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Missing in wartime, then fading from memory

ALMOST every Memorial Day, Veterans Day or the birthday of the U.S. Marine Corps, I stop to wonder whatever became of Charles Wertman.

I’m not even sure, 54 years later, that I’m spelling his name correctly. He vanished during the Korean War almost as though he never existed, leaving nothing behind to prove that he had once marched among us.

According to Defense Department records, 36,516 men perished in the war, of whom 8,176 remain unaccounted for. For years I kept searching for his name among the dead or missing, but it never showed up.

I was so obsessed with it for a while that my wife began to wonder if it wasn’t some sort of war-related hallucination, but I know that at one time there was a Charles Wertman. I’ve always been sure of that.

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He was an odd sort, given to complaining a lot and lagging back when we were on the march. I’m not saying he was cowardly, just that he had his own pace and not even the demands of the 1st Marine Division or a war to save the world from communism were about to hurry him.

We were moving north on an early evening when Charlie disappeared. It was after we had been tumbled backward at Chosin Reservoir and were fighting our way once more toward the 38th parallel that someone noticed he was gone.

We dug in atop the hill and then went back in the fading light to see if we could find him. There had been no screams or sounds of gunfire to indicate he might have been captured. Other platoons in our company also searched but to no avail.

It wasn’t a good idea in newly gained territory to prowl around after dark, so we stopped and resumed the search the following morning before moving out. The effort was thorough, but there was still no sign of Charlie. No blood spots, no abandoned rifle, no trace of anyone being dragged off.

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His was another unexplained fate in the long, sad history of human conflict, a silhouette against the skyline that was quickly fading. There was an unnerving quality to his disappearance, both because it was so silent and because Charlie had been so much with us, complaining about the food, the rain, the heat, the cold, the officers and whatever condition we were subjected to. War is not a week at Club Med. Charlie found much to dislike.

When our battalion was finally pulled off the front line some weeks later after suffering almost 50% casualties, I hitched a ride to the command post and went through the names of those killed or captured. Oddly, Charlie was not among them, and no one seemed to know why.

After the fighting ended in a peace treaty and I was shipped home, I continued trying to find out what had happed to Marine Pfc. Charles Wertman, but the quest was in vain. He was similarly not listed when our POWs were returned from North Korean prison camps. He was not among those returned or those who stayed behind.

It was then that I began thinking that I might have been misspelling his name. I didn’t know a lot about Charlie, like where he was from or if he had a family. To our discredit, we just considered him a pain and wondered how a guy like him ever got accepted in the Corps or why he had enlisted in the first place.

I guess it was our attitude toward Charlie back then that continues to bother my conscience today and causes me to think about him on military-type holidays. I’m not the kind of guy who flies an MIA flag or prays for men who, like Charlie, remain unaccounted for. I take no part in the type of rituals that characterize Memorial Day. While I may grieve for those still fighting in wars, I do so with great anger at the waste of human lives.

Charlie is more hazy image than substance now, a small, gray figure on the edge of my memory, growing dimmer with every passing year. He symbolizes so many who have died in war, men never cut out to be warriors and who would have been fathers living their lives in the relative comfort of less violent surroundings. Perhaps some would have even returned to Korea, as I did, when the fighting was done and found it to be a remarkably peaceful place. “Land of the Morning Calm,” they call it.

Today seems an appropriate time to write about Charlie, but it is with no new information or evidence to add to his story. Even ghosts vanish with the passing years. I suspect that I won’t mention him again or try to find out in the voluminous records of war what became of him. I don’t even remember the tone of his voice anymore or what he looked like, so I guess it’s time to walk away from the memory.

So long, Charlie, and say hello to eternity for me.

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Al Martinez’s column appears Mondays and Fridays.


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