COGSWELL, N.D. — Winds moaned through the prairie grass and across Sgt. Donald Leroy Duff’s granite headstone on a recent day in the old Sargent Cemetery. Cawing yellow-headed blackbirds flitted from headstones to gnarled cedars, oblivious to the fact that the Korean War veteran’s grave lay empty.
Beside Duff’s headstone rests his parents, Lillian and Roy Duff, staunch North Dakotan farmers who never spoke about their son’s disappearance in North Korea after the Chinese Second Phase Offensive that sent United Nations troops into full retreat in 1950.
Donald was taken prisoner by the Chinese on Dec. 1, 1950, and a North Korean guard killed him three months later while inside a POW camp, according to Sargent Cemetery Association records.
Before Donald's capture, U.N. forces were on the verge of victory. The promise from U.N. Commander Gen. Douglas MacArthur saying soldiers would be home for Christmas quickly soured after hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops launched the surprise counterattack in late November 1950.
Ill-prepared and fighting in miserable wintry conditions, the week before Donald was taken prisoner while fighting near Kunu-ri, North Korea was described as a confusing nightmare by military historical records.
“It was bitter cold. The temperature was below zero. The wind howled. Snow fell — a snow so dry that dust from the road mixed with it in yellowish clouds that swirled about the column of trucks. Tundra-like, bleak, and without vegetation in most places, the land was depressing,” a military record from the U.S. Army described the North Korean Environment.
Donald, a sergeant first class, was a member of Company C, 2nd Engineer Combat Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army. He joined the Army for money to one day begin his own farm and settle down, possibly with his childhood sweetheart, a Cogswell girl named Honora Goellen, and have a family, said his sister, Dorothy Steiner, who now lives in Iowa.
“He couldn’t wait to get out so he could get a farm and get married,” Steiner said, adding that he also raised a hunting dog. “I don’t think he ever got to hunt, he just had it raised and then it was off to war. He didn’t have money to go to college and he wanted to farm, but didn’t have money to farm, so he joined so Uncle Sam could get him the money he needed.”
The last letter the Duff family received from Donald came from Guam where he was stationed before heading off to war.
At first, the U.N. advance from South Korea went quickly, but as they neared the northeastern Chinese border, Communist Chairman Mao Zedong sent a force four times the size of U.N. troops because “should the Americans occupy the whole of Korea, the Korean revolutionary force would be completely destroyed and the American invaders would become more rampant,” Mao told Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin at the time.
After a week of tactical retreats, however, Donald and many others were taken prisoner.
Learning his fate
For three years, Donald’s family had no idea what happened to him. Life for the Duff family went on. Steiner named her third son after Donald, who also had a twin brother named Kenneth he was especially close to.
“They never sent a letter to my mom until spring of 1953,” Steiner said. “We didn’t know he was killed until some of the prisoners did get back, I don’t know maybe 10 years after.”
It was then that she learned that her brother had died as a prisoner of war. She heard he died of pneumonia, but a neighbor and friend of Donald’s, Tom Bell, said he was killed. Sargent Cemetery Association’s record of interments also lists Donald as being killed on March 31, 1951, while at a POW camp.
The POW camps were along the southern banks of the Yalu River, according to the Department of Defense. In total, more than 7,800 Americans remain unaccounted for from the Korean War, and 7,245 American soldiers and airmen were captured between 1950 and 1953.
Nearly 40% of the POWs, or 2,806 American soldiers, died while in captivity.
Since 2006, three additional North Dakotans who fought during the Korean War were identified and are no longer considered missing in action, according to the Department of Defense.
“When I was a boy, Don and his twin brother, Kenneth, and my brother, were all in the same grade and those guys were all pretty tough,” said Bell, who was 7 years younger than Donald. “We had a little group that would challenge those guys, and I got probably 100 noogies from them. I was the slowest kid on the block.”
The only time Bell saw his brother, also a “tough guy,” become emotional was when the community heard Donald had died.
“We knew he had died in a prison camp, but interviews were made with other prisoners who had been released and it turns out that Don was belligerent and a guard just killed him,” Bell said.
“That didn’t come as a surprise to me because that’s the way he was. Tough kid on the block,” Bell said.
The Duff family has never found the closure they needed, Steiner said.
“There was never any closure. I would like to have him buried with our folks, but I don’t know if that will happen,” Steiner said. “My mom never talked about it. My dad, never once. It was never talked about. The government took her son, but we’re not the kind of people to talk about all that stuff.”
Life in the early part of the 20th century made nearly all North Dakotans resilient, Bell said. First, his parents lived through World War I, the flu pandemic of 1918, then the stock market crash of the 1920s, the Great Depression of the 1930s, then World War II, immediately followed by the Korean War.
“My dad, the ‘20s were tough on him. He was a relatively wealthy man on paper, but the banks took his money and the Depression took his land,” Bell said.
An Air Force veteran himself, Bell now resides in a “soldier’s home,” the North Dakota Veterans Home in Lisbon, N.D., a place he considers himself fortunate to be in especially during the coronavirus pandemic.
Bell had an older brother who fought in World War II and was involved in the invasion of the Philippines, but like the Duff family, he never talked about the experience.
The Korean War, Bell believes, which was tucked between World War II and the Vietnam War, is an almost forgotten war at times. He described growing up watching the protests and treatment of returning soldiers with disdain.
"All they were doing was their duty, but I think the experience embarrassed the people doing the protesting," Bell said.
He didn’t fight in North Korea, but can’t imagine the conditions POWs went through in the camps.
“There were some turncoats, maybe 10 of them gave information. But in places like that everyone breaks. No one can stand what they do to your body,” Bell said.
Duff was posthumously awarded multiple Purple Heart Awards, the Prisoner of War Medal, the Korean Service Medal, the United Nations Service Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Korean Presidential Unit Citation and the Republic of Korea War Service Medal.
His name will be included in the new Wall of Remembrance, scheduled to be finished in 2022 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., according to Michel Au Buchon, board secretary of the Korean War Veterans Memorial Foundation in Alexandria, Va. Duff will also be honored at the Capitol building in Bismarck on the Wall of Honor during Memorial Day week, according Joe Reinke, Veteran Service Officer for Sargent and Ransom counties.
In addition, Duff’s name is engraved on the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in South Korea, which includes 40,896 U.N. casualties, with more than 36,000 Americans from each U.S. state and territory.
Closer to home in Bismarck, Duff’s name is also included at the All Veterans Memorial at the North Dakota Capitol, where his name is “not among those returned at the war’s end, and is listed as missing in action.”