Minerva Morales sat in her living room and confided that, in a way, she still just didn’t believe it. But as she held the metal “dog tags” stamped MORALES F M, RA 352345345 and looked at the color photo of his partial denture, she knew the evidence was undeniable.
Her husband, Army Sgt. Frank M. Morales, had finally been accounted for, more than 43 years after he disappeared in a Korean War battle often compared to Custer’s Last Stand.
The Army’s mortuary affairs chief broke the news to Mrs. Morales in this room two days earlier: Her husband’s remains were the first from the Korean War to be positively identified since shortly after the shooting stopped.
Morales was lost, at age 37, at Unsan, North Korea. It was the first major Chinese Communist attack on U.S. forces in the Korean War--a trap sprung to the sound of whistles and bugles and fought with everything from truck-mounted rockets to bare fists.
Morales had been in “the Lost Battalion,” abandoned after the enemy surrounded it. There had been no evidence he survived. But there was no proof he was dead, either--until North Korea returned his remains in November.
Now, Morales’ 74-year-old widow has other questions. “You don’t know how he died, how he suffered--and not only him. All of them.”
That may be impossible to answer. In the rout at Unsan, nobody stopped to count the dead or record what happened to whom. And now so much time has passed.
The Associated Press tracked down 11 survivors of the battle, but they didn’t remember Morales, didn’t know how he died. Nor did his remains give Army pathologists any clue.
But from survivors’ accounts, books, records and interviews with his widow, a picture emerges of this soldier’s life, death and long-delayed journey home, to his homeland, where he will be buried the first of May.
Morales was born June 10, 1913, in Naguabo, a town on Puerto Rico’s east coast. He came to New York when he was about 8. He joined the Army at 18 and served in France during World War II, his widow said. According to the Army, his service records were among those lost in the 1973 fire at the military personnel records center in St. Louis.
Discharged after the war, Morales met his wife-to-be--also Puerto Rican, reared in San Juan--in 1947 through a niece.
“He played the piano beautifully, accordion, and I think the guitar, too. He loved music,” Mrs. Morales recalled in an interview in her modest Queens apartment.
A few months after they met, he proposed. Minerva, with three children by a previous marriage, accepted.
Morales, meanwhile, re-enlisted in the Army. “He could not live without the Army,” his widow said.
They were wed on May 15, 1948, she in a simple gown and veil, he in his best uniform, with corporal’s stripes on the sleeves.
Five days earlier, the first elections had been held in the southern, U.S.-supported half of the Korean peninsula. Soviet-backed northern Korea boycotted the vote, formalizing the World War II-era split along the 38th Parallel. The division set the stage for the Cold War’s first military conflict.
Morales was posted to Ft. McKinley in Maine, then to Ft. Devens in Massachusetts. He was there on June 25, 1950, when the North Korean People’s Army invaded South Korea. The United Nations formed a U.S.-led multinational force to repel the aggression.
Troops at Ft. Devens quickly were organized into the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. They went by train to California and by troopship to the port of Pusan in southernmost South Korea.
Morales and his wife, living in New York City, didn’t get to see each other to say goodby. She remembers that he told her not to worry, that his age and prior war service would keep him out of combat.
But when the 3rd Battalion reached Korea on Aug. 25, 1950, it joined the 8th Regiment’s other two battalions defending the Pusan Perimeter, the last U.N. stronghold in Korea, against furious North Korean attacks.
Morales’ unit took severe losses at the “Bowling Alley,” a valley where rockets and artillery ricocheted crazily off the hillsides.
In mid-September, the U.N. forces’ commander, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, staged his bold counterstroke at Inchon, recapturing the South Korean capital of Seoul and trapping North Korean forces to the south.
The 1st Cavalry broke out of the Pusan Perimeter and raced to Seoul, then chased the battered yet still battling enemy back into North Korea.
Mrs. Morales has misplaced, over the years, her husband’s letters from the front, but she recalls much of their content. “The more we kill,” he wrote in one letter, “the more we find.” He also wrote with pride when the 3rd Battalion crossed the 38th Parallel into North Korea.
That happened on Oct. 8, 1950. When it reached the North Korean capital of Pyongyang on Oct. 19, the 3rd Battalion had lost 400 of its original 700 men. Mrs. Morales remembers her husband complaining that U.S. troops lacked warm clothes in what would become Korea’s coldest winter in a decade. But they shared MacArthur’s optimism that the war was nearly won and they would be home by Thanksgiving.
In his last letter, “He said, ‘Now we’re going to Japan, and in Japan I’m going to buy you a lot of beautiful things.’ He says, ‘I’m going to get you a kimono.’ ”
But as Morales’ unit, strengthened with green replacements, waited in reserve in Pyongyang (and saw a Bob Hope show) the course of the war was changing. China was following through on its threat to intercede on North Korea’s behalf if U.N. forces crossed the 38th Parallel.
It did so in the last week of October. More than 150,000 Chinese army troops streamed from Manchuria across the Yalu River into North Korea. Setting forest fires to avoid air reconnaissance, they marched south and wiped out South Korean forces, called ROKs (for Republic of Korea).
By Oct. 28, U.S. area commander Gen. Walton Walker realized the Chinese were trying to set an Inchon-like trap. He ordered the 1st Cav’s 8th Regiment to Unsan, a town nestled in the mountains 65 miles north of Pyongyang. There, the troops dug skimpy, poorly sited lines along the Nammyon River.
“They should have court-martialed whoever sent us up there,” said Billy Joe Campbell of Amarillo, Tex., then a private in L Company. “You don’t set up in a valley.”
The night of Nov. 1, 1950, Morales’ L Company was dug in just northwest of a bridge on a main road from Unsan, waiting as battalion officers prepared, on orders, to evacuate.
