SEOUL – Sergeant major Gilberto Diaz Velasco never imagined the photos he took during the Korean War with his Kodak would serve to commemorate Colombia’s involvement on the 70th anniversary of the conflict.
Diaz was 17 when he landed in June 1952 in the port of Incheon (west of Seoul), which had been freed just nine months earlier by American General Douglas MacArthur’s troops.
On a previous stopover, he had bought a camera in Tokyo for $5.
But little did he know that the pictures he would take would serve as a unique account of the 14 months he spent on the Korean peninsula.
The Colombian captured his photos in color, highly unusual at that time, and ended up with a lively and diverse collection: from children chasing a train to chimneys spewing smoke over South Korean cities that had been obliterated after two years of relentless battle.
“I would ask those travelling to Japan to bring me film. I had to send it to Hawaii to get developed. They sent the photos to our post box in San Francisco and from there to Korea. Freight charges were 12 cents,” he tells reporters in a video press conference from Bogota.
A showcase of 150 of the more than 500 images he took are exhibited at the Seoul War Memorial from Friday until December to mark the 70th anniversary of the start of the war.
Due to the pandemic, the show has been adjusted to a virtual format and a selection of pictures will also be published in a book edited by the Colombian Armed Forces.
The show’s launch was attended by South Korean Ministers of Defense and Veterans Affairs, Jeong Kyeong-doo and Park Sam-duck and US ambassador to Seoul Harry Harris.
Colombian Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo, Diaz, and 420 other Colombian veterans also attended the event by videoconference.
After the landing, Diaz joined unit C of the Colombia Battalion, which deployed 5,100 men to the conflict between June 1951 and July 1953, when the fighting ended.
The photos Diaz took during the training period depict a weariness among Colombian soldiers that confirms General Matthew Ridgway’s, commander of American troops, account.
According to Ridgway, training was so intense and exhausting that being ordered to the firing line was a respite for many soldiers.
“The tragedy began when training ended,” Diaz recalls.
His unit was sent to the front of the so-called Iron Triangle, a strategic junction straddling three borders, currently the demilitarized zone, and the scene of intense battle.
“The first patrols were not easy; we did not know the terrain,” he recalls of the infiltrations to discover North Korean and Chinese artillery positions in a series of valleys in No Man’s Land.
In his photos, the area is barren due to aerial bombings and attacks with howitzers and grenades.
The gloomy lands were the backdrop to the looming “harsh winter of 1952,” Diaz says.
Daily average temperatures began to plummet reaching minus 10 degrees Celsius.
Diaz, who was now commander of 82-mm mortar shells, had never experienced a winter or seen snow, which completely blanketed the battlefields as his snapshots testify.
The ruthless winter came to an end only to be met by a final and tragic clash: the Battle of Old Baldy.
The veteran vividly remembers the night of March 23, 1953 when enemy fire rained down on the battalion until sunrise.
According to Diaz, the artillery fire was so intense that many of the trenches he had helped dig were effaced.
“We had to walk on the bodies of enemy troops. To recognize the body of a friend, I had to touch the faces of the dead, because he had a moustache and no one was there,” he says.
That fateful night left 33 dead, 30 missing and 95 wounded in the Colombian ranks.
The arrival of spring was like a tonic for the Colombia Battalion, as can be seen in a couple of photos in which Diaz and his comrades smile in a blooming field.
A few months later the armistice ended the war and the soldiers returned home.
Three years ago, Diaz returned to South Korea for the first time and was “completely surprised” to see its transformation.
When he left, the war-torn country had a lower per capita GDP than Somalia. Today it ranks among the world’s most powerful economies.
At 86 Diaz says he still yearns to return to places that harbor “unforgettable memories” and were the setting for over 500 unique photos.