combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 04 Number 01 Winter ©Jan 2006

Fifty-Five Years Later
a Marine Remembered

If the moon hadn't come out when it did that chill November night, he might have made it back, down the trail, across the river, perhaps all the way back to Virginia.

Why and how he didn't makes for a hard story, but then war is a hard business. Perhaps this is why an old retired mid-western schoolteacher, himself a twice-wounded veteran, waited fifty-five years, from 1950 until today, to answer long-ago questions.

Feelings of guilt have a way of contributing to silence and making for a special, private hell, whether these feelings are justified or not.

I don't think his guilt was, or is, justified. After all, Semper Fidelis is the motto of the Marine Corps. Semper Fi. Always faithful.

They call the Korean War the Forgotten War which, if true, is a damned shame, not just because of all it accomplished, but because of all that it didn't. What must be remembered is that it cost well over 33,000 battle deaths in just three years. The Vietnam War cost 47,000 plus in almost nine.

This story begins in the spring of 1950, when some of us were preparing for college, while others were taking a more difficult and challenging way. It was a time when young bodies and minds were not yet dulled, and remembrance consisted of things worth believing, rather than all we now try to forget.

I was walking down Princess Anne Street in Fredericksburg in the growing dusk when I saw a high school classmate – no close friend, just someone to know and play ball with in a small town. His name was Walter Henry Cloe III, but everybody called him Hank. He was standing on the corner of William Street in front of the bank, talking with a couple of girls. He was wearing a Marine uniform, and I remember being mildly surprised because I didn't know he had enlisted.

All this came back to me that fall when the newspaper reported that Hank was missing in action. He'd been with the First Marine Division at Sudong, deep in the North Korean mountains, when tens of thousands of Chinese, that General Douglas MacArthur's staff said weren't there, had exploded in the face of the Allied forces. In an unexpected attack, someone has to get hit first. In that part of North Korea, enroute to the Chosin Reservoir, Hank's First Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment, had been that unit.

There was very little else that anyone heard in the weeks that followed, other than a report that Hank had been last seen with a leg wound.

I don't know why all this stayed with me, because Hank wasn't the only MIA from our little high school. There was Leo DeBruyn, a draftee medic with the Army's Second Infantry Division, who disappeared during a patrol one night in 1953 during the final months of the war and was never heard from again. Perhaps the remembering of what happened to old classmates came in part from guilt at being safe in college with a handful of deferments, while others took the risks that should have been mine. Even the fact that the draft was to get me later didn't change things.

It was something I didn't talk about, particularly with my high school classmates who somehow never got a draft notice, and went on to secure professions, while we, who at least answered the call, tried to keep our families together on about $100 a month.

But all that is a half century ago. Recently, while blundering about on the internet with the loathing of a true technophobe, I came upon a Marine site for contacting old buddies. Would anyone still be alive who might know what happened to Hank Cloe, I wondered? Too many years, I figured, for anyone to remember, or care about something that had gone unsolved for so long. It was like asking in 1920 about someone last seen at Appomattox. I asked anyway.

Several weeks later, I got a mid-afternoon call. "Yes," said the caller, "I knew Hank and I remember when he was lost."

"I was up in the hills," he went on. "Hank was down near the railroad track, the tunnel, and the river. But I do know the guy who was his best friend," he added. "If I talk to him again, I'll give him your number."

A couple more weeks passed and then another call came. The man on the phone this time was more than a little suspicious. "Who are you," he asked, "and why do you want to know about Hank?"

"Memory and curiosity," I said, "and the feeling that bad as it is to lose someone killed in action, missing in action without any answers seems almost worse. It doesn't seem much of a tribute just to forget it," I added.

He hesitated for so long I thought he had hung up.

"Perhaps it's time," he said at last. "Perhaps it's time." His voice was strong, but it was shaking.

"What I'm about to tell you," he went on slowly, "is something I've never told a soul in fifty-five years – not my wife, not my children.

"Hank – we called him Bones – was my best friend. I think of him every day. I pray for him every day. I love him every day. His picture is on my desk.

"The Chinese hit us hard at Sudong. It was the first meeting between the Marines and the Chinese. I was carrying a bazooka and three rounds. I put them all into a Chinese position, but there were just too many of them.

"The lieutenant told us to move back across the river to set up better positions. That's when Bones was hit through the ankle and went down beside the trail. I stayed with him and passed the word that we needed a corpsman. It was getting dark and we were soon alone. I don't know what happened, but the corpsman apparently never got the word or else he was too tied up with other wounded.

"Chinese began to pour out of the railroad tunnel in groups of fifteen to fifty. We buried ourselves in a hurry under leaves and brush beside the path. The Chinese passed so close we could smell their breath."

"I said to Bones, We've got to get back across the river'."

" I can hop,' Bones replied. Go up a few yards and make sure where the trail goes, then come back and get me.'

"That was the way we handled it. I would scout the trail between batches of Chinese when the moon was hidden, then get Bones and he'd hop and I'd half-carry him.

"I'd gone ahead and just as I was turning back to Bones, the moon suddenly broke through the clouds. He was standing there on one leg and there were Chinese everywhere."

"I yelled at him to get down just as the Chinese opened up. I had picked up an M-1 and was firing as fast as I could. Bones had turned to face the Chinese and was firing his .45 pistol, the only weapon he had. The Chinese shot him down where he stood."

There was another long pause. When he spoke again, all he said was, "He died like a Marine ...."

Another silence, and then he continued. "A bullet shattered the rifle in my hand. I had nothing left but a knife. I looked at where Bones had fallen and made the most difficult decision of my life. I turned toward the river to try and find the lieutenant and let him know just how many were headed our way.

"I was in the water when two grenades landed on either side of me and blew me out onto the bank. I didn't get a scratch, not from that.

"He was my best friend," he said again. "I've loved him every day and I've missed him every day."

And then once more:

"He died like a Marine."

I deliberately haven't mentioned this man's name or told any more about what he's done with his life. Any man who has kept a secret for fifty-five years – a secret I suspect is unjustly tinged with guilt, because Marines don't leave their dead and certainly not their wounded – is a man who deserves his privacy.

And his peace, if he can find it.

You can call Korea the Forgotten War. Maybe you're right. But not for everyone.

Semper Fi, my friend.

by Robert P. Hilldrup
... who is a Cold War veteran of the U.S. Army, with service in the Third Infantry Division and the XVIII Airborne Corps; he's the author of more than 800 book reviews, articles, and short stories in more than sixty magazines, as well as fiction and non-fiction books.

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