A Soldier’s Ascendance

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With the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in 1945, many in the United States anticipated a quick return to peace. That hope was dashed, however, as America found itself locked in an ideological struggle with Communist nations. Although primarily focused on the Soviet Union, the U.S. also confronted such nations as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, more commonly known as North Korea. In 1950 North Korea attacked South Korea. In response, the U.S., along with a sparing number of United Nations troops, launched a campaign to ensure the South’s republican government did not fall. Fighting raged for nearly three years, and in that time, American soldiers performed countless acts of heroism. Among those heroes was a young Hispanic officer from Texas who refused to let a stereotype define him. During America’s “Forgotten War,” he not only won the respect of his superiors and subordinates, but he also established a warrior’s reputation that carried him into history. His name was Richard Cavazos. This is the story of how he valiantly and repeatedly led men in harrowing fights against the North Koreans, setting the course for his amazing life.

Despite coming from humble origins, Richard Cavazos quickly rose above all obstacles in his path. He was born in Kingsville, Texas in 1929, the front end of the Depression years, to a father who served in World War I and later became the cattle foreman for the King Ranch, the largest cattle ranch in the world at the time. Growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, young Richard faced intense racism, but his father ensured his future was not limited to the ranch by earning enough money to put Richard through school. He briefly attended North Texas Agricultural College in Denton, Texas, where he was part of the school’s ROTC program, before transferring to Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. There he became one of the first Hispanic athletes to join the football team, and he enjoyed a brief but successful career until he broke his leg during his sophomore year. Although undoubtedly disappointed, the young man chose to dive into his academic studies, ultimately receiving a degree in geology. He also continued with ROTC and built on the military skills he first developed at North Texas Agricultural College. He graduated in 1951 as a Distinguished Military Graduate and was commissioned a second lieutenant. Though proficient in military discipline, young Cavazos still had much to learn about being an officer.

After graduation, Lieutenant Cavazos reported to Fort Benning, Georgia for more officer training, and in the weeks that followed, he developed an abiding love for the military that stayed with him throughout his life. That love led to his desire to become the best commander he could be — one who enjoyed the trust of those he led. Consequently, he intently studied the leadership qualities and characteristics of the finest Army officers of the past, and he concluded some of the most admired were those possessing “moral ascendancy.” In his mind this meant an effective officer must not only instill troops with the confidence they could accomplish anything but also be willing to hazard the same dangers as his men. His studies convinced him one of the greatest examples of this theory was Confederate General Robert E. Lee who so inspired his men they did whatever he ordered because they believed he would lead them to victory. Taking heart from Lee’s example, Cavazos determined to show the same qualities as he awaited the chance to lead men into battle on the far side of the world.

Finishing his courses at Fort Benning in late 1952, the young lieutenant was deployed to South Korea where he joined the 3rd Infantry Division as a staff officer. He performed his duties diligently, but he desperately wanted a battlefield command and petitioned his superiors for such an assignment. He did not have to wait long. Informed that the 65th Infantry Regiment, which originally consisted largely of Puerto Rican troops, was being reorganized through the addition of white troops, Cavazos leapt at the opportunity to command combat troops. He promptly learned the 65th had performed admirably in the war’s early months but had recently suffered a demoralizing defeat at Outpost Jackson on October 26, 1952, with many troops fleeing for their lives. Joining the regiment in November, Cavazos undertook a personal study of the unit, and he came to believe the defeat resulted from two factors. The first was new officers’ inability to communicate with their men in Spanish. The second was fresh recruits’ unpreparedness for the rigors of combat. The young lieutenant determined to overcome both shortcomings. Given command of a platoon in Company E, he spent three months training his men in the hazards of life on the front lines. He conducted most of the training in Spanish and even decided to employ Spanish commands rather than English ones in the midst of battle. His mastery of Spanish was so effective that the South Korean soldiers assigned to his platoon began to speak the language as well. By the time the 65th was ordered back to the front, it was clear that Cavazos was personally invested in the lives and welfare of his men, and he was ready to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them against the enemy.

In late February 1953 Richard Cavazos and the rest of the 65th Infantry were assigned to a region just north of the 38th parallel, the modern boundary between North and South Korea. The area was infamously known as the Iron Triangle. Facing Cavazos and his comrades was a large force of North Korean and Chinese communist troops. In the days that followed, Cavazos spent much of his time patrolling the countryside in anticipation of surprise attacks by Chinese forces. Most patrols occurred without incident, but he occasionally engaged in fierce firefights to cover his comrades’ attempts to recover their wounded. On the night of February 25th a large body of Chinese troops unexpectedly attacked Cavazos’ platoon, but he immediately rallied his men and heroically repulsed the attacks. As dawn appeared on the horizon, the enemy began to withdraw. Suddenly, the fearless lieutenant spotted a wounded Chinese soldier lying a short distance away and determined to take the man prisoner. Rising up, he signaled the troops around him to cover him as he dashed forward. Immediately, the enemy opened fire on the lone American with mortars and artillery, but Cavazos was undeterred. He pushed ahead until he reached the enemy soldier, grabbed hold and dragged him back to American lines. For his daring, Cavazos received the Silver Star, the third highest military award for valor. Not long after, he assumed command of Company E and received orders to join the American forces in the Chorwon Valley.

