Editor’s Note: This is a new feature in The Sun from local attorney and historian, Gary Knepp, who will write about historical issues related to the county.
The world’s attention was focused on Singapore on June 12 when President Trump and Chairman Kim of North Korea met to discuss a wide variety of issues: nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, sanctions and normalization of relations. Included was repatriation of nearly 8,000 Americans missing in action since the Korean War. One of Clermont’s sons is among the missing.
On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded the South. The battle-hardened Communists smashed the lightly armed South Koreans. Elements of the 8th U.S. Army were inserted into the fight to stop the Communist aggression.
But this wasn’t the vaunted Army that helped defeat Japan in World War II. Its men were unfit, poorly trained, poorly led, and poorly armed. Bazooka shells bounced off the Russian-made tanks. Rifle barrels were so pitted they couldn’t shoot straight. Ammunition blew up in our men’s faces.
Our boys were mauled. They were pushed down the peninsula into a tight corner near Pusan. And there they held. Thousands of our men were captured and forced to march northwards. Those who couldn’t keep up were shot in the head. Others were pushed off cliffs. Still others died of their untreated wounds, disease, and starvation. These bodies were never recovered. Survivors were incarcerated in North Korean camps. The POWs were beaten, starved, and brainwashed. The dead were buried at the camps.
John Paytes was from Loveland. The twenty-two year old had enlisted in the Army after graduating from high school. His brother, Don, remembered him as “a real cut up.” Corporal Paytes swam the 1,500 meter distance for the Army team.
Paytes left Japan with his unit, the 19th U.S. Infantry, on July 4, 1950. The men were deployed to the southern bank of the Kum River to defend the city of Taejon. The thinly held lines were overrun. Paytes and five others from his company were missing. While liberating Seoul, U.S. Marines entered a girl’s school. They found the names of 370 Americans, including “John Paytes”, written on chalk boards.
Apparently, as the Marines were entering Seoul, the prisoners were removed. They were force-marched to Pyongyang, the North’s capital. The survivors were put on a train for transport to POW camps further north. The train was strafed by American planes whose pilots didn’t know the train’s cargo. To escape another attack, the train pulled into a tunnel near Sunchon.
After the planes left, the POWs were ordered off the train.
They were given rice bowls and told to kneel. As they did so, the guards fired burp guns into the POWs, murdering many. Paytes was among the dead. When American troops arrived, the bodies were buried. They were reburied in a Pyongyang Cemetery on November 1, 1950.
After the war, the remains of some Americans were returned to the U.S. for burial at Hawaii’s Punch Bowl National Cemetery. There may be 185 Americans still buried at the Pyongyang Cemetery. The remains of Corporal Paytes have never been identified. He may be in Hawaii or still may be in North Korea.
In 1995, the U.S. established diplomatic relations with Vietnam. A precondition for normalizing relations was Vietnam’s cooperation in locating and returning our missing soldiers.
The same should be required of North Korea. The family of John Paytes and the other families deserve nothing less.
Gary Knepp is an attorney who lives in Miami Township. He is the author of Forgotten Warriors – Stories from the Korean War. His website is garyknepp.com.