Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., 83 is serving in his 22nd term in Congress. He was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for valor after leading more than 40 of his fellow soldiers to safety during the Battle of Kunu-ri. (Garrett Hubbard for USA TODAY)
Memories from the Battle of Kunu-ri are seared in Rep. Charles Rangel's mind, so much so that he can still see the sky over Korea cloaked in orange from mortar fire, smell the decaying dead bodies of his fellow soldiers and shiver from the subzero temperatures as though it were yesterday.
The fear may have subsided from what the New York Democrat calls the "nightmare" of Nov. 29-Dec. 1, 1950, but time can only heal so much.
"It is hallucinating," Rangel says of his war experience. "You can't describe tens of thousands of people with guns and bayonets and horns and screaming and yelling … and finding yourself helpless physically and believing that your life is over."
Rangel, now 83 and serving his 22nd term in Congress, was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for valor after leading more than 40 of his fellow soldiers to safety at Kunu-ri. The experience forever changed the high school dropout from Harlem, who enlisted in the Army in 1948 because it meant a steady paycheck.
Rangel likes to say his last bad day was at the Battle of Kunu-ri, and the sentiment is reflected in the title of his 2007 memoirs, And I Haven't Had a Bad Day Since. He means it wholeheartedly, saying even the specter of being censured by the House of Representatives in 2010 for ethical misconduct doesn't compare.
"It is impossible for anything to happen to me that is worse" than the Battle of Kunu-ri and the war, Rangel tells USA TODAY. "Whenever I have what appears to be a setback, I remind myself … I am alive and I have to be grateful for my life being spared."
He was 20 years old in late 1950 when Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander of the United Nations' forces in South Korea, launched the "Home by Christmas" offensive. The goal was to evict Chinese forces from the country and end the Korean War.
The Chinese had other ideas, launching a counteroffensive that left the entire 8th Army — including Rangel's beloved 2nd Infantry Division — encircled at Kunu-ri, located near the Chongchon River by the Chinese border.
President Truman had ordered all U.S. forces desegregated in 1948, but by 1950, all-black units such as Rangel's 503rd Field Artillery Battalion were still common. "We had not seen many things except our poor neighborhoods," he says. "Even getting to Fort Lewis, Washington (for training), was a big challenge for us culturally going from the East Coast to the West Coast."
For three days, Rangel's unit was pinned down at Kunu-ri. Their assignment was to hold the road while the rest of the 8th Army retreated south. By day, American planes would bomb the Chinese to get them out of foxholes dug into the mountaintops above the United Nations forces. At night, the fighting between the Chinese and the U.N. forces would intensify.
Rangel was a private first class, but his colleagues called him "Sarge" — a nickname born of Rangel's way of carrying himself with younger recruits and his survivalist instinct for always acting like he was in the know.
His Bronze Star commendation says he had already been wounded when he led his colleagues to safety. All Rangel remembers is that he was lying in a gully, praying for his life and thinking he couldn't move.
"At the height of my prayers, Jesus said, 'If you want my help, you better get the hell out of this ditch,'" Rangel recalls.
He looked up and saw Chinese troops around him, walking over dead bodies. Rangel remembers a full moon and the silhouette of Sgt. John Rivers, one of the top sergeants in his unit, who was running and screaming as he charged up the mountain.
"He was screaming they were bringing the dogs out," Rangel says. The next thing Rangel knew, he says, he forced himself out of the ditch and started running, too.
"People saw me go and they went too," he says. "I knew I was getting away from death."
Rangel plans to go back to Korea this summer to take part in 60th anniversary events tied to the armistice. He won approval from Congress for his resolution, signed into law by President Obama, designating 2012-13 as the Year of the Korean War veteran.
In 2000, at the request of President Clinton, Rangel led a U.S. delegation to Korea that included some of his Army buddies to mark the 50th anniversary of the war's outbreak.
Rangel was treated to a hero's welcome and given medals from his South Korean hosts and a flag commemorating the solemn occasion. They adorn his Capitol Hill office, reminders of a life-long friendship forged by blood on the battlefield.
"It is hard really to believe that out of those ashes a world international power could be formed and that is good," Rangel says.
Asked about a passage in his book, in which he wrote that "armistice sounds like we didn't win anything," Rangel says he longs for better days for both Koreas and their people.
"The victory would be a united Korea," he says. "I hope that the idea and dream of unification can become reality during my lifetime."