It was long ago and far away—November 1950, the Harry Truman era. About 85 percent of Americans living today weren’t even born yet. The place was deep inside what is today North Korea, geographically more than 5,600 miles away, but politically even more remote. For an American, it remains one of the most inaccessible places on Earth.
But, however distant in time and space, the story of Joe Baldonado cuts to the heart of the annual observance of Memorial Day. He was a young man of 20, a kid from Gilroy, serving as a corporal in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. What he did on the last morning of his life deserves to be remembered. It’s a story that demands retelling.
Baldonado’s platoon was part of the 187th Airborne Regiment, stationed at Kangdong, just northeast of North Korea’s capital. In the predawn hours of Nov. 25, 1950, an enemy force attacked a hill that the American platoon held. Running low on ammunition, the platoon’s commander decided to take a defensive position and it was up to Cpl. Baldonado, a machine gunner, to buy time for his platoon and hold off the approaching enemy.
According to the official military report of the incident and a narrative published in the book Disaster In Korea: The Chinese Confront MacArthur by Roy E. Appleman, Baldonado drew fire from an exposed position and, for about three hours, single-handedly held back the advancing North Korean guerilla force.
Baldonado’s younger brother Charles Baldonado has been the tender of his brother’s memory for decades. He has always been eager to tell the story of what happened at Kangdong that morning.
“They were within 25 yards from him at one point,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Apple Valley, northeast of Los Angeles. “They came in bunches and he kept on pushing them back. Finally they decided to concentrate on his position. Grenades were exploding all around him. The machine gun would not stop. He fought them off.”
Finally, though, Joe’s luck ran out. After dodging several grenades, one found his target, killing him instantly.
There can be no accounting for how many American lives that Joe Baldonado saved over the course of those three hours. But his heroism earned him the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest and most prestigious military decoration given for “valor in action.”
The wrinkle to Baldonado’s story is that it took him almost 65 years for that recognition.
Baldonado is part of Valor 24, a group of 24 Army vets who were awarded the Medal of Honor in 2014 for their service in Vietnam, Korea and World War II (the award was posthumous for all but three). Each man on the list was initially given the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest honor awarded by the military. But a review of the awards determined that these particular soldiers were denied the nation’s highest honor because of their ethnicity. Every member of the Valor 24 group was either African-American, Jewish or Latino.
In March 2014, Charles Baldonado traveled to Washington D.C. to accept the Medal of Honor in his brother’s name from then-President Obama.
“I got it in a nice place on the wall,” he said of the Medal. “I see it every day.”
The medal ceremony at the White House put a cap on a decades-long effort by Charles to give his brother his proper due. A veteran himself, Charles was looking for answers to why Joe was not given the Medal of Honor going back, he said, to at least the 1980s.
“Like the song says, I couldn’t get no satisfaction,” he laughed. “I started looking into it, checking here, checking there. I was not necessarily pushing for the Medal, I was just looking to get satisfaction in learning why they had downgraded (Joe for the honor).”
He didn’t get very far, but he credits now-retired Republican Congressman Jerry Lewis and Democratic U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein in helping him get answers. Finally, a review was undertaken, resulting in the honors bestowed to the Valor 24.
Joe Baldonado was born in Colorado in 1930, but he grew up at his family’s home in Gilroy, on the corner of Eigleberry and 10th streets. Charles said that he and Joe were two of 13 children his parents had. Five survive today. He said that the Baldonado kids, when they weren’t going to school, were working in the agricultural fields around Gilroy “from sun up to sundown.”
Joe was four years senior to Charles.
“He didn’t take no guff, you know what I mean?” said Charles of his brother. “He would never go looking for trouble, but he wouldn’t back away from it either. He was not a troublemaker.”
Joe was only 15 when World War II came to an end, and he came of age at the dawn of the Cold War. His motivation to join the military, according to his brother, was entirely altruistic.
“He used to tell my mother that he wanted to get her a house,” Charles said. “And the only way to get her a house was to join the Army and get it on the G.I. Bill. And that’s exactly what he did. He got killed, but he got her that house.”
The Medal of Honor is not the end of the road for Charles Baldonado’s campaigning on his brother’s behalf. Of the Valor 24 recipients, Joe was the only one whose body was never recovered.
Charles has tried to do the detective work to find his brother’s remains. For a while, he believed that Joe was laid to rest at National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii, also known as the “Punchbowl.” But he now believes that Joe is still buried in North Korea.
The Medal of Honor is gratifying, but ultimately Charles Baldonado is still fighting to find his brother’s remains and bring them back to the United States.
“He’s going to be buried in Arlington if I have anything to say about it,” said Charles in reference to the nation’s most hallowed burial ground across the Potomac from Washington D.C. “I’m constantly fighting for him. I’m 83 now, but barring anything unforeseen, I still plan to be around for another 10 to 15 years. I think I can make it.”