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MIA: Another generation launches fight for answers in the case of Kenneth Henry Drew

Last modified: Saturday, December 05, 2015

“My name is Sharon,” the letters and emails began. “My uncle Kenneth (Bobby) Drew was with the 7th Infantry Div., 31st Infantry Reg., and was declared MIA on Dec. 3, 1950, and was at Chosin Reservoir.”

Sharon Nickerson started sending them in 1990. At 30, she’d heard her mother speak for years about the brother she’d lost. Nickerson decided to find out all she could about a man whose absence for four decades still tugged like a dark planet on her family’s orbit.

In the messages she cranked out to veterans across the country, first from Shrewsbury, then from her home in North Brookfield, she got to the point: “I am trying to locate anyone who knew him and served with him for my mother.”

Nickerson combed through newsletters for Korean war veterans looking for contacts, hoping to find someone who had served with her uncle and could fill in the biggest blank in the Drew family past. She was doing this for her mother, Carol LaValley, but also for her seven aunts and uncles.

“It’s in the back of their minds,” she said of them. “There’s no moving past it.”

Sharon settled in for a long fight for information. As she pursued answers, years went by. She got married and changed her name. She and her husband had one son, then another. Her father-in-law, a Marine veteran who received a Purple Heart for service in Korea, lent moral support and gave her tips on ways to get answers out of the military bureaucracy.

In December 1990 she had heard back from the Army’s Mortuary Affairs and Casualty Support Division in Alexandria, Virginia. The envelope included copies of all documents from her uncle’s personnel file. It wasn’t much. The Army’s letter explained that the 1953 armistice agreement was supposed to allow teams from each side to travel to recover remains. “The plan was not acceptable to the Communist forces,” the letter said, so a different arrangement called for each side to recover remains and exchange them in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.

That exchange, called “Operation Glory,” had wrapped up in 1954, the letter said. Sharon then learned that a military board, in a meeting Jan. 16, 1956, had declared her uncle’s remains “nonrecoverable.”

The messages she sent to veterans began to turn things up, as men in their 60s and 70s came out memory’s foxhole.

Max Clayton, a fellow veteran of the 7th Infantry Division, agreed to reprint Nickerson’s appeal for information in an annual newsletter called the HourGlass. In time, her message made its way to all the groups and publications that exist to remember what members of the armed forces endured in Korea.

Others were searching, too. A retired Army major, Jerry Clinton, wrote to Nickerson that he’d lost his entire platoon except for a sergeant in the Chosin fighting and wanted to talk with anyone who made it out.

One veteran who replied apologized for taking two years to write back. Some wrote that they knew a private named Kenny, or one named Bobby. Big haystack, no needles. Others never responded. “A lot of them didn’t want to talk about it at all.”

She kept at it for a decade. In 1998, a man named Pete Cummings from Oregon told her he’d joined a group of survivors that called themselves the “Chosin Few.” He described his escape during the final days of the Army unit’s attempt to move south to safety, away from a massive enemy force in temperatures that fell to 30 degrees below zero.

Cummings had suffered a head wound. “If I had stopped walking my feet would have frozen. I am going to prepare a list of the names of the survivors along with some other names along with the addresses and e-mail to you. … I believe about 4,000 men were killed in just two of three days and about 8,000 wounded or frostbitten. God help me, I will do everything in my power to help you.”

Extracting answers

Nickerson’s files grew slowly, but in time included a thin stack of documents that could have been mailed for pennies in the 50s.

She banked away the Battle Casualty Report, which four years after the end of World War II still said “WAR DEPARTMENT” at the top. Whoever filled this one out embodied governmental thrift by typing “XXXX” over “WAR” and to the right adding “OF THE ARMY.” The document said the Army learned Jan. 11, 1951, that Drew had gone missing in action. There was a check mark by the box saying “REPORT VERIFIED.” Later that year, the Army renewed Drew’s status as MIA, but two years later changed the status to presumed dead on the Finding of Death of Missing Person form. It contained no new information on how he’d been killed. The Army promoted him posthumously to corporal and the form noted that while serving, at age 17 and 18, he had not indicated a beneficiary.

