The remains of a local soldier who disappeared 64 years ago after one of the most brutal and disastrous battles of the Korean War have been identified and will be interred with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery on Wednesday, according to the U.S. Army and the man's relatives.
The few remaining family members of Army Sgt. Delbert D. Kovalcheck, of East Millsboro in Fayette County are honored and grateful for a chance to give their missing soldier a final resting place at last, said a cousin, Patricia Gable of Colleyville, Texas.
"It's so amazing," she said while traveling to Arlington, Va., Friday night. "I did not think they would find him, just because it had been -- how many years? -- 64 years now."
His remains were returned by North Korea in December 1993 and identified in October, according to the U.S. Department of Defense's Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office.
When Kovalcheck went missing in the aftermath of the battle at Chosin Reservoir in late November and early December 1950, he was 20 years old and assigned to the headquarters company of the 31stst Regimental Combat Team, also known as Task Force MacLean, which was supposed to protect a Marine Division ordered to push north toward the border with China.
As the task force began to move north in late November, however, it encountered heavy resistance from Chinese Communist forces that, unbeknownst to American military leaders planning the strategy, were pouring over the border into Korea and infiltrating territory held by United Nations forces, including American troops, according to the Army Historical Foundation.
Although the presence of large numbers of Chinese troops moving southward was reported by field commanders, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander of all United Nations forces in Korea, believed his forces were in position to end the war by Christmas and ordered the Marine and Army forces to continue pushing north, according to a report by the foundation's historian, Matthew J. Seelinger. Chinese troops ultimately encircled and nearly annihilated the task force, including some of the Army's most prestigious and promising commanders, according to Mr. Seelinger.
What followed was a long and harrowing retreat by truck convoy during which many survivors fought for their lives in hand-to-hand combat and many wounded were killed where they lay inside the trucks by Chinese rifle fire and grenades. Approximately 1,000 survivors of the task force's original 3,000 soldiers finally straggled across the frozen reservoir and into Marine lines on Dec. 1 and 2, according to Mr. Seelinger's account. Many suffered from wounds, frostbite and shock, and only 385 could be considered able-bodied enough to continue fighting, according to his account of the battle.
"The Army has a saying, 'No man left behind,' but the Army left a lot of men behind because everyone was running for their lives because there were so many Chinese," Mrs. Gable said.
She said her cousin was accounted for at roll call on Dec. 5, but was missing at the next roll call on Dec. 12, which remains his official date of death.
Mrs. Gable said she doesn't remember much about her cousin, who enlisted when she was just a young girl, but she does remember family members waiting for some word of what happened to him.
"I remember my dad having to watch TV to see if his name would appear in the missing-in-action boys who were found," she said.
Many years passed, with thousands of servicemembers still missing. Some of them, at least, were identified after the North Koreans returned 208 boxes of American remains -- those of an estimated 350 to 400 troops -- between 1991 and 1994. Of those boxes, 12 were eventually found to contain the partial remains of Kovalcheck, according to his cousin.
"They were not kind to our boys," Mrs. Gable said.
Recently, a professional geneologist working for the Army contacted Mrs. Gable because she had posted her family tree -- including her Uncle Paul, who was Kovalcheck's father -- on Ancestry.com as part of her own family geneological research, Mrs. Gable said.
The geneologist had her contact the Army, which sent Mrs. Gable's brother a DNA test kit that was later determined to be a match with Paul Kovalcheck's DNA along the "Y" chromosome, making them relatives, she said.
Sgt. Kovalcheck's parents, and Mrs. Gable's, are deceased now. So are Kovalcheck's three sisters.
But Mrs. Gable, her brother, her husband, their children and grandchildren, and members of at least one second-cousin's family plan to attend Kovalcheck's burial service, which will include a horse-drawn caisson and 21-gun salute, on Wednesday, she said.
"We're just so honored to be part of this," she said.
Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: 412-608-3618 or firstname.lastname@example.org.