***This is the much, much, much longer version of the article posted at the WASHINGTON TIMES -- woot! -- This Memorial Day Weekend, 2011. Tell everyone!***
When you have stories like that of Richard Rowland Kirkland hanging from your family tree, you understand the importance of justice and doing right for no other reason than it is right. Hard to ignore a life that spawned statues, paintings, books, organizations, and, as of last year, a movie. His acts of valor in our North vs. South war are worthy of every accolade.
He was not forgotten. In fact, he has reached legend status.
|Painting honoring Richard Rowland Kirkland|
One of the things that had always gotten to me the most were his final words: "Save yourselves, men, and tell Pa I died right."
How does one “die right?” I thought I understood after reading Richard’s story and that old saying, “A hero dies once, but a coward dies 1000 deaths.” I came to know it even better thanks to another “Richard” whose North vs. South war came later, but whose story is barely a footnote in history, in spite of its unique magnificence.
I would come to realize that this stranger, too, died right…twice…in the same day.
Statue honoring Richard Rowland Kirkland
But my dad had known him. That night I, too, met his best friend, PFC Ricardo Carrasco, when I carefully opened a yellowed Reader's Digest article from the November 1959 issue, penned by Hollywood “Starmaker” Hal Wallis. The title across the yellowing article read The Movie Star You Never Saw.
That’s how it all began.
People are always wanting to know why I’ve pursued this story across two decades now. 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,1952 High School graduation
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 on Old Baldy Hill. 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. Ricardo Carrasco and Robert Talmage Kirkland were best friends from the time they met at Davey Crockett Elementary School in September, 1945 until graduation from Stephen F. Austin High School, El Paso, TX, in May, 1952. Both joined the military – Robert in the Navy and Ricardo in the Army – and intended to make it a career.
Lucky for them we were at war again.
Born during the depression and raised during WWII, Ricardo and Robert would cut their teeth on this first war against communism. Ricardo 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.
What happened next should have been a Godsend – a big old, silver-screen, Hollywood-in-its-heyday Godsend. For while Ricardo was fighting, his future was actually unfolding back home in a remarkable way.
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 war from the viewpoint of the ones who matter the most: the American soldier.
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 inspire an entire 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.
|Paramount Pictures Producer Hal Wallis|
The movie was to be set on the last day of the war. A squad of 14 men, knowing that the cease fire would be declared that night, must take a hill and set up an observation post. The men are ordered to set up an observation post on Red Top Hill … a "movie" hill that was loosely based on the infamous Pork Chop. These are the most intense, most frightening moments of any war: the cease fire was to go into effect that night, that frightening time in war when the decision has been made and the actual cease fire goes into effect, when fighting continues and men die, just inches from the finish line.
It is one of many heartbreaking aspects of war: the anguish of coming so close to the end, then dying anyway. Crump wanted the world to know the loss. To drive home this point, one of the Americans in the fiction movie would die within hours of that cease fire.
One of the men that the audience would come to know and care about would die in the effort.
The agony of dying in the last hours of the war summed up in 80 minutes. Wallis loved it.
So it was that in mid-June 1953, Crump walked among the frontline troops, choosing each soldier, 13 Americans and one ROK, who would be a part of the fictional "Easy Patrol." Every "actor," every uniform, every bullet, every explosion was the real Government Issue thing. No fake Hollywood stunts for this film. The 14 GI's-turned-actors were whisked off to the War Correspondent's building in Seoul, where they slept in real beds, ate dinner at tables with linen cloths and waiters, and had all the cigars and whiskey they wanted. Raised on John Wayne and World War II, these men knew the double excitement of being a movie star and getting out of the hell of war. Everyone there knew that the cease fire was only a few days away – the summer would out-live the fighting.
|Roberto Carrasco, left, and his favorite brother Ricardo, early 1953|
Among those chosen was PFC Ricardo Carrasco. He would be the American to die in the movie in those final hours of active war.
The movie would eventually be named Cease Fire!
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. He would be plagued by thoughts of them for the remainder of his Hollywood experience.
It was mid-June, 1953, when filming of Paramount Pictures’ Cease Fire! began, and everyone knew the summer would out-live this war. It was over. All but one reveled in the deliciousness of their incredible turn of events; Ricardo could scarcely bare it. The 19-year-old from Texas was quiet – moodier than his comrades, and every day he would ask the same question: "When can I go back to my fellahs?"
