the heart and soul of those left behind in a dust-cloud of wonder. Of all God’s children, surely He must relate to and glory over the American soldier.
Greatest of all warriors on earth, the American soldier is capable of fighting fiercely, loving gently, living nobly, and forgiving totally. These are not the war-mongers that feminists and Hollywood have tried desperately to portray; these are gentle, loving creatures who want nothing more than to be free to go on living and loving. It is this desire that enables our brothers to choose to step out of their own selfish tendencies on behalf of another.
Just like with Abraham, God was showing Ricardo just how good, how magnificent he truly was capable of becoming. God was willing to sacrifice His son because He knew there were good men out there likeAbraham and Ricardo-and most good soldiers–and he wanted them back with Him. Whether it requires dying for a friend or living with the memories, the order of the day for the American soldier is and always has been that of sacrifice. For them, “life, fortune, and sacred honor” are not only words. They know this meaning by their wounded hearts; no one has to tell them why.
“Published originally at EtherZone.com : republication allowed with this notice and hyperlink intact.”