He had survived a 500-mile walk over mountains and through stifling heat, but the dehydration and malaria were too much, and he died just a couple of days into his stay at a Chinese POW camp. His captors had allowed each of the prisoners just one cup of water each day on their nearly two-month walk. They ate grass, leaves, insects, anything they could find. Those who tried to stop for a drink of water from the streams were shot. Of the nearly 500 who started this march, only about 200 survived.
Obie Wickersham and Fred Liddell buried their friend in a shallow grave somewhere in the Korean mountains that day, thousands of miles from his Custer County, Nebraska home. Fred took one of his friend’s dog tags and secretly tucked it into his pocket. The other he put in his friend’s mouth. Obie and Fred tried to say a few words to honor their fallen friend, who had won a Silver Star and been wounded twice in World War II and then re-enlisted for the Korean War, but their captors cut them short. Obie and Fred promised each other that they would someday, somehow, give their friend a proper burial.
Sgt. Patrick Arthur, “Pops” to his fellow soldiers, because at age 36, he was nearly 15 years older than most infantrymen, was one of 37,000 Americans who died in the Korean War. 8100 are still missing, and 1.8 million served in America’s “Forgotten War.”
When the war ended, Sgt. Patrick Arthur was considered missing in action. Though the Department of Defense had credible evidence in the form of testimony from surviving POWs that Pat was dead, they couldn’t document his death or recover his remains. That took another 40 years.
In the early 1990s, Sgt. Patrick Arthur finally made it home. According to the Defense Prisoners of War/Missing Personnel Office, a division within the US Department of Defense, Sgt. Arthur came home with about 400 of his fellow soldiers in 208 boxes that the North Koreans sent back between 1990 and 1994. Unfortunately, because of substandard recovery methods and record-keeping, forensic scientists in the Department of Defense struggled to identify many of the remains.
Battlefields are inherently chaotic, and in the case of North Korea, political hostilities severely limit access. In situations like Korea and Vietnam, where POW camps were run with disregard for the Geneva Convention, the American military often didn’t even know who was being held in the camp or even where the camp was. In these cases, forward thinking by fellow captive soldiers aided in the recovery of remains.
Such was the case with Pat Arthur, who was not only a great, great soldier, he was my great-great uncle. The resourcefulness of Fred Liddell as he stood starving and stoic over his friend’s shallow grave in the North Korean mountains was key to identifying Uncle Pat’s remains. In one of those 208 boxes was Pat’s dogtag, the one that Fred put in his mouth before covering him with dirt. Further probing found a dental implant with Pat’s name on it and skeletal remains that matched Pat’s age and stature at his death.
With Pat finally on American soil, officials arranged for an Arlington Cemetery burial in 2009, almost 58 years after he died. My mom’s uncle, aunt, their family and one of my mom’s sisters were also there to pay final respects. No one, though, found more closure that day than did Fred Liddell and Obie Wickersham. In their 80s, but never forgetting their vow to each other and Uncle Pat, they were there and finally able to give their friend a proper burial. They might have been forgotten soldiers in a forgotten war, but they never forgot each other.
More information, including pictures, on Pat and his recovery is available at http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/pjarthur.htm.