While the Army might conclude this soldier wasn’t coming home, that’s not how the Drew family looked at it.

Carol LaValley remembers that after her parents bought the family’s first TV in 1952, they watched entertainment shows like Omnibus on Sunday afternoon. But it was news in black and white about the war, heading at that point toward stalemate, that gathered members of the family.

“We’d sit in front of that television and watch the men come off the planes and wonder if he was there among them,” Carol said. “It was just constantly on our minds.”

A mother’s quest

One of the documents Nickerson pried loose carried the voice of her grandmother, Evelyn Drew, who died in 1973 when Nickerson was 13.

On Feb. 2, 1954, Evelyn Drew had written to the Army Effects Bureau in Kansas City, Missouri — a two-sided letter on a small piece of notepaper, sent from the family’s apartment at 87 Ferry St. in Easthampton.

“Dear Sir,” it began. “I am writing to ask if you know if of our Son” — with a capital letter — “has any Personal belongings — on your records. We haven’t heard anything concerning his personal belongings but thought you could let us know if there had been any. We would appreciate it very much if you would let us know.” She signed it “Mr. & Mrs. Kenneth H. Drew.”

The Army’s effects quartermaster, H.V. Hawes, wrote back a week later with answers. The two letters and single photo sent to the family on June 11, 1952, were all the Army had.

Hawes added, “It seems very doubtful that any more effects will be received later. I realize that this information will be disappointing and I am deeply sorry that I cannot furnish a more favorable reply. I wish to express my sincere regret of the circumstances prompting this correspondence.”

Nickerson filed away the Effects Inventory form, with its grid of small boxes at the top identifying the dozens of things dead soldiers leave behind: bags, belts and billfolds, for instance, and souvenir money, towels and washcloths, footlockers, glasses, knives, lighters, rings, scarfs, ties and tobacco.

Another military form detailed dental records, based on a medical exam Drew had undergone in Springfield on May 20, 1949, the day he enlisted and the day after he turned 17. Handwritten notes at the bottom of the form, called DATA ON REMAINS NOT YET RECOVERED OR IDENTIFIED, noted that his “creed” was Catholic, that he needed three fillings and he’d lived for 18 years, six months and 14 days.

Raising hopes

By 1955, the Drew family had moved to Ryan Road in Florence. That winter, the family got a letter from the Army asking if it had records of x-rays or dental work that Bobby had received. “He never had anything like that done,” Evelyn wrote. “All we know of is ‘the Dental work’ he had done, just before he was missing.” That was news to the Army, and the issue turned up in a footnote on another form with dental information under “abnormalities.”

“NOK (next of kin) states that son had written that he was captured & a POW for 13 days, during that time 6 of his teeth, front & side, were broken off ... If the teeth were replaced, this card belongs in Class I, however, there are no Army records to substantiate it.”

But Evelyn knew what her son had said: “He had written us that he had been captured for thirteen days by the North Koreans.” She mentioned that Bobby had written of being fitted with “peg teeth” by the Army. “He was sent to the front again and we never heard anything from him after that until the telegram came.”

She wrote that his last letter had come Oct. 31, 1950 — a month before he went missing. They hadn’t seen him that year because a planned furlough “was cancelled at the last minute and (he) was sent to Korea instead.”

The Army’s request for medical records stirred Evelyn. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your letter and I feel I have something to hope on. I’d give anything in the world possible if he were alive and could come home. I work in a U.S. Air Force hospital and both my husband & I have been working 16 to 18 hr. a day since 1950 to help forget, which isn’t easy to do.”

Her letter closed, “I will check all his letters and if I can possibly find anything that I think you need I will write immediately.”

Life at home

Carol LaValley remembers her mother’s long hours. “She felt if she was so tired, she’d just fall into bed and sleep. She was consumed with my brother being gone, you know. My mother was always working and I always felt lonely.”

She and her mother found special time together late, after Evelyn came home from her 3 to 11 p.m. factory shift. “I would wait up.” They’d tell each other about their days. “My mom’s feet were always bothering her. She liked to have them rubbed.”

