A 1955 Hannibal High School graduate will finally get some sense of closure when the remains of her brother will be laid to rest 66 years after he went missing in the Korean War.
Harold L. Curtis was 17 years old when he signed up for the military in Hannibal. His younger sister of five years, Bonnie (Burke) Stevens, remembered him as a tall, good-looking young man who led a normal life.
Back then, living in the 1600 block of Martin St. in the city’s South Side neighborhood, no one had even heard of Korea, Stevens remembered. The drums of war were silent when Harold went to boot camp.
But that would soon change.
Not long after his arrival on the Korean peninsula in late 1950, Harold went missing during one of the most decisive battles of the Korean War — the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir.
Harold was a member of Company I, 3rd Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, on the east side of the Chosin Reservoir, according to the Department of Defense. China, which had entered the conflict as an agitator supporting North Korea, attacked the United Nations forces at the reservoir in some of the harshest weather imaginable.
The Chinese surrounded Harold’s company. The Americans made a last ditch effort to retreat or escape, but many were killed or captured and marched to Prisoner of War camps. Among them, the well-liked teenager from Hannibal.
Stevens remembers not knowing much about Harold’s status.
"They just said he had been missing in action," she said. "The red Chinese had come up and pretty much wiped out his unit."
The date was Dec. 12, 1950.
By 1951, Harold’s name had not appeared on any POW list provided by the North Koreans or the Chinese. The U.S. Military changed his status from missing to dead.
"In 1953, during the prisoner of war exchange historically known as ‘Operation Big Switch,’ one repatriated American soldier reported that Curtis died in the vicinity of the Chosin Reservoir in December 1950," the Department of Defense reported.
But Stevens and her mother knew nothing more about Harold’s status for years.
There was no body to bury.
No personal affects sent home.
Just the memories of an average Missouri boy, lost to a brutal conflict.
"We knew he had died," Stevens, who now lives in Arizona, said in a phone interview. "We were just never sure if he had been taken prisoner or killed in action. My mother and I gave blood samples years ago for them to take our DNA."
Decades later, a break.
North Korea returned 208 boxes of commingled body parts in the early 1990s. Those remains, along with more remains collected during recovery missions from 1996 to 2005, provided a clue to the final status of more than 600 U.S. Servicemen.
Harold’s remains were returned to the U.S. in 1993, but it took many more years to achieve a positive identification. To identify his remains, scientists from DPAA and the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System used mitochondrial and autosomal DNA analysis, which matched his mother and sister, as well as anthropological analysis and circumstantial evidence.
He will be laid to rest on Dec. 23.
"It gave me a sense of closure but it did open up sadness," Stevens said about the brother she never got to see enjoy a full life.
He was her only sibling.
Harold was not the only Northeast Missouri native unaccounted for from the Korean War. Carl Brewington was in the same regiment as Harold, whereas Harold was in Company I, Carl was in Company K. His remains were identified in May 2004, after their return to the U.S. in October 2001. He was killed in action approximately ten days before Harold.
Harold was cremated, his sister said, and will finally find peace next to their mother in Arizona, a homecoming 66 years overdue.
Reach editor Eric Dundon at firstname.lastname@example.org .