KIRKLAND: Killed in Korea twice in one day

A forgotten warrior dies rather than leave his ‘fellahs’ at the front

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I carefully opened a Reader’s Digest article from the November 1959 issue, penned by famed Hollywood producer Hal Wallis. The headline across the yellowing page read, “The Movie Star You Never Saw.” My heart swelled the way it does when I feel something sacred, and my awe over the selfless love a warrior has for his fighting brother was born.

Ricardo Carrasco and Robert Talmage Kirkland became friends in the fall of 1945 and remained close until graduating from high school in May 1952. Both joined the military - Robert the Navy and Ricardo the Army - and intended to make it a career. Ricardo arrived in Korea in late March 1953 as part of the 7th Division, 32nd Infantry Regiment, Company A. He spent the next three months fighting on the evil twins - Old Baldy and Pork Chop Hill - and grew to despise Korea. He liked the people and the soldiers of the Republic of Korea, but he was restless with the fear of failing his “fellahs,” as he would refer to them. And, of course, he longed for home. What happened next should have been a godsend - a big old silver-screen, Hollywood-in-its-heyday godsend.

While Ricardo had been fighting, his future had been unfolding back home in a way most people can only fantasize. Director Owen Crump approached Wallis, then a producer at Paramount Pictures, with a pitch to make a movie on the front lines in Korea, using only front-line soldiers. The story would take place on the last day of the war, shortly before a cease-fire, in that tragic time when fighting continues for a few hours longer and men die just inches from the finish line.

The plot revolved around a group of 14 men ordered to set up an observation post on Red Top Hill … a movie hill that was loosely based on the infamous Pork Chop. One of the men would die in the effort. The agony of dying in the last hours of the war summed up the Korean conflict in 80 minutes. The movie was named “Cease Fire!”

So, in mid-June 1953, Crump walked among the front-line troops, choosing each soldier who would be 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 GIs-turned-actors were whisked off to the war correspondents’ building in Seoul, where they slept in real beds, ate dinner served by waiters at tables with linen cloths 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. But Ricardo could scarcely bear it. The 19-year-old from El Paso, Texas, was quiet, moodier than his comrades, and every day he would ask the same question: “When can I go back to my fellahs?”

Crump had already decided that Ricardo would be the American to die on that last day of the movie war. The other men were enjoying every minute of the experience, grateful to be away from the shooting, mud and death, but Ricardo couldn’t seem to wait to get it done. Crump couldn’t figure him out.

Wallis watched the black-and-white rushes with growing enthusiasm. He was Hollywood’s pre-eminent “starmaker,” and he talent when he saw it. As he watched, one warrior stood out: PFC Ricardo Carrasco. This kid had “it.” Wallis watched each piece of raw footage over and over. Every frame proved his instincts right. He wired the news to Crump: Get Carrasco under contract with Paramount. The starmaker had big plans for him.

Back in Seoul after a particularly long day, Crump pulled Carrasco aside for a private moment so he could relay the news. He held his breath and waited for the shriek of joy.

“No thank you, sir.”

Crump stood stock still for a moment. “No, wait, son, you don’t understand,” he said. “Hal Wallis is offering you a contract with Paramount Pictures. He wants to make you a star. He thinks you have what it takes.”

But Ricardo remained firm. “Yes sir, I understand that, but I’m not interested.” He paused. “Sir, do you think we could get me killed off in the next day or two?” he asked. Crump could only whisper, “What?”

“Sir, buzz is the Chinese are getting ready to attack Pork Chop again. The guy they got to lead my squad is green - he’ll get my fellahs killed. I have to go back … I couldn’t live with myself.” The director felt sick. This boy was throwing his future away with both hands.

“You’re a damned fool, kid. Go to bed. We’ll talk about this tomorrow.”

Crump sat at a table, scratching out a quick note to the producer. When Wallis read it a couple of days later, the starmaker boiled. He had never been turned down before. After he cooled down, he told his assistant to wire back that because the cease-fire would be signed into effect in a few days, Crump was to make the contract offer again. Maybe then, with the war behind him and his sense of duty fulfilled, Carrasco would be more receptive.

But back in Korea, Crump could take no more of Ricardo’s constant pestering. He rewrote the sketchy script to kill off Ricardo two weeks ahead of schedule and shot the close-ups of Ricardo’s final scene, his death scene, on the morning of July 6, 1953. It was the best acting the kid had done yet, but he took no time to celebrate. After lunch, Ricardo gathered his gear and hopped into a waiting jeep, chatting about his mother and El Paso and the approaching football season with the driver, who cussed him out the whole way for going back early. Ricardo just smiled, unfazed. As they pulled up to the forward area around Pork Chop, he hopped out with his duffle bag and waved goodbye.

The Chinese attacked that night, and at 11:25 p.m., the man who could have been a prince of Hollywood ended his tour of duty in a mortar explosion. There was no slow motion, no swell of music, no close-up for the camera this time. PFC Ricardo Carrasco’s reel death and real death had played out about 12 hours apart.

The cease-fire was signed on July 27, 1953. The movie “Cease Fire!” premiered in November 1953. Ricardo had been the only one to return to the front before the cease-fire, the only one to see battle again, and the only one to die - twice in one day. The movie, like the war, was not popular. The movie, like the war, faded into the past and never received much notice or attention. The men of the movie, like the men of that war, moved on with their lives - all except one, who left his life on a hillside in Korea after leaving his once-in-a-lifetime mark on Hollywood.

God chooses sides and commands us to do no less. The soldier is the epitome of this choice - a choice born of magnanimous, miraculous, meticulous love, with no expectation of return. For Ricardo, the war became what it becomes for all good soldiers. It wasn’t about communism, America or freedom. It was about those men he so loved, his “fellahs.” He went back to the front to be with them not because he had to but because he chose to.

The only fully mortal man to come close to comparing with a perfect gift of sacrifice is the warrior. Even with their own personal weaknesses, warriors achieve a type of selfless sacrifice that can only compare to godliness. They know that “greater love” isn’t measured by what you give but by what you give up for your friends. God bless the warriors - and forgive our treatment of them. Their vigilance is America’s only hope, for in the course of awful, painful, heartbreaking, glorious human events, they make the stands that cost their lives but save our souls.

Resa LaRu Kirkland blogs under the name WARCHICK and is author of the forthcoming book “Forgotten Warrior: Twice in One Day.”

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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