WASHINGTON – Wounded in both legs and wearing a U.S. Army field coat peppered with bullet holes, 1st Lt. Robert Schmitt led a desperate U.S. hilltop assault against advancing Chinese forces in one of the bloodiest battles of the Korean War. He never returned.
The hunt for thousands of fallen American troops like Schmitt, missing from a conflict fought six decades ago, is about to resume in North Korea as tensions ease between the wartime enemies.
A decade of search operations that led to the recovery and identification of 92 troops was suspended seven years ago, with the U.S. citing worries about the security of its personnel. That ended the only cooperation between the militaries of the two nations, which formally remain at war because the 1950-53 conflict ended with a cease-fire and armistice, not a formal peace treaty.
While Washington says the renewed search for remains is a purely humanitarian endeavor, the October resumption agreement, through which North Korea receives millions of dollars in compensation, comes amid intense efforts to coax the impoverished country into nuclear concessions. That culminated last week in a commitment by the North to freeze nuclear activities and allow international nuclear inspections in exchange for food aid.
A U.S. ship already has transported equipment for the searches to North Korea, and a U.S. advance team is due to arrive this month. Searches are expected to begin in April.
It could be months or years before the renewed searches yield more identifications among the 5,300 service members still classified as missing in action in North Korea, but they offer hope for family members. Time is catching up not just on the war's veterans, now in their 80s and 90s, but those who lost loved ones.
"We lost one generation pretty much: the parents," said Richard Downes, who leads a volunteer group representing families of Korean War MIAs. "We're losing more and more of the wives, the brothers and sisters. Are we going to let the children, nieces and nephews die too, without closure?"
The resumed hunt, with two teams of 30 U.S. members each, will focus on two areas where more than 2,000 soldiers and Marines are recorded as missing: in Unsan County, north of the capital, Pyongyang, and farther north near the Chosin Reservoir, the area where Schmitt died.
Maj. Carie Parker, spokeswoman for the Pentagon's Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, said North Korea would receive about $5.7 million for the first four recovery operations through September. That is compensation for provision of services including labor, fuel, food, transportation, water and security.
"We were very excited when we heard they had agreed to go back," said Joan Morris, a niece of Schmitt from Jamestown, N.D. She said family members have provided DNA samples and are now more hopeful his remains can be found and repatriated.
"It was my grandmother's greatest wish," she said. "She always believed Bobby would be coming back to North Dakota."
Accounting for all the missing Americans from the war has been a slow and frustrating process, complicated by that brutal conflict's most lasting legacy: the continued separation by a heavily militarized frontier of the Korean Peninsula. Recent military drills on both sides of the truce line and a threat from the North to wage a "sacred war" against the South have been a reminder of the potential for armed conflict.
The three-year war killed at least 4 million people from June 1950 to July 1953, including civilians and troops from the two Koreas, China and the United States and its allies in the name of the United Nations. More than 36,000 U.S. troops died, including more than 8,000 who were listed as missing in action on both sides of the Korean Peninsula.
Of the missing, the remains of just 192 have been recovered and identified. Some 63 of those were from boxes of remains handed over by Pyongyang between 1991 and 1994, which are still being examined.
Laboratory work also is continuing to identify many of the remains retrieved between 1996 and 2005, when the U.S. military conducted 33 searches in North Korea. Those searches were suspended for what the Pentagon described as security concerns, during a tense period in ill-starred negotiations on the North's nuclear program.
To the frustration of veterans and relatives of the missing, the U.S. in 2010 rejected a North Korean offer to recover remains it had unearthed during agricultural work at several locations, linking it to progress on the nuclear negotiations.
Downes, whose airman father Lt. Hal Downes has been missing-in-action since his plane went down over North Korea in 1952, also complained the U.S. military has been slow to share information with relatives. But he says the process has picked up pace as the government looks to meet a target set by Congress: to be able, by 2015, to identify 200 MIAs from all conflicts each year.
The 1950 battle at the Chosin Reservoir in which Schmitt fought was one of the bitterest of the Korean War, after a huge Chinese force crossed the northern Korea border to repel an advance that U.S. commanders expected would win the war. Outnumbered U.S. Marines and Army soldiers were forced to beat a retreat in frigid conditions, but they inflicted heavy casualties on the communist-led side as they withdrew.
Schmitt's 31st Regimental Combat Team, 7th Infantry Division, was deployed on the eastern shore of the reservoir to replace a Marine regiment just before the Chinese attacked.
A letter to Schmitt's mother by friend and comrade Lt. Henry Trawick recounted that on Nov. 28 at 3:30 a.m. they awoke to hearing shooting, whistles and the bugle calling. They were surrounded by thousands of Chinese forces, and completely cut off.
That night, Schmitt's company retreated. "He was shot thru both legs, but he would never lie down for long," Trawick wrote, recounting how he and Schmitt compared the dozens of bullet and shrapnel holes they now had in their field coats.
The friends fought-by-side for two more days and nights without sleep until, with their food and ammunition depleted, it was decided the regiment would make a break for it.
With trucks carrying the wounded, they tried to link up with Marines 12 miles to the south, but were blocked by Chinese forces. According to Schmitt's citation for the Distinguished Service Cross, the U.S. Army's second-highest honor, he gave his carbine to an unarmed man and, using a stick for a crutch, led an assault on a hilltop to try to clear the way.
Ultimately, the regiment had to abandon the trucks carrying the wounded and flee on foot. Of its 2,500 troops who had deployed at the reservoir, only 1,000 returned, and just 385 were able-bodied.
"He (Schmitt) stayed with the fighting group though he could barely walk. He is a very brave man," wrote Trawick. "I did not see Bob again after he went up the hill, so I can't say what happened to him."