Wineka column: Retired soldier honors a commander whose remains from North Korea are finally home
SALISBURY — This afternoon, the remains of Lt. Col. Don C. Faith Jr., killed more than 62 years ago during the historic Chosin Reservoir fighting in North Korea, will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
U.S. Army Col. John E. Gray (Ret.) will be there in his dress blues.
“I just owe it to him as my old commander,” says Gray, a Rowan County resident and veteran of three different wars.
Gray was 24 when he fought with Faith. Now he’s 87 — a vibrant 87.
“I think I can muster the energy,” Gray says, some kidding in his deep voice. “It’s just rejoicing that he now comes home to the appropriate military honors on U.S. soil and under the Stars and Stripes.
“In a sense, it’s a joyous occasion when a soldier comes home.”
Gray and Faith endured the same ferocious fighting on Hill 1221 during which Faith was mortally wounded, trying to get his battalion with 400 men hurt through a Chinese roadblock.
Faith sustained his shrapnel injuries Dec. 1, 1950, and he died the next day. U.S. forces, under constant siege by the Chinese and hampered by 30-degrees-below-zero temperatures, left his body behind.
For almost 60 years, it remained in the hills next to the reservoir.
In 2004, a joint recovery team from the United States and North Korea, surveyed the area where Faith had last been seen. Remains of soldiers — Chinese and American — were found.
Faith’s remains returned to the United States, where the long process of identification started, overseen by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory.
Those agencies relied on interviews of men such as Gray, circumstantial evidence, dental records and mitochondrial DNA, which matched Faith’s surviving brother.
Faith, 32 when he died, was from Washington, Ind. He had posthumously received the military’s highest award, the Congressional Medal of Honor, for the heroic leadership and courage he had shown in the Chosin Reservoir fighting.
With the certainty of Faith’s identification, his remains were returned to the family for his burial with full military honors.
Faith’s daughter, Bobbi Broyles, a 66-year-old psychotherapist in Baton Rouge, La., also will be at Arlington National Cemetery today with her husband and three children.
She personally asked Gray, a past president and director emeritus of the Chosin Few — a veterans organization of Chosin Reservoir survivors — to attend today’s ceremony.
Gray says the Arlington National Cemetery rites will be followed by a reception from 3-5 p.m. at the Army-Navy Country Club south of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
During the Chosin fighting, Gray also was hit in the right thigh and leg by fragments from a mortar round. Then he was caught in the right hand by fire from a Thompson submachine gun.
After killing three Chinese soldiers at point-blank range with a .45-caliber pistol in his left hand, Gray made it back to the M Company command post as U.S. forces resorted to hand-to-hand fighting to restore positions that day.
Gray was a 24-year-old first lieutenant at the time and leader of a 81-millimeter mortar platoon, which suffered heavy casualties. A year later, in ceremonies at Fort Jackson, S.C., Gray received the Distinguished Service Cross for “extraordinary heroism in action against the enemy” near the Chosin Reservoir Dec. 1, 1950.
“Though hardly able to walk and suffering greatly from his wounds,” reports said at the time, “he rallied a group of soldiers and led them through barrages of vicious fire to rout the enemy from their strongpoints.”
As with many other soldiers, Gray also dealt with frostbite during the Chosin campaign, though his was limited to his ears, cheeks and a wounded hip. Many other soldiers had more serious frostbite of their feet.
Half of the 15,000 allied deaths and injuries during the two-week Chosin campaign were said to come from exposure to the temperatures and howling winds.
Gray said he did not know Faith “socially.” Circumstances — bad ones — actually threw the men together in battle.
In November 1950, the 1st Marine Division, part of the Army’s 7th Division and a unit of British Royal Marines — 20,000 troops total — marched 70 miles into the mountains surrounding the Chosin Reservoir in hopes of putting a quick end to the Korean Conflict.
But that action prompted a nervous China to enter the war. A dozen veteran Chinese divisions, representing at least 120,000 men, circled the allied forces, and the only path back to the coast was a one-lane mountain road.
Gray was part of the 3rd Battalion, 31st Infantry Regimental Combat Team, when Faith’s 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry, was attached to it.
The two regiments were advancing along the eastern side of the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea.
In the period between Nov. 27 and Dec. 1, 1950, Chinese forces attempted to overrun this U.S. position and its outnumbered forces.
“During this series of attacks,” the Army reported, “Faith’s commander went missing, and Faith assumed command of the 31st Regimental Combat Team.”
Gray confirms this:
“After the debacle developed east of the reservoir and we had so many casualties, he ended up chief in command.”
Army accounts say Faith’s men in the 31st RCT came to be known as “Task Force Faith.”
The regiment was forced to withdraw along Route 5 to a more defensible position, but it reached an enemy roadblock.
“As they came to a hairpin curve, enemy fire from a roadblock again pinned the column down,” the citation for Faith’s Congressional Medal of Honor said. “Lt. Col. Faith organized a group of men and directed their attack on the enemy positions on the right flank. He then placed himself at the head of another group of men, and in the face of direct enemy fire, led an attack on the enemy roadblock, firing his pistol and throwing grenades.
“When he had reached a position approximately 30 yards from the roadblock, he was mortally wounded, but continued to direct the attack until the roadblock was overrun.”
Gray says it was a valiant attempt by Faith, with the odds totally against him.
“I was in that same action with him,” he says.
Gray will be attending today’s burial with his wife, Sue, and son Ret. Col. Kenneth F. Gray, a combat engineer veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It’s rather amazing, of all the soldiers who fell up there, and with so many missing in North Korea still, that they found Faith’s body,” John Gray says.
More than 7,900 Americans remain unaccounted for from the Korean War, according to the U.S. Defense Department.
For years at reunions of the Chosin Few, members of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command would attend, bringing with them tactical and topographical maps from the Chosin Reservoir campaign.
They would interview Gray and others, asking them to point out where on the maps certain battles occurred.
Finally, in 2004, North Korea allowed a grave registration team to enter the country and search the area — under North Korean guard, of course.
“There were many bodies retrieved, based on what we told the POW/MIA Committee,” Gray says.
A Cleveland native, Gray is a veteran of five Pacific campaigns with the Marine Corps during World War II. After getting his bachelor’s degree from Davidson College in 1949, he re-entered the military by accepting a commission in the Army infantry, which led to his service in both the Korean and Vietnam conflicts.
Along the way, Gray obtained two master’s degrees — one in financial management from Syracuse; the other, technology management from American University — and also attended General Staff College and the Army War College.
Besides the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism, Gray received the Silver Star, Legion Of Merit with three Oak Leaf Clusters, the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. There’s a list of other medals and commendations too numerous to mention.
Gray retired with 30 years of military service in 1974, then entered a second career managing interstate truck transportation.
“I just think the country itself owes a lot to old soldiers like our honored commander,” Gray says.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263,or firstname.lastname@example.org.