Imagine two people—son-in-law and father-in-law—sitting in a microvan. Both are surprised and chagrined to be living in Texas. And now we are going on an all-day medical field trip together.
At age 82, my suegro, Solomon Cordova, Jr., relied on a walker. His family helped him move around Austin in a world he struggled to see.
In the spring of 2015, his doctor at the Veteran’s Administration recommended cataract surgery, but the budget-limited VA made this straightforward procedure only available in Temple, Texas. It’s a town just east of Fort Hood, the largest active-duty fort in the country.
We faced eight round trips to the Temple VA, including the preoperative visits, the surgeries, and the post-op. That was 80 miles north of our home in Austin, Texas. The only way this disabled octogenarian veteran could attain his medical benefits added up to 1,300 miles of driving and multiple adjustments to our family work schedules.
My partner, Cary Cordova (Sol’s only daughter) and I committed to the task. None of us wanted an extended road trip.
During this one trip, thought, I decided to learn more about his military service during Korea. In particular, I wanted to know about a journey he took circumnavigating the globe. Maybe I would learn something about what many historians call “the forgotten war.” The Korean War after all is an ongoing stalemate overshadowed in public memory by the victory of World War II and the tragedy of Vietnam.
We spent our car rides remembering Sol’s travels around the globe and the ways this forgotten war never left his memory. His 1951 travels to Algeria, Vietnam, Korea, and Puerto Rico on the General William Mitchell marked the ways the Korean War never stayed in Korea, and the ways its activities forever changed so many lives.
This is a crónica of Sol’s journey through shifting and moving empires, decolonization movements, and the broad international military mobilizations that emerged after World War II. The Korean War forced his move out into the world outside of the United States; his service with the Navy raised his consciousness of colonial rule in East Asia and the Mediterranean.
The Korean War started thanks to simmering class conflict in Korea under Japanese rule. Those tensions boiled over while Korea was under Soviet and American control. In June 1950, the communist Korean People’s Army (KPA) moved south and almost took full control of Korea by August 1950. The United States then re-deployed the majority of American armed forces to Korea from their stations in Europe, the United States, and Japan.
This effort pushed the KPA back past the Chinese border. The Chinese army, worried about the fate of their Korean allies and the breach of the Chinese border, joined the KPA and pushed American, South Korean, and United Nations forces back to a mountainous region just north of Seoul. By November 1950, the ground war settled at approximately the 38th parallel. After five months of open fire under cold and wintry conditions in Korea, U.S. troops needed replenishment. Calls for additional troops—volunteers and draftees—echoed across the United States.
The Cold War had heated up.
In December 1950, sensing the imminent arrival of a draft notice into the U.S. Army, and knowing the ways brown people often served as cannon fodder, Sol enlisted in the U.S. Navy. His draft notice arrived a week later. On January 26, 1951, Solomon got on a train in Albuquerque, N.M., and left for Philadelphia for training to become a boiler operator for the U.S. Navy.
The first trip east from Albuquerque struck Sol with awe. At each stop, “High schoolers greeted us, waving flags, blowing kisses” at each stop, Sol remembered. “I had never experienced anything like this in my life.”
Being received by cheers was new. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Sol’s family had traveled from Albuquerque to Denver to seek work and visit relatives. Sol recalled open racial hostility and a broad anti-Mexican attitude in Denver.
During World War II, his mother left for Los Angeles to work in an airplane factory, to be a Rosita the Riveter. She took Sol and his brother Richard along with her. The principal at Arroyo Seco Elementary blocked Sol and his brother Richard from enrolling because “they spoke Spanish” and, as Richard recalled, they “did not believe we were American.”
His father, a politically active member of Albuquerque’s New Deal Democratic Party and a union rep for the Southern Pacific, challenged the principal’s decision. The father won.
Solomon and his younger brother Richard integrated the school. In his high school years in Albuquerque, Sol Cordova became a starting center for the Albuquerque High School football team.
“And I only weighed 120 pounds,” he said.
This was a point of pride.
When he traveled east and south of Albuquerque with his multi-ethnic football teammates, the team confronted the violent protection of white privilege. Schools in Roswell, Las Cruces, and Clovis refused to play Albuquerque High because they had black, Native American, and Mexican players. Being “one of the boys” in a nation at war provided a much warmer way of arriving brown in American towns.
