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Orlando Sentinel story from 1953 leads to posthumous medal for soldier who died on Korean War’s final day

65th Infantry Regiment Congressional Gold Medal (U.S. Mint/WikiCommons)

Bobby Simmons, 83, cherishes an Aug. 30, 1953, Orlando Sentinel article chronicling the life of his older brother, who was killed on the last day of the Korean War.

He kept the story about Irvin O. Simmons Jr., headlined “Snapshots, Letter Tell Of GI Killed On Last Day of War,” folded and tucked inside his shirt pocket when he served in Korea himself as a medic after the war was over, from 1955-57.

“I felt like I was part of him,” said Simmons, who still lives on the property between Titusville and Mims where he and his brother grew up with their three sisters. “When the mail came to me, one was a ‘dear John’ letter from my fiance. The other was that article that my mom sent me.”

A researcher’s discovery of the long-ago story set in motion a ceremony in Titusville to honor Irvin Simmons for his service in what is known as the “forgotten war.” On Saturday, U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, will present a replica of the Borinqueneers Congressional Gold Medal to Bobby Simmons.

Irvin Simmons was a member of the Army’s Puerto Rican 65th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed the “Borinqueneers,” the only Hispanic-segregated unit in Army history. By the time Simmons entered the 65th it had been integrated.

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“He fought with them shoulder to shoulder under the same designation as the 65th, so for us he is a Borinqueneer,” said Albie Albertorio, 53, of Oviedo, executive assistant of the Borinqueneers Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony National Committee. His 90-year-old father, Anibal Albertorio, is a Borinqueneer.

Posey’s office called the medal being awarded posthumously a “story brought back to light 66 years later, finally coming to its conclusion but with hope that will endure the test of time.”

The beginning of the full-page article published in the newspaper’s Florida Magazine — which includes snapshots of the young man who went by Junior, with his mom and with Army buddies — goes right to the heart of what those who served in Korea said it was like.

“We have moved forward and it is to hell where we are at.”

So goes the last letter of Pfc. Irvin Owen Simmons Jr., an easy-going country boy who used to cut palms and cabbage hearts for a living in the fields of this peaceful community. From a Korean foxhole in June, Simmons was writing to his mother.

‘We have had 13 boys wounded here,’ he wrote. ‘Some got hurt pretty bad. But me, I am still the same. …’

A month later the 22-year-old was dead, a wedge of cold shrapnel twisting his body.

Bobby remembers going with his parents, Irvin Sr. and Cora, and two youngest sisters to the Piggly Wiggly store in Titusville and then stopping at the post office, where they picked up what would be Irvin Jr.’s final letter.

After reading the letter, Bobby said, “We thought he made it,” because of the July 27, 1953, armistice that ended hostilities.

That night, his parents had gone to bed, his sisters were in their bedroom “arguing about something” and Bobby was in his bedroom reading a Lone Ranger “funny book.”

Then a car pulled up and a man, not from the military, delivered a telegram to his mother with the fateful news.

“All of a sudden she started screaming,” Bobby recalled, “and we all went running in there and she said ‘Junior’s dead!’”

In the Aug. 7, 1953, telegram, the commanding officer expressed his “most profound sympathy” as he informed her of her son’s death by “fragments of enemy artillery fire.”

Col. Claude M. Howard went on to say that “everything humanly possible was done in his behalf …”

“He was an excellent soldier, performing all tasks assigned to him in a cheerful and efficient manner, thereby winning the respect of his superiors and that of his comrades,” Howard wrote.

Four other members of the 65th Regiment also died on July 27, according to records compiled by the Korean War Project, including Pfc. John Edward Rasmussen, 21, of Volusia County, a member of the 279th Infantry Regiment.

A total of 31 American soldiers died the day combat operations came to a halt in the bloody three-year war, leaving Korea divided at the 38th parallel about the same is it had been since World War II ended.

No peace treaty was ever signed so technically the war never ended.

But the fighting ended too late for Irvin Jr., whose short life touched Jorge Mercado of the Bronx, N.Y. , the grandson of a World War II and Korean War veteran who was a Borinqueneer.

Mercado is a historical research team member for the same organization as Albertorio. Every week he posts a historical item from the 65th on Facebook. One was the Sentinel story about Simmons, which he found through a search on a newspaper archive site.

“I really developed an attachment to the story,” said Mercado, 50.

The story mentioned First Baptist Church of Titusville, where the Simmons family were members. Someone there put Mercado in touch with Bobby.

That got the ball rolling on the medal ceremony, set for 11:30 a.m. at the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 109, 435 N. Singleton Ave. Mercado said more than 100 people are expected to attend.

Those attending will pay homage to Irvin Jr.’s military service and learn about his adventurous life growing up in a rural old Florida setting that has been disappearing in the decades since his death.

He’s buried at the LaGrange Cemetery, about 100 yards from where Bobby, a retired missile propellant sampler, and his wife of 60 years, Flossie, live. It’s also the grave site for his parents, four grandparents and two great-grandparents.

The Sentinel’s Paul Thompson described the fallen solder as a 5-foot-10, 150-pound avid hunter and fisherman with an even-tempered disposition.

The story concludes:

He was a humble boy who loved people and the simple way of life. He never had a steady girlfriend, but he spoke often of getting married.

He entered the Army willingly and without fear. He fought for his country bravely and well.

And that is the story of Private First Class Irvin Owen Simmons Jr., a soldier in the Korean war.

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© 2020 The Orlando Sentinel