These articles always choke me up because of their connection to my Korean War novel, War Remains. However, this one hits a little closer to home because he was with the 38th Infantry Regiment of the US Second Infantry Division, the same division and regiment that Bobby Washkowiak was with.
In 2001, while writing for the Korea Times as a feature writer, I had the opportunity and the the honor to meet a group of Korean War veterans who came to Korea to visit the Chipyong-ni battlefield near Wonju and Hoengseong.
One of the veterans I met was Oscar Cortez, who was captured by the Chinese at Hoengseong on February 12, 1951 and spent the remainder of the war in a POW camp.
When I started to write War Remains in 2009, I remembered that meeting I had with Oscar and the article I wrote about his experiences during the war (which is an essay in Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm, 2011). Based on that article, and a few others I wrote, became the basis for the story of Bobby Washkowiak.
In 2012, while doing some research on the Korean War, Doug Mayes happened across my book and read it. It turned out that he was searching for information about the Battle of Hoengseong because his Uncle Jimmy fought in the battle and like Oscar, was also captured by the enemy. Like a number of readers who have come across my book while searching for information about the battle and the search for MIAs, Doug’s uncle was also listed as missing in action (his family was contacted for a DNA sample and hopefully his uncle will soon be coming home.
Today, Doug sent me a message telling me that he had just gotten off the phone with with a Korean War veteran who had been with his uncle on the march to the camp:
Jeff, I just got off the phone with a Korean War POW who was with my uncle when he died. The chain of events which led me to this man was started by your book and research. Thank you so much, Doug
Not the kind of closure that Doug and his family wants, but it was an honor to have helped them fill in some of the blanks.
Sometimes you connect with a reader which makes all the difference in the world:
Dear Mr. Miller,
Last year, while looking for information about the Hoengsong Valley Massacre, I came across your website, went from one end of it to the other and then bought your book, War Remains.
My father, Sgt. Luther Rominger was killed there on 13 February 1951. He was a member of the 2nd Infantry Division, 15th Field Artillery Battalion. I have a subscription to Ancestry.com and would like to add your pictures and a link to your website to his page.
I thank you for posting those pictures. Some how it makes everything more real to me. I was about 18 months old when he died and all I have are pictures and other people’s memories of him.
Again, Thank you and my God’s blessings be on you and your family.
Two months ago I was approached by a Korean filmmaker who asked me if I would be interested in taking part in a documentary he was making on the Korean War. Turns out the documentary he was making was about the Battle of Hoengseong which I described in my novel War Remains and that one of his friends (who also happened to be one of my Facebook friends) had read my book and told him about it. A few messages and emails later, we met one afternoon at SolBridge in April and talked about his documentary. Two weeks later, I was on my way back to Hoengseong and Massacre Valley to be interviewed and describe the battle that was fought here in February 1951 and the battle which is at the beginning of War Remains.
Then, on my birthday, May 28, which was also Buddha’s Birthday in Korea this year, the producer/director Park Jong-woo came down to Daejeon and filmed more scenes in my office at SolBridge.
After shooting some footage in Hoengseong near the site of the Netherlands’ Battalion, for the next part of the documentary, we entered Massacre Valley and went to the location where the command post for the 3rd Battalion of the 38th Infantry Regiment was located in and around the village of Saemal.
I describe Saemal in War Remains and how Bobby and the others of Support Force 21 felt that once they reached this village where the rest of the regiment was bivouacked, their ordeal would be over. However, by then the enemy had already positioned themselves in the high ground and for Bobby and the others, their ordeal was far from being over.
Although I visited Massacre Valley in 2010, just prior toWar Remains being published, this time back was very special for me. So many people have been touched with my story of Bobby not to mention learning about the battle that was once fought here. What I have done and what Park Jongwoo is doing with his documentary is making people aware of what actually happened here in February 1951.
Why did I choose the 38th Infantry Regiment to be one of the main military units in my novel? What I wanted to do was to show how this regiment had been in some of the fiercest fighting of the conflict, from the breakout along the Pusan Perimeter to Kunu-ri and then finally Hoengseong. By choosing this regiment, it allowed me to write about three major events in the first nine months of the conflict with special attention to Hoengseong because many people might not be aware of this battle.
In the photo, Producer/Director Park Jongwoo and I talk about the battle and the location of the 38th Infantry Regiment near the village of Saemal.
Down a small grassy knoll behind the US Second Infantry Division Monument in Massacre Valley is the original road which ran from Changbong-ni to Hoengseong. Although the road was narrower and unpaved in 1951, one can still see how dangerous it would be for withdrawing troops to use this road. They men were literally sitting ducks for the CCF which controlled the high ground. Like the Gauntlet in November 1950, the men of Support Force 21 were doomed as soon as they entered the valley. Sadly, US troops would pay another dear cost for being road bound. As soon as the Chinese knocked out a tank or howitzer, a bottleneck was created and chaos, horror, and death ensued.
Today, the valley looks so peaceful and bucolic.