An estimated 20,000 troops of two Chinese divisions had routed ROK units to the east and the Cav’s 1st and 2nd battalions to the north. Disabled American vehicles blocked the main road south. To the west were mountains--and more Chinese.
About 3 a.m. on Nov. 2, by most accounts, a column of about 30 men in South Korean uniforms reached the Nammyon bridge. “Sixth ROKs,” their leader shouted cheerfully. M Company sentries allowed them to cross.
The Sharp Swords had infiltrated the 3rd Battalion.
The soldiers were Chinese, wearing captured uniforms. The Sharp Swords name was for the unit’s cloak-and-dagger exploits in the civil war against Chinese Nationalists.
A few minutes later, under bright moonlight, the Sharp Swords reached the 3rd Battalion command post, a roadside dugout. An 18-year-old known as Little Liu sounded a bugle as Capt. Lao Kongcheng hurled a satchel charge at a U.S. truck. Other bugles answered from across the river.
“Then all hell broke loose,” recalled former Master Sgt. Troy Reid, in a comment echoed by other survivors. Reid, 72, of Fitchburg, Mass., said he knew Morales, though not well, and didn’t know how he died.
Truck-mounted “organ-pipe” launchers rained Russian-made 82-millimeter Katyusha rockets on the Americans. Then Chinese infantry hit the 3rd Battalion from all sides. They carried U.S.-made Thompson submachine guns seized from the Nationalists, Japanese rifles from World War II Manchuria and Soviet burp guns. Some carried grenades, or pistols, or knives tied to the ends of sticks. Many carried no weapons at all.
“When one got killed, one of the ones in the back would pick up his weapon and start fighting,” Reid said.
“It was hand-to-hand combat, with whatever you could get hold of,” recalled squad leader Herbert Miller, now 67, of Pulaski, N.Y.
In the darkness, Billy Joe Campbell recalled, “You didn’t know if you were shooting your own people or the Chinese.” But one thing was certain: “There was a heck of a lot more of them than us.”
After 90 minutes, the Chinese retreated. Remnants of L and K companies pulled back to the command post. If Morales still was alive, he would have been among about 200 men able to fight. There had been three or four times as many to start.
The survivors dug in around three tanks near the command post and fought off new Chinese attacks until daybreak. Then they retrieved 170 wounded. The uncounted dead included the 3rd Battalion commander, Maj. Robert J. Ormond.
During the day on Nov. 2, a sister regiment, the 5th Cavalry, tried to break a Chinese roadblock south of Unsan to rescue the 3rd Battalion. But with superiors refusing to commit howitzers big enough to reach Chinese positions, the 5th Cavalry failed at a ridgeline dubbed Bugle Hill, suffering 350 casualties.
Then the 1st Cavalry commander, Maj. Gen. Hobart Gay, reluctantly ended the rescue effort, abandoning the 3rd Battalion’s living and dead.
If Morales still was alive, he would have faced renewed Chinese onslaughts the night of Nov. 2, after U.S. planes left the area. The Chinese unleashed heavy mortars, then six infantry attacks. Americans set their own vehicles afire with bazookas and killed hundreds of Chinese silhouetted in the light.
The next day, untroubled by air attacks, the Chinese kept the Americans pinned down all day and staged several more raids that night.
By dawn Nov. 4, American survivors decided to try a breakout. “We literally crawled over Chinese bodies, a carpet of them, for almost 100 yards,” recalled Walter Mayo of McLean, Va., a retired colonel who was then a first lieutenant.
“A lot of guys got killed coming out of the perimeter,” said Robert McGreevey of Cumberland, Md. “There were guys falling everywhere. We were zigzagging every which way. It was utter chaos.”
Some managed to escape through an open field, but two days later, many of these were killed, wounded or, like Mayo and McGreevey, captured by Chinese troops about 10 miles to the south.
Morales probably never got that far, judging from where his remains were found years later. There’s also no indication he was taken prisoner.
A 1st Cavalry history says 1,481 of its soldiers were killed, wounded or missing at Unsan. The 8th Regiment lost more than 1,000, mostly in the 3rd Battalion, said historian Edward Drea of the Army’s Center for Military History in Washington.
In New York City, Minerva Morales got no more letters--only a Pentagon telegram regretfully informing her that Frank M. Morales was missing in action in Unsan, North Korea.
The Chinese drove the U.N. forces back across the 38th Parallel. After 2 1/2 years of stalemate, a truce was signed; the war never officially ended.
Both sides repatriated prisoners and remains. North Korea returned more than 1,900 sets of remains through 1954. Morales’ wasn’t among them.
On Dec. 31, 1953, Morales--promoted posthumously from corporal to sergeant--was officially declared dead, one of 33,629 Americans to die in combat in the Korean War. He was awarded a Purple Heart, sent to his widow. “For military merit,” it says.
In May, 1990, lacking diplomatic relations but troubled by economic problems, Pyongyang made an overture to the United States. It returned five sets of what it said were U.S. soldiers’ remains.
Eight more times, the Koreans would return remains to U.S. officials at Panmunjom, the strange little village in the demilitarized zone between the Koreas. In all, 194 sets of remains have been returned, though none since last Dec. 21, as tensions escalate over allegations that Pyongyang is developing nuclear weapons.
On Nov. 30, 1993, North Korea handed over 33 sets of remains, including what turned out to be Morales’.
“When they called me on the phone and said, ‘I’ve got news about your husband'--oh, my God, I thought they were joking,” Mrs. Morales said. “Now everything has come back again. It’s very, very hard.”
Tears welled in her eyes. “Forty years, and now--it’s such a shock.”