General Richard Cavazos and the Korean War, 1953: A Study in Combat Leadership

By Graves, Thomas C. | Military Review, July-August 2012 | Go to article overview

General Richard Cavazos and the Korean War, 1953: A Study in Combat Leadership


Graves, Thomas C., Military Review


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BY 1952, the war in Korea had settled into something that more closely resembled World War I than the fluid movement of World War II. The front lines of the opponents, the Republic of Korea and United States in the south and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and China in the north, had more or less stabilized along a front that wound from the East Sea to the West Sea at around the 38th parallel. This line ebbed and flowed both north and south as peace talks continued at Panmunjon--with both sides using offensive or defensive actions to strengthen their position in the negotiations. Into this stalemated war, the Army sent a young lieutenant and placed him in a unit recovering from a tragic episode. The lieutenant, Richard Cavazos, would command a company with distinction and demonstrate the combat leadership that eventually earned him four stars as the first Hispanic promoted to full general in the United States Army. (1)

The 65th Infantry Regiment

The Borinqueneers of the 65th Infantry Regiment, Puerto Rican National Guard, arrived in Korea early in the war. Sent straight from Puerto Rico, the regiment quickly pushed into the Naktong Bulge where it was attached to the 2nd Infantry Division. Arriving almost simultaneously with the Inchon landing and the breakout from the Naktong Bulge, the regiment gained valuable combat experience as it accompanied the 2nd Division (and for a short time the 25th Infantry Division) north of the 38th parallel. Eventually earning accolades for its actions at the Hamhung Peninsula, the regiment was critical in supporting the seaborne evacuation of the U.S. X Corps in December 1950 after the Chinese intervened and forced the corps to redeploy to the south. (2)

The regiment continued to fight for the remainder of the war primarily assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division as the "division's fourth regiment" and gradually gaining experience among its noncommissioned officer corps and soldiers. (3) The unit struggled at times with discrimination that was typical of the Army of the 1940s and 1950s. This was compounded by the fact that many of the soldiers could not speak English, which required orders to be translated to Spanish into make them clear--a process often not accomplished in time to execute the operation. Despite these difficulties, the unit performed well up until October 1952 when it came under tremendous scrutiny during the Outpost (OP) Jackson fight along the stabilized front. (4)

Throughout 1952, the bulk of the regiment's NCO corps rotated back to Puerto Rico after completion of normal tour of duty requirements, and the new leaders in the regiment were not prepared to lead soldiers in battle. Many of them did not speak Spanish and had tremendous difficulty communicating with their subordinates--much less inspiring them under the violent conditions that existed along the front lines. The combination of new leadership, new soldiers, and poor communications led to wholesale panic on the night of 26 October 1952 during the battle of OP Jackson. Many of the unit's soldiers simply fled the battlefield. The aftermath of this episode resulted in the court martial of over 90 soldiers assigned to the regiment. (5) In his subsequent inquiry, Major John S.D. Eisenhower, the son of the soon-to-be president and an operations officer in the 15th Regiment, detailed to conduct the investigation, recommended that the unit be either returned immediately to Puerto Rico or be disbanded and reconstituted with "continentals" (a euphemism for officers and noncommissioned officers from the continental United States, which translated to mean caucasian officers in the still white-centric U.S. Army of the late 1940s and early 1950s) in key leadership positions. The division commander concurred with the report and requested reconstitution from the Eighth Army commanding general, Lieutenant General James Van Fleet. The unit was officially reconstituted in March 1953. …

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