Looking through dusty files at the Wilmington Historical Society became part of 25-year-old Vicente Jurado Jr’s life.
For more than two years Jurado has dedicated almost 24/7 of his time researching the life of Korean War Veteran, Roberto Serrano from Wilmington.
A project that began as a profile on Wilmington veterans later developed into an investigative research project on Serrano’s heroism during a 1951 battle in Korea.
“I came upon Mr. Serrano’s picture in [Olivia Cueva Fernandez’s] Wilmington book after I had a meeting with her in late May and got involved in the Wilmington Historical Society,” said Jurado.
Jurado noticed Serrano in a photo where he was awarded for his actions during the war, which is when his veteran profile project took a sudden turn.
He discovered something odd but very exciting during his research. Serrano could possibly be a candidate to receive the nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor.
“When I learned more about the incident I saw there was more to all this and continued to study the issue,” explained Jurado.
If Jurado’s research was accurate this meant that Serrano could potentially become the only second Navy Cross recipient to have his award upgraded by the Department of the Navy to a Medal of Honor.
The Battle of Hill 673
It was September 12 of 1951 during the Korean War. A war between North and South Korea. The United States led a United Nations force that fought for the South. China and the Soviet Union fought for the North.
The war arose from the division of Korea at the end of World War II and from the global tensions of the Cold War that developed immediately afterwards. It was essentially a war against communism.
Serrano was a 21-year-old navy corpsman for the Navy Cross during the war. A corpsman is a U.S. Navy medical specialist who serves with the Navy and the Marine Corp. but is also trained for battle.
Serrano was moving with the assault platoon during an attack from the opponents. They were on a hill protected by barbed wire, concealed bunkers, landmines and other obstacles. The location of the hill was in Kanmubong Ridge in an area known as the Punchbowl.
It was nearly impossible to come out of the hill alive. In an archived document of a sample citation by the Navy Cross this is what the incident was described as:
“Serrano was fearlessly dashing through the heavy enemy fire to reach a wounded Marine, he accidently tripped the wire of a hidden anti-personnel mine. Hearing the snap of the fuse primer and realizing that his wounded comrade lay helpless beside the deadly explosive, he courageously and with complete disregard for his own personal safety threw himself on the man wounded in the back and legs by fragments and was blown several feet by the concussion, he crawled back to his comrade and administered first aid.”
Serrano did absorb the shock of the explosion giving him a concussion and severely wounding his leg and back, but he was alive and so was his comrade who would have likely died.
“The first instinct is to protect yourself. But [Serrano’s] first instinct was to protect the person he was helping…to me that is extraordinary,” said Wilmington veteran Richard Rivas. “I don’t know if I would have done that.”
Rivas was a friend of Serrano and a Korean War veteran. Both enlisted when they were teenagers but met in Wilmington after returning from war.
Serrano was recognized for his heroic acts but it wasn’t the Medal of Honor. He was awarded the Purple Heart in the name of the President and a Navy Cross by the Navy. Both prestigious awards but not the recognition both Jurado and Rivas believe he deserved.
The Untold Story
Serrano passed away at the age of 76 in 2007 after fighting brain cancer.
No one, including his three sons, knew what had happened to him during war.
“My dad was really humble and he really didn’t tell us anything,” said Serrano’s middle son, Ron Serrano. “I really didn’t know what went on until later on in my life.”
It’s not uncommon for veterans to return from war without wanting to share their experiences.
“They saw friends they knew or grew up with get killed in combat in very horrible ways,” said 54-year-old Veteran Martin John Chacon, who works at the Wilmington VFW. “They just want to forget about it and go on.”
Jurado was suddenly unveiling a story never told, but it was not easy.
His quiet demeanor, several rejections and confusing archival material to work with were not reasons to stop him from helping a Wilmington veteran who was too modest to speak of his heroic act when he was alive.
Jurado found inconsistencies when it came to documents that were used in the original award process that found Serrano’s actions worthy of the Navy Cross and could have affected an award of a Medal Of Honor. He was turned down by several government officials, and many times felt like giving up.
“Even though there were some, who did not believe I would get this far I was just focused on what I could do and not what others might think of what I was doing,” said Jurado.
For Serrano to be considered for the Medal of Honor all witness statements are needed but Jurado only found two out of the three from documents acquired from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis Missouri.
A new investigation would need to be carried out based on documents provided by Jurado to Congresswoman Hahn’s office. These documents would have to be sent to the Department of the Navy and eventually to the President’s desk for approval.
Another alternative would be for house resolution bill calling for an upgrade to the Medal of Honor introduced to Congress. The bill would have to be sent to the senate and then the Senate Armed Service Committee and wait for the President to approve as part of a National Defense Authorization Act.
Through Jurado’s intense research he has gathered enough documents like medical history reports, several letters of support from government officials like Congresswoman Janice Hahn and community groups.
Jurado’s work has become invaluable for Serrano’s family and Wilmington veterans.
He opened a treasure box of history revealing information about a man that otherwise would have never been told.
“It is personally important to me because Mr. Serrano was a part of this community,” said Jurado. “I was able to give some answers about his past.”
For Jurado the findings of his research are priceless. He’s determined to pursue this project until Serrano receives the recognition he deserves.
“Vicente’s efforts have been outstanding,” said Chacon. “For a young man to take this kind of task to where it is now is very respectful and an honor for [veterans].