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