Just before he jumped out of the plane over North Korea, Herculano Dias’s commander told him that he and his unit were about to make history: The first Army Rangers to parachute in behind enemy lines, and the first Ranger unit made up entirely of black men.
At that moment, Dias was mostly just hoping to land without getting shot and once on the ground, to help take the highest hill in the area.
They were successful that day 60 years ago, seizing critical ground back from the enemy. History was made. And then, largely, forgotten.
The Korean War, sandwiched between two conflicts that defined generations, is often called the Forgotten Victory. And this elite unit, the U.S. Army 2nd Ranger Infantry Company (Airborne),was never well known. But on Monday, Dias and five other local men were honored at the National Memorial Day Parade, riding a float fluttering with red, white and blue streamers high above a crowd cheering for them.
“It’s beautiful,” said Winston (better known as Action) Jackson, 83, of the District, to finally get recognition. “It’s unbelievable.”
The surviving members are all in their 80s, some with hearing aids, some with trembling hands — and one who was recently told he had just one month to live. But they remember: Dias remembers stepping off the train at Fort Bragg and seeing segregation for the first time in his life, with signs for “colored” and “white.” Donald Allen remembers eating rattlesnake during the grueling Ranger training, and watching the snow turn red as another soldier bled to death after a guerilla attack. Paul Lyles remembers picking up something and his buddy in the foxhole yelled at him to throw it away fast— it was a grenade. Jackson remembers that the first time he saw a parachute was the first time he jumped. Allen remembers a soldier dying in his arms just days after they got to Korea, and the prayer he said for him.
“We’ve been trying for years to tell our story,” Dias said, gathering memories into a book and knowing time was running out as they kept going to more funerals.
He joined the U.S. Army like many men of his generation, because although he had good enough grades to go to college, his parents didn’t have enough money to pay tuition. They were immigrants from the Cape Verde Islands and didn’t know about scholarships or options other than working in the factories or joining the service.
But Dias liked the Army right away — with eight brothers and sisters, he said with a laugh, it was the first time he got to sleep in his own bed. And he did well, volunteering for and advancing to the elite unit.
The training was brutal; some men died before they ever went overseas. They learned to parachute at night, shelter in their ponchos, sleep in snow. “It was tough, tough training, and of course our commander did not want us to fail,” he said.
Dias didn’t get angry about segregation until he was on his way to Korea. The ship stopped in Hawaii and the soldiers, white and black, went on shore leave to drink and have some fun but some of them were blocked from entering certain establishments.
“They say, ‘You guys can go in. You guys can’t.’ Our white brothers could go in,” Dias said. He started to argue with the police officer who had stopped them, and the officer then raised a billy club, he said, but his men stepped in and they went back to the ship. Dias said he was so angry he was in tears. “Here we are volunteering to go fight in Korea, and we can’t even go in a lousy dime-a-dance joint.”
Almost as soon as they got to the war zone they lost a soldier in a guerilla attack. And just days afterward, they had one of their bloodiest battles, trying to fight their way out of an ambush.
They were hungry, and cold; they got frostbite. Then they were told they were going to jump behind enemy lines.
It was March 23, 1951, when they jumped at the 38th parallel, and fought their way to the top of the hill in a couple of hours. “We felt great, because it was a historical day, and our mission was a success.”
They lost one man that day. He was Dias’s good friend.
And so every Memorial Day, Dias, who now lives in Savage, remembers that victory, and remembers that loss. He visits his friend’s grave. For years, he helped organize small-town parades, riling up his fellow veterans to march. “It’s important to remind people of the guys that didn’t come back,” he said.
On Monday, he said, “All veterans are thinking about the guys that are getting killed in Afghanistan right now. But especially the guys that we knew that we left behind.”
So he and the five men from his unit donned their uniforms Monday despite the blazing heat and lifted their Ranger caps from time to time to wipe off the sweat, drank Gatorade, and shared old memories — and a few laughs.
“Did you ever see a man sleep with his eyes open?” Jackson said, jabbing Lyles. “This one does!”
“He tried to ‘borrow’ $50 from me,” Lyles deadpanned. “I never closed my eyes again.”
On the float, as high-school girls twirled flags, tubas glinted in the sun, and troops in camo marched, the six men looked at the crowds of people sitting on curbs or craning for a better view, waving small flags. Dias snapped a photo of the Washington Monument.
Regina Burkett, 43, who was visiting from Washington state, flashed them a huge smile and waved to them as the float rolled by. She said she hadn’t heard of their unit but would look it up as soon as she got home. “That’s our history right there.”