Ricardo knew of the Chinese desire to take Pork Chop, where he had been fighting, and their habit of nighttime attacks. Every morning at the War Correspondents Building in Seoul 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.
|Pork Chop Hill, where Ricardo would see most of his fighting|
His love over-ruled his fear.
|Ricardo, far right, in scene from Cease Fire!|
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 were as puzzled by Private Carrasco as Crump.
Scene from movie, checking for mines
Then came Hal Wallis, ready to prove his nickname once again.
|Hal Wallis autobiography,appropriately named|
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. Actually, I was hoping you could kill me off in the next day or two."
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, the man who had produced Casablanca, Gunfight at the OK Corral, and even the delightful Martin and Lewis comedies? 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?
The "Why?" had to be answered, but 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.
|Movie scene, racing up "Red Top Hill"|
The young, lone private continued to ask the director to kill him off, in spite of that scene being about two weeks away from shooting. 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, the coming football season and El Paso athletics, his friends back home. 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.
|Ricardo's original death scene, later removed by Owen Crump out of repsect for the Carrasco family and re-shot at Paramount, using an extra|
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 12 hours after wrapping up his movie death, a mortar round took out the left side of his head, wrapping up his life, his "reel" death and his "real" only hours apart.
Not many men can say they died twice in one day. PFC Ricardo Carrasco can.
|The trench on Pork Chop Hill where Ricardo gave all|
Through my research and tracking down men (It took 5 years to find them all), and getting a copy of the never-released movie from Paramount's legal department (It took two years of almost weekly faxes and snail mail from 1992-1994 before I wearied them enough to give me a copy!), 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.
|Some of the cast of CEASE FIRE! with Mr and Mrs. Bob Hope at the LA Premiere|
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, two years older than I am now.
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?
It is not a choice made lightly, but once made, it is set in stone forever. In my 20 years of interviewing hundreds of veterans, I have found this commonality: my beloved warrior brothers feel that the real heroes died over there. But I submit to you that their moment of agony was short. Now they are free and know all the answers, the why’s and wherefores. I do not intend to diminish or dishonor the glory of what they gave—and gave up—for their friends at all. They’ve earned their crown.
But it is those who must live the next several decades with the torment of memories – you are my heroes, because you bear the awful burden every day so I won’t have to. There is no love like it – no gift more precious – and we have too often treated you poorly for your priceless gift. I am so sorry … you deserved better. You deserved a return at the very least equal to what you gave us, what you gave up for us, for most people are willing to give for a friend. The true mark of charity is in what you’re willing to give up for a friend, a stranger, or even, as in Richard’s case, a suffering enemy.
I have yet to measure up to what they gave, yet to suffer, yet to deserve. The thought that a mere mortal boy could be offered the greatest human acknowledgment known to flesh in the form of fame, fortune and power, and turn it down for war, terror, blood and death is an exact similitude of the sacrifice that saved us all when our perfect Brother gave up everything. The warrior is the only mortal I've ever known who even comes close to comparing to the gift that saved humanity. It isn't that they are perfect – it is that in spite of their own personal weaknesses, they achieve a type of selfless sacrifice that can only compare to the gift God Himself gave the world.
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. God bless the warrior, and forgive our treatment of them. Their vigilance is our only hope, for in the course of awful, painful, heartbreaking, glorious human events, they make the stands that save the souls.
They know how to live worthy and “die right;” sometimes, more than once.
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.
|Lt. Thompson – Capt. Roy Thompson |
|Sgt. Goszkowski – Cpl. Henry Goszkowski|
Elliott – Sgt. Richard Karl Elliott(No pic uploaded yet)
|"One Ton" – SPC Albert Bernard Cook|
|Mayes – Pvt. Johnnie Lee Mayes|
|Kim – Bong Chul Pak|
|Strait (Radio Man) – SPC Howard E. Strait|
"Bad News" – Pfc. Gilbert L. Gazaille (No Pic uploaded yet)
|Hofelich (Wounded Boy) – Pfc. Harry Hofelich|
|Owen – Cpl. Charlie W. Owen|
|Pruchniewski – Cpl. Edmund G. Pruchniewski|
Wright – Pvt. Otis Wright (No Pic uploaded yet)
|Carrasco (KIA) – Pfc. Ricardo Carrasco|