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A Conversation with Charlie Rangel, Former Congressman and Korean War Veteran

KEI President Donald Manzullo, a former member of the House of Representatives, recently interviewed Charlie Rangel, a former Congressman from New York and a Korean War Veteran, for the KEI podcast. Rangel was one of three current and former members of Congress who KEI recently honored for their service in the Korean War. The two former members discussed Rangel’s experiences during the war, his journey after returning from Korea, and his time in Congress.

The following is a partial transcript of that conversation. The rest of the episode can be found here.

Donald Manzullo: Charlie, we thank you for your service. You wrote a book called “And I Haven’t Had a Bad Day Since,” after the battle of Kunu-Ri – tell us about that battle.

Charlie Rangel: We got to Korea in August of 1950, and one way or another fought our way up past Pyongyang, and the Yalu River separated North Korea from Manchuria. General MacArthur had actually cut off the North Koreans, victory was ours, home was in our minds, and in September, October we were waiting to be home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. We waited September, we waited October, we waited November. The weather changed, our clothes didn’t. We were just waiting for that ship to call, to get there.

And we had heard that one of our guys … was captured by the Chinese. I started a rumor, it never entered my mind that there were really Chinese there. And for three days the entire 8th Army, including my outfit – the Chinese had crossed the Yalu River, they were talking to us with loudspeakers in broken English, telling us to surrender. Don, it was a nightmare, the trumpets would be blowing … and at nighttime, they would start their blasts.

That very day all hell broke loose, as tens of thousands of Chinese surrounded us and international troops, the screaming, the yelling, the killing. And I don’t know, I got shot and I got out of there. And like I said, I haven’t had a bad day since because so many … we had 90 percent casualties between those that were captured, killed, wounded.

And in telling this story, I just can’t see how I could be in love with anything that sounds like Korea except the Korea that’s there now. To believe that I had any part of creating a miracle for people I never knew, never heard of, a country I never thought was there – it makes me proud to be an American, and even prouder to see human beings like South Koreans who can come out of the ashes and become a world power economically.

Donald Manzullo: Charlie, your modesty – it’s always been a part of your life, even though you were one of the flashiest dressers in Congress. But during your time in Korea, you earned a Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Presidential Unit Citation, Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation, and three Battle Stars …. Your personal life is absolutely fascinating. Former Congressman, but you’re always a Congressman, high school dropout enrolls in the Army, goes to Korea, comes back home, trying to figure out what to do. The next thing you do is you go back and get your GED. Tell us about the march from the GED to the halls of Congress, Charlie.

Charlie Rangel: I never knew just how ignorant I was until I came out of the Army. I thought a couple of stripes made the difference the same way people get a couple of degrees. When I came out of the Army with all these medals you mentioned, pocket full of money, starched uniform, a couple of stripes, I must have felt like I was 10 feet tall until I went to get a job. They asked what could I do and I start talking about the M1 rife, the automatic carbine…and they said “next.” I was crushed.

And my brother was older, smarter, and so encouraging. He kept me from re-enlisting in the Army, which is what I was going to do. He got me a job at the garment center. I don’t know whether in your part of the country if you have hand trucks – two wheels, carry loads. And I’m carrying a load of lace – wasn’t heavy, just awkward – in the rain, and it slipped out of my hand in Manhattan in the rain, and cop’s cursing me out for blocking the traffic … I went straight to the VA, I told them “I don’t know what the hell’s going on, but I know I need some help.”

And I didn’t know how much help I really needed, I hadn’t completed high school. And the only reason I said I wanted to become a lawyer, which everyone thought was impossible, was because of my grandfather. I wanted to impress him, he was an elevator operator at the criminal court building of New York. He liked me, but he loved judges, he loved lawyers, and he loved the court system.

And I don’t know who laughed the loudest, the people at the Veterans Administration or my grandfather. But somehow we were able to work it out and I became an assistant U.S. attorney. And I got married to the most wonderful, understanding woman in the world – she had finished college while I was in high school.

Donald Manzullo: Well Charlie, I want to thank you for spending the day with us, for talking about old times.

Charlie Rangel: Well let me thank you Don. Like I said, Korea is a small country geographically, but it’s a country with a big, big heart in terms of giving hope to so many people whose countries historically have lived in poverty and never gotten out of it.

Image from KEI’s reception honoring Korean War Veterans in Congress. You can view the video of the event here

 

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