The Navy also put Sol into contact with the work of empire, the labor it took to bring American democracy to a newly independent Korea. After completing his training in Philadelphia, he took another train ride to the San Francisco Bay Area.
In April 1951, he joined the crew of the General William Mitchell while it underwent maintenance in Vallejo. He left on the 12th of April for his first cross-Pacific troop transport to Yokohama, Japan. He crossed the ocean two more times on this tour, finally getting a week-long break in Vallejo on the 22nd of May.
Spending 16 hours below deck in the boiler room was “frightening,” he remembered.
“The ship moved. The aisles were small. And you could slip and fall who knows how far,” he said. “Those were miserable weeks.”
Sol moved back and forth keeping the engine going. The General William Mitchell carried exhausted troops from the front lines and fresh recruits and “rested” soldiers to Korea. This Pacific crossing even included a journey across the Panama Canal to the newly established Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. This mass movement of brown men pointed to a broader American absorption into what historian Bruce Cumings calls the “hot spots of the Cold War”—Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.
Political developments in Europe propelled Sol’s journey across the Atlantic to these Cold War hot spots. His departure from New York on July 7, 1951, brought out the cross-imperial work of the U.S. Navy.
“We left New York for Bremerhaven, that’s Hamburg, to pick up ex-S.S. troops,” Sol told me. “They had fought on the Eastern Front. Real sons-o-bitches.”
I found it difficult to understand why the United States was picking up Nazis. Sol’s recollection unveiled a second career for these Nazi soldiers in French colonial enterprises. His trip east to Algeria and Vietnam exposed European entanglements that eventually brought the United States into direct military conflict with Vietnamese national ambitions.
France, humbled by German victories, wanted to recreate a pre-war French Empire and demanded American collaboration with their colonial ambitions in exchange for French cooperation with NATO. However, in Vietnam (French Indochina), urban uprisings and increasingly successful guerrilla operations drastically undercut French aspirations.
The French military command wanted to move troops from North Africa to Vietnam to put down the multi-tiered uprisings in French Indochina, but it still needed a military presence in Algeria. The French military also faced increasing problems recruiting soldiers to die for the empire.
France adopted a two-tiered strategy: first, French military authorities started recruiting ex-Nazi soldiers—in this case, Nazi veterans from the Eastern Front—into the Foreign Legion. Second, France also demanded that the United States help move Foreign Legion recruits to its colonies in Africa and East Asia. The General William Mitchell moved these Nazi troops from Hamburg to the port of Oran to help France maintain and strengthen military control over Algeria and then French Indochina (Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam).
French colonial ambitions and Truman’s commitment to NATO as a bulwark against Soviet interests triggered this journey across the Atlantic and then across the world.
The General William Mitchell also picked up a division of the Arab Legion in Algeria. This was a much friendlier transport. For Sol, the Arab troops had “the goats. The music. They wanted to share their food and company. They were fun. Good people.”
The troopship took the Suez Canal and traveled the sea route built by British maritime muscle. The Suez “was amazing,” Sol said. “Our ship sailing through a desert. Just sand on both sides. A desert.”
The move to the Indian Ocean gave him more time on deck and in port.
The time on deck in the Indian Ocean gave Sol time to see the colonies Britain and France engineered for themselves on the edges of the Indian Ocean. He remembered the poverty in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) from the Royal Navy port in Colombo, a country still openly contesting the terms of independence imposed by Britain.
From there, he went to Saigon, and then on to Haiphong (Northern Vietnam). The General William Mitchell brought Sol’s “good people” in the Arab Legion and the “real sons-o-bitches” in the Foreign Legion to the front lines of a dying empire in Northern Vietnam.
It is likely many of the ex-S.S. went on to another major defeat at Dien Bien Phu, the three-month-long battle that forced France to surrender and give up control of Vietnam. For Sol, someone who grew up Hispanic in the poorest state in the nation during the Great Depression, his empathy with the “desperate poverty in these places” was the strongest memory he shared of this journey.
