A Deadly Reconnaissance Patrol, (Led by 1st Lt. Ward Neville)
3rd Combat Engineers, August 11, 1950, 1st Lt. Ward Neville, et al, by Merry Helm, December 13, 2009
The 24th Division was in a retrograde movement on August 11, 1950. Its resources were stretched dangerously thin, and its main supply route was in serious jeopardy. On that date, seventeen 3rd Combat Engineers ventured deep into enemy held territory to assess the location and strength of the opposition. Only a handful made it back, including the Battalion’s commander.
In Counterattacks on the Naktong, 1950, Dr. William Robertson writes, “Adding to the 24th Division's woes on the night of 11 August was a report from Eighth Army at 2150 that the North Koreans had pushed another force across the Naktong, this time just beyond the division's northern flank. The sectors held by the 21st Infantry and Task Force Hyzer on the division's right had been relatively quiet for several days, enabling [General] Church to reduce troop strength there in order to reinforce more threatened areas to the south. An infantry battalion, an engineer company, and a 155-mm artillery battery had all moved to Yongsan from the division's right within the past twenty-four hours. Thus, no units were immediately available to respond to the new threat. Lieutenant Colonel Hyzer of the 3d Engineer (C) Battalion, responsible for the 24th Division's right flank, sent a seventeen-man patrol across the Naktong during the night in hopes of discovering the enemy's intentions, but it would be at least a day before an answer could be obtained.”
In actuality, documentation indicates Hyzer’s patrol took off hours before the 8th Army’s report came in that night. In fact, they were walking straight into those same North Korean forces that had gotten across the Naktong, and they were probably responsible for discovering this fact.
The actual patrol was led by 1st Lt Ward Neville, leader of B Company’s first platoon. With the main supply route threatened, Neville volunteered to lead a reconnaissance patrol 5,000 yards into enemy territory. Although his by-the-book leadership style did not particularly endear him to his men, Neville had proven himself a capable soldier, having earned a Bronze Star/Valor on July 8th and a Silver Star on July 12th. Now, he was about to receive a Distinguished Service Cross, which he would not live to see.
A sketch of what happened can be formulated from the citations that were later issued.
From LTC Hyzer’s Silver Star: “Colonel Hyzer, a Korean interpreter, CPL Johnson, and PFC Bolster accompanied a Battalion Patrol to the West bank of the Naktong River and part of the way to its objective, Hill 207. After insuring that the patrol was well on its way and that it was not being followed, Colonel Hyzer decided to return with his group to the East bank of the Naktong River. Upon arriving at the landing site of the West bank of the river, Colonel Hyzer’s group discovered one of the boat guards lying beside the boat apparently dead and noted enemy movement in the area. By mutual agreement the group decided to swim the river. When they had swum for about ten yards the enemy brought machine gun and small arms fire upon the group. At this point the interpreter decided he could not make it and turned around to return to the West Bank. Colonel Hyzer, realizing the vital information as to the Battalion’s disposition and the status known by his interpreter, [. . .] turned around and went to the assistance of the interpreter in an attempt to bring him to the East bank. About this time, Colonel Hyzer noticed that Private Bolster, having become exhausted, was floundering in the water. Releasing his hold upon the interpreter, Colonel Hyzer swam to the assistance of Private Bolster. The intensity of enemy fire and the struggling of Private Bolster made it impossible for Colonel Hyzer to save this man. Colonel Hyzer then swam to the assistance of Corporal Johnson and noted he was apparently capable of reaching the East shore. Colonel Hyzer then turned to go to the assistance of his interpreter and through increasing enemy fire returned to the spot in the river where he had last seen the Korean. Being unable to locate the interpreter at this time, Colonel Hyzer then swam through enemy fire to the East bank of the river. Through Colonel Hyzer’s effort and total disregard for his personal safety, the mission of the patrol was accomplished, and the Korean was able to reach a position of safety and prevent a possible source of vital information from falling into enemy hands.”
Meanwhile Neville and his men ran into problems of their own. Neville’s subsequent DSC citation reads: “At 1700 hours on 11 August 1950, the patrol, consisting of Lieutenant Neville and thirteen enlisted men, was attacked by a force of an estimated two hundred enemy riflemen. Lieutenant Neville, realizing the impossible odds with which his patrol was confronted, decided upon a desperate course of action. He personally led his patrol through a hail of enemy fire to the west, one thousand yards farther into enemy territory, to the east bank of the Hoechon River, without casualties. Upon arriving at the Hoechon River, the patrol was fired upon from the North and South by an estimated one hundred enemy riflemen. Lieutenant Neville was shot through the right leg and immobilized, and three of his patrol were mortally wounded. Vehemently refusing assistance from any of his patrol members, he directed them across the river and, after most had crossed, he dragged himself through the river to the west bank. During this time he was constantly ordering his patrol to shoot into the areas from which the heaviest enemy fire was coming and urging them on, lest they be captured. Lieutenant Neville, mortally wounded, dragged himself into a rice paddy and was last seen with a grenade in his hand, urging the patrol on to safety. His utter refusal of assistance from his patrol after he was wounded made it possible for five members of the patrol to return to friendly lines and safety.”
PVT Jose L. Archuleta’s Silver Star citation adds further details: “After proceeding 5000 yards, the fourteen-man patrol was fired upon from three sides by enemy riflemen of vastly superior numbers. In this fire fight the patrol leader was wounded in the right leg and ordered other members of the patrol to withdraw to the opposite bank of the Hoechon River. Private Archuleta, after killing outright five of the enemy riflemen, worked his way to the wounded patrol leader and attempted to carry him across the river. Under a direct order to leave, he crossed the river and gave covering fire to the patrol leader until seriously wounded.”
CPL Rosslyn E. Gresens also received a Silver Star, which reads: “Exposing himself, Corporal Gresens advanced on the enemy and killed two riflemen who were directly threatening the patrol from advantageous positions on the opposite bank of the Hoechon River. His effective covering fire during the river crossing accounted for at least fifteen enemy casualties, and he was last seen following the patrol across the river firing his rifle at the enemy.”
Neville, Archuleta and Gresens were not among the five men who made it back. Three of the survivors received Bronze Stars/Valor, which offer further details.
SGT Q. Z. Goodwin: “The small patrol of which he was a member, probing deep into enemy held territory, was attacked by a force estimated at company strength and its leader wounded. Assuming command, Sergeant Goodwin personally directed the patrol's withdrawal, and exposing himself to intense enemy fire, he covered its movement by effective fire. He remained in a forward position without regard for his own safety until assured that the patrol had safely withdrawn.”
CPL Franklin Pinkerton: “The withdrawal was held up by heavy enemy small arms fire, the patrol leader and several others were wounded. Corporal Pinkerton observing three of the enemy advancing on the patrol, with complete disregard for his own personal safety, exposed himself and hurled a grenade killing all three. Assuming command, he then directed the withdrawal of the wounded. He continuously exposed himself and remained in a forward position in order to cover the withdrawal of his men to friendly positions by use of effective rifle fire.”
Another survivor, CPL Gene Timmerman, was a medic: “During the withdrawal they were held up by heavy enemy small arms fire which had wounded the patrol leader and several others. Corporal Timmerman, with utter disregard for his personal safety, while continuously exposed to heavy enemy fire, administered first aid to the stricken men until ordered to withdraw.”
Besides PV2 John Bolster, who LTC Hyzer was unable to save from drowning, other members of the 3rd (C) Engineers listed as casualties on August 11 include CPL Norman Johnson (likely the CPL Johnson mentioned in Hyzer’s citation), PV2 Harold Church, PFC Lahue Dillion, PFC John Frost, PFC Edward Heath Jr., CPL Robert Heaton, PFC George Hill, CPL Louis Hirata, CPL Alvis Lawson, PFC Richard Stokum, CPL Gene Timmerman and CPL Bruce Yax. All were listed as Missing in Action, with five listed as KIA on that date, including Neville and Johnson. The three mortally wounded men mentioned in Neville’s citation are thought to be Frost, Hirata, and Yax. The remainder of these men were declared dead on December 31, 1953.
One might assume this ends the story – were it not for a small Oakland Tribune article dated Nov. 1, 1955, titled Captain Ward Neville Funeral Services Held. The article reports: “The body of Capt. Ward O. Neville, Oakland Army officer who earned three of the Nation’s high decorations for bravery in Korea, went to its final rest today at Golden Gate National Cemetery at San Bruno. Capt. Neville’s body was brought to the United States after being returned by the Chinese communists.”
Korean War veterans understand the Chinese were nowhere near the Naktong River in August 1950. Although Neville is still officially listed as KIA on August 11, 1950, his citation states he was last seen alive, as were Gresens and Archuleta. Therefore it seems possible Neville was captured and remained alive long enough to reach a prison camp – predominantly operated by the Chinese communists.
In response to a query about the missing patrol members, John Zimmerlee, Vice President of the Coalition of Families of Korean and Cold War POW/MIAs, writes: “To date I don’t have much on MIAs Archuleta, Bolster, Dillion, Gresens, Hill, or Stokum. However, the last names of MIAs Harold Church, Edward Heath, and Charles Royer were found on a blackboard in the Moo Hak girls’ school in Seoul 20 Sep 1950. [POWs] were previously housed there, then marched to Pyongyang where they were loaded on train cars and shipped north.”
Zimmerlee continues, “Repatriated James Vaughn recalled a ‘Lawson’ from KY in camp #1 during 1952. Alvis Lawson is the only ‘Lawson’ from KY still missing, though other ‘Lawsons’ were POWs. [. . .] One should note that groups often were captured together and marched north to camps. The conditions were brutal. If a man could not keep up with the march, he was dragged to the edge of the road and executed.”
Zimmerlee further states, “The North Korean or Chinese captors rarely spoke English and wouldn’t know how to record English names. Lists were not maintained during a march. Only when they arrived at camps did lists evolve. Since 3 of these MIAs were known to be POWs, it is likely that a number of the rest were lost along the way. These and other cases can be found on the website www.koreanwarpowmia.net.”
Despite information such as Zimmerlee’s, officials still do not designate Church, Heath and Lawson as POWs, and Neville is still listed as KIA on August 11, 1950.
A query has been submitted to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) regarding the circumstances involved in the return of Neville’s remains – which might shed light on the fates of other MIAs. At the time of this writing, Major Ramon Osorio, JPAC Public Affairs, has begun investigating the case.
Merry Helm, Life Member Honorary
420 8th Ave S
Fargo, ND 58103-2828
Merry Helm became interested in this story while researching Ward Neville, who grew up in her home state of North Dakota.
The Taro Leaf, Vol 64(1) Winter 2010, pg.13-16.
A Deadly Reconnaissance Patrol—A Follow-up
In our last edition of The Taro Leaf [Vol 64(1) page 13], we brought you an account of a 3rd Combat Engineers patrol led by 1LT Ward Neville on 11 August 1950. Because a 1955 newspaper account indicated Neville’s remains were returned to the United State by Communist Chinese officials, a question was raised about whether Neville and some of his men might have been taken prisoner.
Merry Helm followed up by taking this question to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC). On January 8, 2010, Major Ramon Osorio, Chief of Plans/Operations Public Affairs, met with JPAC’s lead anthropologist, who confirmed the case was "resolved" many years ago but could offer no further details.
Major Osorio continued to investigate and, on January 15, he reported: "On 17 December 1951, members of the 565th Graves Registration Company recovered four sets of remains (one of these sets was those of 1LT Neville) in the Chang-dong area. These remains were sent to Tanggok mortuary lab, a facility newly stood up during the time by the United Nations, located on the outskirts of Pusan, South Korea. At this facility Neville was [later] identified by physical and dental characteristics."
Thus, the newspaper’s assumption that Neville’s remains were returned by the Chinese was inaccurate.
The Google Earth image above shows the area in which the patrol was ambushed.
Merry Helm, 420 8th Ave S Fargo, ND, 58103-2828
The Taro Leaf, Vol 64(2) Spring 2010, pg.7.