One can only imagine the horrors of battle here those fateful days in February 1951.
Update: January 14, 2014
My friend, Doug Mayes, who lost an uncle at Hoengseong, shared this footage of Massacre Valley taken a few weeks after the battle.
After Producer/Director Park Jongwoo and his crew shot some footage in Massacre Valley, our next stop was to Hill 930, north of Changbong-ni where the 21st Infantry Regiment of the 8th ROK Division was dug in on the north side of the mountain on the night of February 11, 1951.
From their vantage point on the north side of this mountain, they would have a clear view of Sammachi Pass and any enemy infiltration. Back in 1951, there were hardly any trees on this mountain (which was the case for most of the mountains throughout Korea; the Japanese had heavily forested much of the timber their the occupation period) which gave the ROK soldiers an unobstructed view.
What was most interesting about climbing up the northern side of the mountain was seeing the foxholes these ROK soldiers had dug over 61 years ago. Surprisingly, these foxholes were in very good shape having been undisturbed for all these years; even, some of the timber used to buttress them were intact.
One foxhole in particular (the one pictured here) had one wall made with stacked stones, which reminded me of some of the fortifications made by soldiers at Gettysburg.
At the beginning of War Remains, I talk about Support Force 21, the 3rd Battalion of the 38th Infantry Regiment, US Second Infantry Division, and the small village of Saemal. This past weekend, during my return to Massacre Valley, the producer/director of the Korean War documentary, Park Jong-woo, his crew and I went to the spot where the 3rd Battalion was most likely bivouacked on the morning of February 12, 1951.
After having to withdraw from Changbong-ni at around 3:00 in the morning, this is where Support Force 21 arrived later that morning as well as ROK soldiers from the 21st, 10th, and 16th Infantry Regiments. They all thought that they had made it to safety, but their ordeal was far from over.
In this photo, I am explaining to Park Jongwoo what I will talk about in this segment of the documentary. We are standing on the old road to Chipyong-ni, which would be the site of a fierce battle a few days later, next to a rice paddy where the 3rd Battalion was bivouacked.
The first filming of the day was near this bridge leading into Hoengseong. In 1951, this was the only route leading into town and for the men of the 38th Infantry Regiment, Support Force 21, and ROK forces, this was the end of Massacre Valley and the way to safety. The original bridge was destroyed during the war, but this one was built on the original site.
Yesterday, it was, “Hey, I’m going to Hoengseong to be in this documentary about the Korean War and talk about the battle and my book!”
Today, it was more like, after one of the crew had me wear a wireless mike, “Yikes, I’m going to be filmed and recorded!”
Well, it wasn’t that bad.
Throughout the day, it took no more than two or three takes for most of the shots and interviews. Sometimes, I just wanted to say something more; a few times I did get a little tongue-tied.
Being a teacher really helped. Once I got going and found my rhythm, it was like teaching a class.
This past weekend, May 4-5, I returned to Massacre Valley north of Hoengseong. It was this valley and the battle that was fought here in February 1951 which would become the basis for my Korean War novel, War Remains. And it was because of that novel and a friend on Facebook, which brought me back to Massacre Valley (I first visited here in November 2010, right before I completed my novel) to take part in a documentary about the Korean War, this battle, the search for war remains, and my novel.
After I finished teaching on Friday, I took a bus from Daejeon to Wonju. I left at 2:27 and didn’t get to Wonju until after 5:00. There I met the producer/director of the documentary, Park Jong-woo who I met through one of my Facebook friends. Actually, Mr. Park had already heard about me and my novel through another friend, an American Daniel Morris, who also heard about my book and bought it. Turns out he served with the US Army in Korea and when he got out, decided to stay here and teach. Mr. Park, who was making another documentary about the Korean War decided that he wanted to use me, to talk about the battle in the documentary.
After we met, we went to Hoengseong where he introduced me to his crew. We met in the parking lot of a Methodist Church that was there during the Korean War; during the battle, the commander of the Netherlands’ Battalion, Colonel den Ouden was mortally wounded by a grenade. His men didn’t have any means to carry his body back to an aid station, so they removed the door from this church to carry their Colonel’s body.
After dinner in a local restaurant, where we tried out some of Hoengseong’s famous beef, we turned in early. We wanted to start filming at 7:00am.
The picture you see here is the original road from Hoengseong to Changbong-ni. This is facing north toward Changbong-ni. Back in 1951, this road was narrower and unpaved. This is also the beginning of Massacre Valley.
“Bobby Washkowiak battles his way through the bitter first winter of the Korean War, longing for home. Fifty years later, his son and grandson come across the wartime letters from the father and grandfather they never knew and learn what happen to him on one of the battlefields of that “forgotten war.” In this emotional tour de force, Jeffrey Miller vividly recreates the horrors of combat and the yearning for closure experienced by millions of soldiers and their families.” - Michael Breen, author of Kim Jong-Il: North Korea's Dear Leader and The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where their Future Lies.