The General William Mitchell then sailed to Korea on September 7,1951, and ended up playing a small part in a larger drama involving Puerto Rican soldiers in the U.S. Army. In the fall of 1951, after a year being deployed up-and-down the Korean Peninsula, battling Chinese and KPA troops across North Korea, and facing another frigid and wet winter, the 65th regiment – the Borinqueneers – grew a little reticent about increased hand-to-hand combat. Moreover, although the war established immobile battle lines in Korean mountains, there was still an ongoing war of attrition between Chinese soldiers and American battalions over control of different hills and peaks.
These battles for control gave officers professional rewards. Enlisted men died but did not share in the rewards. When the regiment received an order to re-take a hill they had recently abandoned, the majority refused. The U.S. Army court martialed 95 members.
“The regiment who had captured more territory, spent most days under fire, and experienced fewer desertions than any other regiment,” according to historian Sylvia Alvarez Curbelo.
The military achievements of the Borinqueneers reflected positively on the recently elevated commonwealth status of Puerto Rico in the American firmament; their rebellion indicated their refusal to accept the miserable terms of their service.
The U.S. Army asked the Navy to move these dissenting soldiers to bases in Kobo and California, where they could be tried properly and court martialed. The General William Mitchell transported some of these soldiers to Japan and California.
Sol remembered the desperate sadness of the soldiers and that he and the other shipmates did not treat them well at first.
“They kept on trying to speak Spanish to me, and I refused,” Sol said. “We refused.”
Over time, between Kobo and San Francisco, Sol relented, and spent more time listening to their stories. After a large popular outcry and a massive campaign coordinated in Puerto Rico by recently elected Governor Luis Muńoz Marin, the Army “listened to what they had to say” and rescinded all the sentences by 1954.
Because of Truman’s commitment to NATO and the rollback portions of the containment doctrine, Sol gained first-hand experience and an intimate global knowledge of the labor it takes to paper over the fractures and fault lines of imperial authority. On January 15, 1952, the General William Mitchell made it to San Francisco, and Sol ended his 180-day, 34,000-mile journey around the world, across imperial boundaries, transporting colonial labor, and witnessing the fracturing of imperial authority in East Asia.
Sol’s journey into areas that had been European or Asian imperial possessions was not unique in New Mexico. The famed Rough Riders of the Spanish American War recruited heavily among New Mexico cattle hands. After World War I, the U.S. Army disproportionately stationed New Mexican soldiers in the Philippines. Because of these decisions, the battle of Corregidor and the long march to Bataan meant something to almost every family in New Mexico.
Sol told me of the sense of possibility, of learning that he was part of a larger world, and of his place in the world. For four years, Sol took breaks in Yokohama and San Francisco, and he learned to appreciate both cities. He, and by extension Hispanic New Mexico, became part of the multi-ethnic world. But, New Mexico has a long colonial history as a multi-ethnic Spanish and then a U.S. military frontier. This intimate reality of difference, of racial hierarchy, and solidarity, helped Sol engage the world in a more empathetic way.
Sol’s tour, muscling a boat engine and too many soldiers across the Pacific, reminds me of the ways Latino communities—and of course, Americans—also live outside the borders of the United States.
I grew up outside of the United States in Colombia and Mexico, learning about the U.S. through my father, everyday conversations, television, and our school curriculums. In Chicano History, it is comforting to think of three historically distinct Mexican American regions—Texas, California, and New Mexico.
However, Sol’s navy sojourns and my intersection with his story in Texas reminds me that a birthplace cannot encapsulate where we originate.
Both of us experienced Texan attitudes toward Mexicans crossing into the Lone Star State as teenagers: Sol as an athlete and a serviceman, and me as a kid in a Colombian-American family under regular customs scrutiny in Laredo. We ended up living in a place where we were told we were not welcome, and that has more to do with jobs, political struggle, and aging.
I did not expect to discuss the impact of the Cold War during road trips in Texas. Time together in a steel transport vehicle can help you see the same world in a different way. When I joined Sol’s path, I became part of the larger world he encountered in 1951.
By his request, Cary Cordova and I buried Solomon Cordova, Jr. at sea in the Pacific, in the ocean he loved.
This is a small part of that longer crónica.
John Mckiernan-Gonzalez is an associated professor of history at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas.