It comes down to not knowing. Even after accepting a newly-minted Republic of Korea War Service Medal for his older brother, Pat Shoemaker of Salem still isn’t sure if his brother is dead or alive.
Shoemaker, 72, resides on state Route 14 north of Salem with his wife of 48 years, Patty. Their daughter is Diana Mahouski who is married to Salem fire Captain Mike Mahouski.
Shoemaker lost his older brother, Sergeant First Class (SFC) Francis E. Shoemaker, during the Battle of the Ch’ongch’on River during the Korean War.
The battle started Nov. 25, 1950 when Chinese Communist Forces launched a massive surprise attack against the entire Allied line consisting of American, South Korean and U.N. forces.
Shoemaker was assigned to Headquarters Company of the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment the famous 2d Infantry “Indianhead” division (2d ID) which was under the command of the Eighth Army.
Reaching deep into North Korea, the Allies had pushed the North Koreans way back beyond north-south boundary when so-called Chinese “volunteers” massed and struck.
U.S. Army documents said that through a series of infantry attacks the Chinese 39th and 40th Armies forced the 2d ID into a “number of local withdrawals” to avoid being outflanked.
The Eighth Army issued a general withdrawal order on Nov. 29 and the 2d ID moved from the Ch’ongch’on River toward Sunch’on, 35 miles to the southwest. (The 2nd ID and 25th ID were defeated and it began a general Eighth Army retreat in the west).
The 23rd Infantry Regiment covered the withdrawal and A Company of the1st Battalion made five separate stands against the swarming, overwhelming Communists assaults, holding them off before moving to Kunu-ri where another defensive position was formed on a high-rise called Hill 201 on the south side of the Namde River
At 4 a.m. the next morning, the Chinese attacked but were thrown back by long-range artillery from 2nd Division tanks and a counterattack by A Company.
The after action report noted “some of the tank fire hit friendly troops.”
Nineteen soldiers became MIAs on the south side of Hill 201.
The army said, “Due to heavy pressure by the Chinese, searches could not be conducted for them and the unit had to pull out during the afternoon, heading west out of the area toward Anju.
“SFC Shoemaker was lost during this action in the vicinity of Hill 201. Initially it was reported that he had sustained shrapnel wounds to at least one of his legs, and he was later reported as missing.
“Due to the desperate nature of the combat in this battle, nothing else is known concerning SFC Shoemaker’s loss.”
The Chinese continued pushing the Allies south and the 2nd ID lost loss 5,000 men between Nov. 25 and Dec. 1.
The army said, “As near as we can determine, SFC Shoemaker was never alive in enemy hands.”
There were 4,400 America POWs repatriated after the war, and the Army said extensive interviews with returning soldiers produced no reports of Shoemaker being in captivity.
Three years after the retreat action and five months after the war ended, the Army made what it called a “presumptive finding of death” for Shoemaker on Dec. 31, 1950.
According to a letter Pat Shoemaker received last month from Brig. Gen. Reuben D. Jones, the adjutant general of the army’s human resources command’s past conflict repatriation branch, Francis Shoemaker is one of 618 men still unaccounted for from the Hill 201 fighting, “seven of whom belong to SFC Shoemaker’s HQ Company.”
Pat Shoemaker said the last time he saw Francis, who is four years older, was in their Danville, Pa. home in 1948 when he enlisted.
The Shoemakers are a family of warriors in which all of Pat’s (nine) brothers served in the armed forces.
“He enlisted at 17 and left the next day,” Shoemaker said of Francis. “We heard he was missing in January of 1951. We were all at the house when two army officers arrived and they told us we really have some bad news.”
Shoemaker recalled them saying, “Francis is missing and presumed dead.”
Another brother, Joseph, had died three months earlier so it was extra hard for the family to take.
Shoemaker said Francis being carried on the MIA rolls affected his time in the army.
He was drafted in 1953, separated and returned to duty by the time Vietnam rolled around and as his Fort Riley, Kansas transportation unit was scheduled to deploy there. But, as last member of an MIA family, he didn’t have to serve in a combat zone.
Pat Shoemaker grew up in Danville and drove car carrier trucks when he met his wife, Patty, at a truck stop (Idle Acres) on U.S. Route 224 between Ellsworth Township and Canfield.
Patty has lived in this area all her life and they moved to Salem, and have lived for for the 49 years they’ve been married.
“It has been a part of our marriage,” Patty said of marrying into an MIA family.
She explained that “trying to figure out what happened to him” comes up constantly during family get-togethers and Pat said no day passes without him thinking of his older brother.
While it’s pretty certain Francis is dead, two other brothers who served later in Korea, Tommy and Hillary Shoemaker, each said they saw “a picture, a crowd of people and they both swore it was Francis,” Pat said.
“We don’t know. It was a crowd of civilians. If it was him, we don’t know what happened to him.”
Pat explained his sister Peggy, who has since died, led the effort to dig up whatever information she could find on Francis.
“She kept it going,” Pat said, “she and her daughter did all the research trying to find out what happened to Francis” who was 20 at the time of the Chinese invasion.
It was about three months ago, Pat recalled, when a letter from the army’s repatriation branch appeared at their state Route 45 home. It was probably referred by a sister, Dorothy, who Pat said thought it was a scam.
But it was true, South Korea was honoring U.S. troops who fought for it.
“It was on the up and up,” Pat said they learned.
The army said it is running a continuous program to to achieve “the fullest possible accounting of missing U.S. servicemen” and has negotiated with the North Korean government to access battlefields, crash sites and prison camp cemeteries to acquire remains for DNA matches.
The army explained the Koreans authorized limited access to its main military museum and national library in Pyongyang by U.S. search officials. Collected material is delivered to the Defense POW/Mission Personnel Office (DPMO) and the Joint POW/MIA Accounting command in Hawaii.
“Unfortunately they have found no information on SFC Shoemaker,” the army said, explaining excavations between 1996 and 2005 have resulted in the recovery and repatriation of the remains of 220 U.S. servicemen.
“That effort is expected to continue in coming years,” the army said.
Pat and his wife received a notice from the joint POW/MIA Accounting command in Hawaii months ago which had received family DNA from nieces of Francis, but Pat wasn’t asked for his DNA, something that mystifies Patty.
“I don’t understand why Pat wasn’t asked because Pat’s DNA would be better than two nieces,”she said.
Then, a month ago on June 19, Pat received a letter from Lt. Col. Julius H. Smith, chief of the past conflict repatriation’s branch, and the medal.
“No way did I ever think I’d get anything from Korea for my brother,” Pat said. “You know back when you receive word someone’s missing...my brother, I’m four years younger and we went to St. Joseph School in Danville and... you heard heard ‘missing’ and won’t come back...”
At first, he couldn’t understand why he received anything from the Department of the Army until realizing he was the sole survivor.
“Boy, was I ever,” he replied.
His wife said, “He was really touched by that, the old guy was really touched.”
Pat said, “I cried for a week.”
But medal or no medal, Patty explained, “Everyday of our married lives he’s asked, ‘I wonder what happened to Francis?’”
For more information on Korean War MIAs visit: http://www.dtic.mil/dpmo/pmkor/index.htm
Larry Shields can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Pat and Patty Shoemaker proudly show the newly-minted Republic of Korea War Service Medal awarded to Pat’s older brother, Francis, who is listed as missing in action. The medal was issued by the Republic of Korea in appreciation for the service and sacrifice of nearly two million Americans “during that brutal war,.” said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Reuben D. Jones in a letter to Pat Shoemaker, the sole family survivor. (Salem News photo by Larry Shields)