Charles Rangel was born in New York City in 1930. After dropping out of high school, he found a series of low paying jobs to be unfulfilling, and in 1948, joined the US Army.
Rangel was stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington, when he received word that his unit was being sent to Korea as part of a ‘police action’. Rangel thought this meant they were going to be suppressing a riot or some other civil disturbance.
Rangel instead found himself in the Battle of Kunu Ri in November of 1950, a disaster for the US military in which over 5,000 soldiers would be killed, wounded or captured. A Sergeant, Rangel was able to lead his men out of encirclement by the enemy, only narrowingly escaping capture. From a mountain position, he was able to observe the arriving enemy soldiers dragging away American prisoners and seizing US equipment. Leading his men to safety on an arduous journey by foot, eventually they were spotted by a US glider which dropped supplies and directed their way out. Rangel would always say that since 30 November 1950, he had never had a bad day, because that one was the worst.
Officially the US Armed Services were desegregated in 1948, but as a matter of practice the process was much slower and Rangel found himself assigned to a segregated barracks even after returning from Korea.
Upon his discharge in 1952, Rangel completed his high school education and would eventually graduate from St. John’s Law School. In 1966, he was elected to the New York State Legislature and in 1970 to the US House of Representatives. He was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1974, and was continuously re-elected until his retirement in 2016.