Do you know that feeling you sometimes get when you look at something from the past that you know is priceless, but that everyone else thinks is junk? I do. I came to know that feeling one July night in 1991 while looking through the scrapbook of Robert Talmage Kirkland – my father.
That was the night I carefully opened a Reader’s Digest article from the November 1959 issue, penned by Hal Wallis. The title across the yellowing article read “The Movie Star You Never Saw.” My heart swelled in the same way it does when I feel something sacred, and my awe over the selfless love the 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 in the Navy and Ricardo in 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. Oh, he liked the people, and the Republic Of Korea soldiers, but he wanted to go home. What happened next should have been a godsend – a big old silver-screen Hollywood godsend.
While Ricardo had been fighting, his future was actually unfolding back home in a way most people can only fantasize. Paramount Pictures producer Hal Wallis was approached by an old friend and director, Owen Crump. He wanted to make a movie on the front lines in Korea, using only front-line soldiers. Wallis listened as the man pitched the idea. It was straight from the headlines of the Korean War.
The story took place on the last day of the war – the cease fire was to go into effect that night. In the interim between when the decision is made and the actual cease fire, fighting continues and men die – this is one of many heartbreaking aspects of war. Crump wanted the plot to revolve around a group of 14 men who are ordered to set up an observation post on Red Top Hill … a “movie” hill that was loosely based on the infamous Pork Chop Hill. One of the men would die in the effort. The agony of dying on the last day of the war summed up in 80 minutes. Wallis loved it.
In mid-June 1953, Crump walked among the frontline troops, choosing each soldier who would be a 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 GI’s-turned-actors were whisked off to the war correspondent’s building in Seoul, where they slept in real beds, ate dinner at tables with linen cloths and waiters, 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. Everyone there knew that the cease fire was only a few days away – the summer would out-live the fighting. And when they got home … oh my, when they got home! All but one reveled in the deliciousness of it: Ricardo could scarcely bear it.
The 19-year-old from 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, and since finding out his movie fate, he couldn’t seem to wait to get it done. The other men were enjoying every minute of the experience, grateful to be away from the shooting, mud and death. Crump couldn’t figure Ricardo out.
Yet when the cameras were on, Ricardo had a knack. He played his part almost perfectly – remarkable considering he’d never acted a day in his life. Owen Crump was pleased beyond belief as they forged this new, cinematic ground, and he was anxious to see if Paramount would be as impressed as he was.
Hal Wallis watched the black and white rushes with growing enthusiasm. He was Hollywood’s preeminent “starmaker” – in fact, he was Hollywood, and while he couldn’t define it exactly, he knew a star when he saw one. As he watched, one warrior stood out: PFC Ricardo Carrasco of El Paso, Texas. This kid had “it.” He watched each piece of raw footage from his director, and every frame proved his conviction correct. Wallis wired the news to Owen Crump: Get Carrasco under contract. The starmaker had big plans for him.
In Seoul, after a particularly long day, Crump pulled Carrasco aside for a private moment so he could relay the news to the private. He waited for the shriek of joy – he never could have anticipated the young man’s polite refusal.
“No thank you, sir.”
Crump stood stock still for a moment. Something was wrong here.
“No, wait, son, you don’t understand. Hal Wallis is offering you a contract with Paramount Pictures. He wants to make you a star. He thinks you have what it takes.” Crump was assured that this time Carrasco would understand.
But Ricardo remained firm. “Yes sir, I understand that, but I’m not interested.”
Crump could only stare. What Carrasco said next left the man reeling.
“Sir, do you think we could get me killed off in the next day or two?” he asked.
Again Crump could only whisper, “What?”
“Sir, buzz is the Chinese are getting ready to attack Pork Chop again. The guy they got to take my place 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. He couldn’t deny the fire in those deep, chocolate eyes, but still …
“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 and, by God, he wasn’t going to be now. He told his assistant to wire back that since the cease fire would be signed into effect in a few days, Crump was to again make the contract offer. 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. He rewrote the sketchy script to kill Ricardo off two weeks ahead of schedule, and shot the close-ups of Ricardo’s final 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 up his gear and hopped into a waiting jeep, chatting about his mother and El Paso and the approaching football season with the driver. As they pulled up to the forward area around Pork Chop, he hopped out with his duffle bag and waved goodbye.
That was the night the Chinese attacked, and at 11:25 p.m., the man who could have been a prince of Hollywood ended his tour of duty in an explosion of brain and skull and mortar. There was no slow motion, no swell of music as his head burst. His reel death and his real death had played out about 12 hours apart.
The cease fire was signed on July 27, 1953. “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, no less. The movie, like the war, was not a box office hit. 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 what was left of their lives – all except one, who left his life on a hillside in Korea.
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 – not because he had to, but because he chose to.
It is not a choice made lightly, but once made, it is set in stone forever. My beloved warrior brothers feel that the real heroes died over there, but I submit to you that their moment of agony was short. Now they are free and know all the answers, the whys and wherefores. It is those who must live everyday with the torment of memories – you are my heroes, because you bear the awful burden every day. There is no love like it – no gift more precious – and we have treated you poorly for your priceless gift. I am so sorry … you deserved better. You deserved a return at the very least equal to what you gave us – what you gave up for us.
I have yet to measure up to what they gave, yet to suffer, yet to deserve. The thought that a mere mortal boy could be offered the greatest human acknowledgement known to flesh in the form of fame, fortune and power – and turn it down for war, terror, blood and death is an exact similitude of the sacrifice that saved us all when our perfect brother did it.
Only Ricardo wasn’t perfect. In fact, the only person to ever pull off perfection had to be God to do it. The only fully mortal men I’ve ever known who come close to comparing to so great a gift is the soldier. It isn’t that they are perfect – it is that in spite of their own personal weaknesses, they achieve a type of selfless sacrifice that can only compare to the gift the Savior gave the world.
God bless the warrior, and forgive our treatment of them. Their vigilance is our only hope, for in the course of awful, painful, heartbreaking, glorious human events, they make the stands that save the souls.
Keep the faith, my brothers.
CAST OF “CEASE FIRE”
Lt. Thompson – Capt. Roy Thompson
Sgt. Goszkowski – Cpl. Henry Goszkowski
Elliott – Sgt. Richard Karl Elliott
“One Ton” – SPC Albert Bernard Cook
Mayes – Pvt. Johnnie Lee Mayes
Kim – Bong Chul Pak
Strait (Radio Man) – SPC Howard E. Strait
“Bad News” – Pfc. Gilbert L. Gazaille
Hofelich (Wounded Boy) – Pfc. Harry Hofelich
Owen – Cpl. Charlie W. Owen
English – Cpl. Harold D. English
Pruchniewski – Cpl. Edmund G. Pruchniewski
Wright – Pvt. Otis Wright
Carrasco (KIA) – Pfc. Ricardo Carrasco