After Bobby went missing, Evelyn took a state exam to become a licensed practical nurse. Carol remembers her mother’s thirst for knowledge — as well as her need for distraction. “Late at night she’d be reading nurses journals to see if there was something she could learn from them.”

Carol’s sister Nellie was older, just a year younger than their brother. Nellie Pealo lives today at Highview of Northampton, the nursing home. She remembers her mother’s open grief and shock. When the word of his loss came, Nellie said, “my mother just stood there like she was in a trance.”

And she noted her father Kenneth’s quiet sense of loss. “He was silent about things. I guess he missed Bobby too, but he didn’t say things. He kind of stayed to himself.”

The family pushed for information that never came. “We bugged them and bugged them to find him,” Nellie said of the military. “Writing letters and trying to get information from different people. It was so heart-wrenching.”

One morning this fall, Carol, who lives in Ware, sat with her older brother Howard at a doughnut shop in Florence, not far from where he lives.

The topic was what Bobby’s death did to the Drew family — particularly their parents. “They held that hope for years. I think my mother never gave up,” said Carol.

She turned in the booth and asked Howard: “Did she?”

“No,” Howard said. “She tried, but she never found any answers.”

“It was like a stone wall,” said Carol. “She went to an early grave she was so upset over this.”

Nickerson heard about those years — of her mother’s absent brother, and her mother’s grief — when she was growing up. “She always told me her mother was working two jobs to forget. I think my mother really missed out.”

Getting closer

Years into her research, Nickerson reached a man named Albert J. Snyder who lived in Oldtown, Maryland. He’d joined Drew’s unit in January 1951 after the debacle at Chosin, but he was able to provide a copy of a duty roster that included Uncle Bobby’s name.

Alongside his name were those of soldiers who served and perhaps died with him — Drake, Harlan, above him and Driver, Patrick, below. Some on this list, Nickerson hoped, might yet be able to describe his final minutes. She wrote to all of them.

A man named Jerome McCabe answered the “My name is Sharon” email to say he didn’t know her uncle because he was in a heavy mortar unit. But he relayed her email to others and thanked her for contacting him. “I know this is of little real help to you. However, just starting an inquiry may stimulate some memory.”

In the early winter of 1999, Sharon wrote to Robert J. Bendix, a Korean war veteran who lived at the time at the Vet Center in Elkton, Maryland. She’d found his name through her networking with veterans groups.

When Bendix got Sharon’s letter he brought it to a counselor at the center, Thomas Pinder. Bendix told Pinder he couldn’t respond to Sharon’s letter and asked for his help.

Pinder wrote, “Mr. Bendix is presently being seen by myself for the effects that his Korean experience has caused him.” The one-page letter continued: “He stated to me that he did know your uncle but just in passing as many soldiers do. He is aware of the events surrounding your uncle’s death but requested that you only be told that he died honorably fighting for his country. The details of the death are not pleasant to hear about and were difficult for Mr. Bendix to discuss with me.”

Nickerson recalls that she didn’t want to cause this veteran “any additional grief,” as she put it. “I have not pursued it.”

In the line of fire

Nickerson tracked down Fred Lane, a Chosin veteran who lives in Durham, North Carolina. They spoke twice on the phone, at length. Lane told her he was at the rear of the column as it retreated south from the reservoir, fighting day and night over the days it took to travel 12 miles, under fire, to the village of Hagaru-ri to join a Marines force.

Lane didn’t make it. He and four others were captured and he ended up spending 33 months as a prisoner of war. Like Drew, he was declared missing in action; his family didn’t know he was alive for more than a year.

Nickerson shared Lane’s story in a letter she wrote to an aunt, Linda Champagne, who lived in Chicopee. “He mentioned he is still undergoing group therapy because of Korea. He stressed over and over again that Uncle Bobby died a hero and to let all of you know that.”

Cummings, the veteran from Oregon she found in 1998, told her in an Aug. 31 email that same year that he was starting to think he did remember Drew, who he knew as Kenny. They were both 18 and serving as privates. Nickerson logged his story, but still isn’t sure this Kenny was her uncle, because Cummings said he had all his teeth.

