CLEARWATER — The man walked out of history at the regular Saturday night dance at American Legion Post 7.
Post 7 vice commander Robert Farrell remembers that night in early April. As was Farrell’s custom, he had asked all World War II and Korean War veterans to stand and be recognized while the band on stage played the Star-Spangled Banner. After the men and women veterans sat back down, an elderly man in the audience stood up and shuffled over to Farrell.
“He must not have heard me ask for Korean War veterans to stand,” Farrell said. “He told me he was a Korean War vet and asked me if the band could play “Ballad of the Green Berets.”
The band pulled up an MP3 file of the song on a smartphone and played it for the elderly stranger.
“And retired Master Sgt. Ralph Sanchez stood at attention as they played the Green Beret song for him,” said Farrell, who also served in Vietnam. “I looked at him and his age and I at first didn’t believe he was a Green Beret.”
In fact, Sanchez, 88, had not only trained some of the nation’s first Green Berets, his battlefield valor had been proven long before the famed special forces community was formed.
Here are the medals the U.S. Army lists for Sanchez, who joined the Army in 1947: The Distinguished Service Medal; for injuries in battle, the Purple Heart with three bronze oak leaf clusters (the same as four Purple Hearts); for gallantry in combat, the Silver Star; the Army Commendation Medal; Four U.S. Army Good Conduct Medals; Army of Occupation Medal with Japan clasp; Korean Service Medal; Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal; Combat Infantryman Badge, 1st Award; United Nations Service Medal, Korea; Expert Badge with automatic rifle and carbine bar; Parachutist Badge – senior; and the Korea Defense Service Medal.
Sanchez shows heroism in Korea
The Korean War broke out in June 1950 when seven, fully outfitted divisions of the North Korean People’s Army, using Soviet tanks, rolled across the 38th parallel and into the south. The line had been set up after Japan’s surrender to give the Soviet Army the north to protect and the United States the southern half to protect.
The North Korean tanks and infantry overran ill-equipped American troops firing from bridges, from behind rocks, wooden buildings, and other covered positions. The older bazookas bounced off the thick armor of the enemy tanks.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur, head of American forces in the Pacific, rushed more American troops at the port of Pusan in Korea’s southeast corner. American and other United Nations troops in the “Pusan Perimeter” held off advancing North Koreans as American ships unloaded thousands of troops, World War II tanks, jeeps, rocket launchers, bazookas, artillery pieces, grenades, and ammunition.
According to his service jacket, Sanchez, assigned to MacArthur’s Army of Occupation in Japan, boarded a troop ship for Korea.
Blasting Chinese tank
As American and U.N. troops broke out of Pusan and MacArthur made his daring landing at Inchon on Korea’s east coast, the North Koreans were pushed back across the 38th Parallel. Sanchez and other U.S. Eighth Army soldiers — under MacArthur’s orders — would chase the North Korean Army too far into the great, frozen north. In November, Chinese communist troops poured across the Yalu River near the Chinese border to once again overrun U.N. and American troops.
“Ralph was most afraid as a Chinese tank bore down on his position and all he had was a rifle and his shoulder-fired bazooka,” Farrell said Sanchez told him. “He was surprised when the old, World War II bazooka actually worked. It was goodbye tank!”
That was not the only time Sanchez showed his courage in the snow and 25-below-zero temperature. When the Chinese and North Koreans counter-attacked across the Yalu River and the Chosin Reservoir area, Sanchez and his company in the 24th Infantry Division, found themselves held down by machine gun fire. The Largo resident did what he was trained to do.
Injured while attacking machine gun nests
“Mr. Sanchez was an E-6 platoon sergeant in Korea in the winter of 1950 when his company became engaged in a battle with North Koreans,” a 1968 U.S. Army account of Sanchez’s career stated. “Sanchez, in disregard for his own life, singlehandedly advanced on two of the machineguns that had his unit pinned down. He wiped out both of them with grenades and relieved the siege on his company. For this he was awarded the Silver Star, which is the third highest medal awarded for valor.”
Sanchez survived the Yalu counterattack that sent the U.S. Eighth Army fleeing south down narrow mountain roads. The troops abandoned artillery, trucks, jeeps, and other vehicles and ran to safety, taking fire from Communist troops on the slopes above.
The war would continue until July 1953; Sanchez would spend nine months in a hospital recovering from shrapnel injuries. Sanchez still had pieces of shrapnel in his back as late as 1968, according to an army article on his career.
Training Montagnard in Vietnam
Sanchez would go on to serve as one of the first instructors at the U.S. Army Special Forces school at Fort Bragg, North Carolina in 1961. He was at the fort when President John F. Kennedy, visiting Fort Bragg in April 1962, asked that the special warfare units adopt green berets. Sanchez’s paperwork also refers to him as an “operations and intelligence specialist,” serving in the 8th Special forces Group (Airborne) in Panama, training military units from Latin American countries in counter-insurgency tactics.
He trained Montagnard tribesmen in Vietnam between 1963-’64 and got into several skirmishes, Sanchez said. He taught counterintelligence, interrogation techniques, explosives, and other guerrilla tactics.
Sanchez — who said he has been on many, many covert missions in Latin America, too — said much of that activity is still classified. But when asked about the courage soldiers show in battle, he was eloquent.
“It’s all about discipline,” Sanchez said in his Largo living room. “If you believe in duty, honor and country just like you do Jesus Christ as your religion, it is inside of you. The U.S. Army Code of Conduct: I will never forget that I am an American soldier dedicated to the principles which made my country free, I am prepared to give my life in its defense. That’s it. If you remember your code of conduct, you’re going to conduct yourself like a soldier, not a crybaby.”
And one more thing:
“You are disciplined to act and execute, or else you could be executed by the enemy.”
Honoring Sanchez in Clearwater
As Farrell learned more about Sanchez’s career, he decided to honor him at the American Legion.
“I asked him, ‘Do you have any paperwork, Ralph?’”, Farrell said, referring to Department of Defense documents that verify a soldier’s service record. “He had some of them inside his jacket pocket,” Farrell said. “I read them and told him, ‘Wow, I’m not qualified to shine your shoes.’”
Farrell got in touch with Hoo Jung Jones Kennedy. Kennedy, a Canadian-Korean, is well-known for honoring American and Canadian Korean veterans. As an adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Kennedy was in a position to provide Sanchez with the Ambassador for Peace Medal, given only to soldiers who served from 1950 to the end of the conflict.
“She then contacted the South Korean Embassy in Washington, D.C., and they got approval from the South Korean president to present Ralph the medal,” said Farrell, who survived a battlefield crash in a DC-3 “Puff the Magic Dragon” gunship in Vietnam.
And so, on April 20, during the post’s regular Saturday night veterans’ dance, Ralph Sanchez stood slim and straight in his uniform as Kennedy read the dedication before a large American Legion crowd.
The proclamation expresses “the everlasting gratitude of the Republic of Korea and our people for the service of you and your countrymen who have performed in restoring and preserving our freedom and democracy.”
With that, Kennedy put the medal around Sanchez’s neck as the old soldier clicked his heels and saluted to cheers from his fellow war veterans.
Sanchez asks that fellow retired Green Berets can contact him through the American Legion Turner-Brandon Post 7 in Clearwater at 727-447-9204.