Like the spirited American competitors striving for medals in the Winter Olympics wrapping up today in South Korea, Uvalde resident Gilbert Riojas Sr. also toiled in the Asian country. But instead of Olympic gold, silver or bronze, Riojas earned a Purple Heart for his wartime service in the 1950s.
Riojas is a retired Uvalde furniture entrepreneur and Korean War veteran who was born and raised in Uvalde. He served his country in the U.S. Army for 18 years before returning to his hometown and establishing a successful business.
He now lives quietly with his wife, Maria, in south Uvalde.
Riojas attended Uvalde High School and is a graduate of Southwest Texas Junior College.
The Korean conflict began June 25, 1950, when the North Korean Communist Army, supported by the Soviet Union and China, crossed the 38th Parallel and invaded non-communist South Korea.
In 1951, when Riojas was 18, he enlisted in the Army. By July of 1951, he was landing at Incheon, South Korea.
Incheon is significant as it was an amphibious invasion that resulted in a decisive victory for the U.S. and a strategic reversal in favor of the United Nations forces.
When Riojas landed at Incheon, he was separated from his 7th Infantry Division for several days before reconnecting.
U.N. forces drove the enemy back across the 38th Parallel boundary line and seemed in command of the war. However, Communist China reinforcements, 70,000 strong, stopped the U.N. forces.
Riojas, who remembers crossing the 38th Parallel in both directions, was awarded the Purple Heart from wounds suffered while saving his buddy Marvin Harold.
Harold, who was from Mississippi, was trapped in a burning tank. Riojas came to his rescue and, in doing so, was severely burned and received shrapnel in his legs, above his eye and to the forehead. He had to undergo plastic surgery in a Japanese hospital.
“To be honest, I never thought I deserved the Purple Heart, but after I was released from the hospital and returned to my unit, the company commander said he was going to recommend me for it.”
On Thanksgiving Day in 1952, Riojas and his brother Ernest had the honor of being addressed by General (and president-elect) Dwight D. Eisenhower in a bunker.
“Somehow he knew that two brothers were serving in the same unit,” related Riojas. “General Eisenhower asked, ‘Which one of you is Ernest?’ and Ernest replied, ‘I am, sir!’”
“He then told Ernest to take care of Gilbert and looked at me and said, ‘You take care of Ernest. May God Bless both of you,’ and he was on his way.”
After completing his tour of duty in Korea, Sgt. Riojas re-enlisted and was assigned to Fort Bliss in El Paso.
“My duty was to drive the bus to the train or bus station and pick up the new recruits. One day my passengers included Don Friend, Dan Davis and Armando Sanchez from Uvalde and Silvestre Orona from Sabinal,” Riojas said. “They never forgot that and we were good friends. Don Friend was a very good friend, who helped me a lot in later life.
“I really developed some close ties to guys I was serving with. In fact, I became closer to them than my brother,” Riojas continued. “One day at the [furniture] store this gentleman drove up in front of the store and it turned out to be Marvin Harold, the guy I had helped out of the burning tank.
“Marvin had flown to Houston on business and he flew on out to San Antonio, rented a car, and came to see me. That was real special.”
Another close Korean War buddy was Albert Diaz.
“Albert’s father owned a cigar factory in Cuba and after we went our separate ways, I would receive a box of cigars from him every Christmas,” Riojas said. “I got a letter from his sister last year telling me that Albert, who lived in New York, had passed away. But, she said, ‘Don’t worry, you will still be receiving those cigars.’”
Riojas then brought out the latest box of Havana cigars.
Riojas began his post-Army career selling used furniture from his first store on West Main.
“I was on West Main for 23 years and with the help of Gene Griffith, I purchased some property in South Uvalde and built a store. That’s where I did business until retirement.”
Riojas was the first Hispanic elected to the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District board of trustees, serving two terms. He also served as president of the El Progreso Memorial Library board of directors.
Today the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, will close. The translated name of that city is Peace/Prosperity. The only reason South Korea is able to enjoy some sort of peace and prosperity is the blood spilled by Gilbert Riojas and 110,000 other U.S. soldiers injured.
Additionally the U.S. suffered approximately 37,000 casualties. There are still 7,747 American soldiers unaccounted for, including Air Force 1st Lt. Edgar B. Gray of Uvalde, who went missing Dec. 14, 1951.
Juan G. Hernandez was killed in action just a month before the cease fire, and Juan Z. Plata, only two days before firing ceased. Both were listed from Uvalde County.
The XXIII Winter Olympic Games was hosted for the first time by South Korea. The cost to host such an event is astronomical.
South Korea spent $240,000 just serenading the sister of the North Korean dictator.
It’s unknown how much American blood is in the soil on the Olympic grounds, and there was no mention of the price paid by American soldiers so that 67 years later South Korea could host such an event rather than be part of a poverty, propaganda and intense militarism.
Charley Robinson is thankful to Tom Schliesing for his help in compiling information about Gilbert Riojas Sr.