“Now I remember it was Dec. 2 the last time I saw him,” Cummings wrote. “Our platoon got ambushed by a large co. of Chinese soldiers and only about 7 in our platoon got out. Kenny and most of the platoon tried to escape across the ice because it was closer to the Marines on the West side of the reservoir, and I and another GI turned and ran up this snow covered hill to the SW.

“The Chinese shot at us a lot while we were running and I got hit in the head. Knocked my helmet clear off my head and the blood ran down my face and I couldn’t find it.” Cummings walked for two days and found a village held by Marines. He didn’t know what became of Drew.

“Kenny was a good soldier and did his job as well or better than anyone as I recall. I sure wish more guys that I knew there had lived. It has been a lot of lonesome years not knowing anyone … what we went through together.”

After surviving Chosin, Cummings had been seriously injured in a February 1951 battle and spent three years in veterans hospitals.

It was Raul Rudy Reyes Sr., the veteran who waited two years to respond to Nickerson’s appeal, who in an email message in October 2000, offered an account that clicked for her. She believes Reyes actually knew her uncle. “I did sense that the things he described were real.”

Reyes said he waited to reply because he wanted to make sure that what he shared was accurate. He had taken a photo of Drew to a reunion of the 31st Infantry Division the month before.

“The last name, Drew, didn’t ring a bell. However, the face did! As I remember Drew, he had a cracking voice (like a young voice, changing to manhood) but very soft and easy to the ear. … He blended in real easy with the other older members (of the platoon).”

One of Reyes’ children, Lynn, was typing his message in her home next door, explaining that dad can’t use a computer “and his handwriting isn’t very readable.”

Reyes said Drew had been assigned to a machine gun squad led by a Capt. Garza. He recalled that Drew used to read mail from Garza’s mother, written in Spanish, out loud to the squad for fun. “He did a great job of it,” Reyes said. An older sergeant from Boston used to tease Drew because they came from the same state, he recalled.

Garza went missing four days before Drew did. On Nov. 30, 1950, Reyes recalled, the platoon was together in a truck convoy that was ambushed. It was midday, he said. They fought until nightfall and then dug in. “On the third day, all the foot soldiers were sent by foot to try to make contact with the town named Kotori.”

Traveling at night, some reached the village. “But before this happened the Chinese were everywhere (in great numbers). The Chinese discovered our movement in the dark and attacked the column of GIs … cutting us in the middle. We, the point, kept going to Kotori. The GIs in the back circled for protection (like the covered wagons did during Indian attacks) until daylight came.”

Three tanks were dispatched to reach the soldiers who’d been cut off and were now trapped, facing a Chinese force that Reyes estimated outnumbered them 10-1.

“It was on that day, Dec. 3, 1950, that we found ourselves trapped. … And on this particular day, we lost many of our comrades to enemy fire and the cold weather. … It was during that time that we last saw, not only Drew, but many of our comrades.”

What remains undone

In late 1998 and early 1999, Nickerson sat down to write letters to all of her aunts and uncles — and her mother — summarizing what she’d found. She shared a written account she’d been given about the battles around the Chosin Reservoir, underlining references to their brother’s unit. She explained what the Army was still doing to account for those who went missing in Korea and offered to help them use a toll-free number to get a briefing on the use of DNA testing. She copied and sent along an interview someone else had conducted with Roy Shiraga, a Chosin survivor who escaped during the retreat across the frozen reservoir.

Those accounts provided a picture, however hazy, that the family hadn’t been able to assemble in the nearly 50 years since Drew’s death.

She continued to correspond with veterans but eventually packed up her files. Her mother thanked her for caring so much much about an uncle she’d never known. After writing all those letters, Nickerson never heard back from her aunts and uncles.

When asked why, she shrugged. “I just didn’t hear from anyone. I’m sure they appreciated the information.” Silence was something of a Drew family habit.

What Bobby Drew’s siblings really wanted was for him to come home, whatever might be left of him, and be laid to rest in the area at St. Brigid’s Cemetery in Easthampton were a stone carries his name beside his parents’ graves.

“We could give him a funeral,” said Carol. “You know what it’s like to not have a funeral?”

Larry Parnass is the editor of the Gazette.


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