Arriving in May 1953, Cavazos was once again embroiled in the thick of the fighting as he engaged Chinese and North Korean forces trying repeatedly to capture the American bastion at Outpost Harry. On one occasion, he braved enemy fire to repair a communications link between the 65th Infantry and the outpost, a feat which earned him the Bronze Star. He also participated in small actions throughout late May and early June. Then on June 10th Chinese forces attacked Cavazos and his comrades. The action quickly evolved into a massive assault on Outpost Harry. Intense fighting continued for four days straight. As pressure mounted, American officers sought to relieve the garrison by conducting raids. On June 14th Cavazos was ordered to lead such a raid on Hill 412, which protected the crucial western flank of Outpost Harry. As dusk fell, he led his men forward in the face of intense resistance. Heavy machine gun fire forced them to take cover, but knowing they could not stay hidden long, he ordered Sergeant Joseph Lefort and Private First Class Rawleigh Garman, Jr. to take out the enemy position. When that was done, Cavazos leapt up and charged up with the hill with his men right behind him. In moments they reached the top of the hill, and after fierce fighting they drove the Chinese troops down the other side. Although pleased by this initial success, Cavazos ordered his soldiers to prepare for the expected counterattack.

Sure enough, the Chinese almost immediately launched a series of assaults to drive the Americans from their new position, but Cavazos and his men held firm for over three hours. As midnight approached, however, he counted one-third of his company killed or wounded by enemy artillery fire. It was clear his position was untenable, and he knew he had little choice but to fall back. Determined the withdrawal would not turn into a route, he calmly ordered his men to establish a defensive line on the reverse slope of the hill while he recovered comrades unaccounted for. Finding five bleeding troops, Cavazos dragged them inside the company’s perimeter before venturing out two more times. Both times he located groups of lost men and successfully guided them back. At one point during these forays, he was wounded by Chinese artillery fire, but he refused to abandon his mission until all his men were accounted for. Finally he was satisfied the company was reformed, and taking his place at the head of the column, he led the men back to American lines. All along the way, he exercised tight discipline and ensured there was no panic. It was only after he had seen his men to safety that Cavazos reported to the surgeon who removed shrapnel and small bits of rock from his bleeding back. As he recovered from his injury, he had little way of knowing that his actions would win him the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest award for valor. It was, however, only the beginning of a long and storied career.

In the years following the Korean War, Richard Cavazos continued to garner accolades for his military service. Returning home in late 1953, he served in such positions as executive officer of the 1st Armored Division at Fort Hood, outside Killeen, Texas, and later as operations officer for the U.S. Army in West Germany. He served as a lieutenant colonel in the Vietnam War, commanding the 18th Infantry’s First Battalion. On October 30, 1967 he led his men against Vietcong guerrillas at Loc Ninh, near the Cambodian border. As he had in Korea, Cavazos unreservedly exposed himself to danger while exhorting his men to attack. When the Vietcong fled towards their fortifications, he led a determined assault that overran the guerrillas and forced them to evacuate their position. Airstrikes then finished the Vietcong off. For his aggressiveness, Cavazos received his second Distinguished Service Cross. His greatest personal achievement, however, came in 1976 when he was promoted to brigadier general — the first Hispanic officer to receive a general’s star. Six years later, he received the four stars of a full general and took charge of U.S. Army Forces Command, which placed him in command of all Army troops in the lower 48 states. He used his position to gain support for the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California and the Battle Command Training Program, both of which heavily influenced the Army’s military capabilities. Although fixated on both programs, Cavazos always had time for those who considered him a mentor. He shaped the careers of Hispanic officers as well as such rising stars as H. Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell — Cavazos even interceded once on Powell’s behalf to keep him in the Army. General Richard Cavazos retired from the U.S. Army in June 1984 after thirty-three years of service. He lives today in San Antonio, Texas, and although his mind is fading due to dementia, his actions on behalf of his country will never diminish.

Richard Cavazos’ gallantry showcases that heroism is not the sole property of one ethnic group. Rather, he understood it belongs to everyone who refuses to back away from a challenge. It is a matter of character. From an early age, Cavazos refused to submit to the prejudiced view many white Americans had of their Hispanic neighbors, and at every opportunity, he showed himself to be the equal of any man, regardless of race. As well, his actions during the Korean War proved he was one of those rare soldiers who thrived under the rigors of combat. Not once did he ever lose his nerve or observe battle from safely behind the lines. His soldiers could always take pride that he would be with them when they met the enemy in battle. From the humble start of his military career to the star-filled end, Richard Cavazos lived a life that attained the “morally ascendant” standard he set for himself — a true soldier’s soldier.

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1 Comment

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One response to “A Soldier’s Ascendance

  1. What a great story Jake! I believe Gen Cavazos epitomizes my belief that leaders aren’t born, rather they learn the skills of leadership through study, hard work and a dogged determination to be the best leader they can be. Thanks for bringing his story to your readers.

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