Korean War 1
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Memorial Day 2014 Post - guest contributor email@example.com
Added to Fold 3 Website - May 2015
Does anyone really remember what it’s like to be nineteen years of age? For many, it was that youthful anticipation of finishing school and leaving home for the first time. For most, it is a reflection of the past and the many life experiences between now and then. For Eugene Raymond Van Steenvoort it was the last year of his life.
“Gene” Van Steenvoort was born in 1931 in the small community of Crary in Ramsey County, North Dakota. He was the son of a Belgium immigrant father who came to America in 1899, married a North Dakota native and settled down on the family farm near Odessa where he raised eight children. Life must have passed quickly for young Gene as he stayed busy with farm chores and attended classes at Odessa School No. 3 with all seven of his fellow classmates. But as his teen years drew to a close, life was about to pass even more rapidly.
By the age of nineteen Gene found himself a Private First Class in the United Stated Army. He served with Battery C, 38th at Fort Lewis, Washington. Gene was trained as a Field Artillery Cannoneer and assigned to maintain and fire the 105mm light field howitzer. The year was 1950 and war between the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), and the Republic of Korea (South Korea), had broken out resulting in U.S. troop deployments to Korea which included the 2nd Division’s, 38th F.A. Battalion.
Just weeks after turning nineteen, Gene’s unit arrived in Korea. Initially employed piecemeal, the entire division combined in August 1950 and relieved Army units at the Naktong River Line. The battalion was part of the Pusan Defense Perimeter which had formed after United Nations forces were repeatedly pushed south by overwhelming North Korean troops.
Between August and September, the 2nd Division, along with other U.N. forces, mounted a last stand by fighting off repeated North Korean human wave attacks resulting in a halt of further enemy advances. Gene’s 2nd Division was one of several units to counterattack and breakout of the Pusan Defense Perimeter in the fall of 1950 and within a matter of weeks they had advanced across the 38th parallel into North Korea, pushing the enemy back to the Yalu River bordering China. By October the People's Republic of China had entered the war and Chinese Communist Forces were engaged in attacking U.S. troops which initially lacked supplies and winter clothing.
Gene’s Thanksgiving holiday would be his last and the very next day the Chinese launched an all-out offensive overrunning many 8th Army Units and forcing them to make a hasty withdrawal towards South Korea. Several American units were captured or killed and of the nine major units deployed, Gene’s 2nd Division suffered the largest amount of killed and wounded accounting for over half of all Army casualties during the three week encounter.
The cold gray skies were filled with broken snow clouds on the morning of November 30th Gene prepared for his final retreat from the advancing enemy in what would later be known as the battle at Kunu-ri. The 38th F.A. Battalion had been called upon to fight a rear guard action as the rest of the 2nd Division attempted its escape by running “The Gauntlet” - a vicious six-mile stretch of valley road dominated by overlooking mountains on both sides that were controlled by the Communist Chinese forces.
Earlier, the 24th Infantry Division had depleted an entire stock of 3,206 artillery shells within 20 minutes to enable its escape through the narrow gorge. Chaos ensued as the overwhelming Chinese combatants advanced causing American troops to scatter and flee for their lives. In what must have been the longest day of his life, Gene fought to give his fellow soldiers time to escape but eventually every battalion howitzer was captured or destroyed and he was forced to disperse and attempt to escape across crosscountry. At the end of the retreat, only 65 enlisted men were left in the 38th FA Battalion and Gene was nowhere to be found. He was listed as “Missing in Action.”
Gene’s story doesn’t end here. Life can seem endless when you are nineteen. For Gene it became never-ending. He was captured that same day and started his last leg of life’s journey with a march back to North Korea with his fellow prisoners during the cold and snowy days of December. In accordance with a predetermined plan formulated by the high Communist command, captured soldiers had their heavy outer garments and boots confiscated.
The suffering was intense as the weather was extremely cold, and many prisoners froze their feet. Average food rations consisted of one ball of rice each day and little or no water. Beatings, lack of food, and inadequate medical attention to the wounded resulted in numerous deaths. The prisoners were forced to parade through towns and villages and placed on display before the civilian populace. Prisoners who were unable to continue the marches because of exhaustion were killed by the Communist guards.
Initially, the North Korean’s lacked a formal POW internment system so the bulk of the 2nd Division captives were settled in a group of camps in an area that became known as “Death Valley.” Forty percent of the 2nd Division’s 2,000 inmates would die within the next three months. Yet Gene continued to live…..and suffer.
By early 1951, the enemy had decided that there was propaganda value in a formal POW system and developed several permanent POW camps along the Yalu River. The POW’s from “Death Valley” were brought in, and processed at Camp 5 near Pyoktong. Gene survived the brutal cold of winter only to face new horrors under the formal camp system. The North Korean’s violated virtually every provision of the Geneva Convention as they continued to deny POW’s adequate nourishment, water, clothing, medical care and shelter. Housing conditions were terrible, resulting in widespread disease. Political questioning and forced Communist indoctrination was constant and prisoners were not permitted to practice their religion. Prisoner’s letters were never mailed and Red Cross packages were denied. The camps were not properly marked which resulted in several bombings by United Nations aircraft. Inmates were beaten, humiliated, punished and starved and one witness later testified that during an eight month period, 1,500 prisoners died of beriberi, dysentery, pellagra, and other diseases as a result of malnutrition at Camp 5. Many POW deaths were attributed to rampant disease, untended wounds, malnutrition and extreme cold.
Gene lived his Battalion Motto to the end. “The Steel behind the Rock.” This young man finally surrendered his life in service to his country as concluded by post internment interviews from fellow POW's which are usually the reference point for such determinations. Gene was officially listed by the Army as having died in captivity on or about June 1, 1951 just weeks before his 20th birthday. No cause of death has been located and his remains were never recovered.
Eugene Richard Van Steenvoort was posthumously promoted to the rank of Corporal and awarded the Prisoner of War Medal, Korean Service Medal, United Nations Service Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Korean Presidential Unit Citation and the Republic of Korea War Service Medal. The 38th Artillery Battalion was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for their heroic rear guard action at Kunu-ri.
Gene has been memorialized with a gravestone at Section B, Site 070, in the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery at Mandon, North Dakota. His name is engraved on the, “All Veterans Memorial Walkway” at the Korean War Memorial in Dayton Ohio and inscribed on the tablets of the “Courts of the Missing” in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Approximately 83,000 American military personnel are missing from all conflicts. Of the 7,967 MIA’s from the Korean War, 5,500 are believed to be in North Korea. Since 1996 specialists from the Defense Department’s Joint POW/MIA Command had been conducting recovery operations in North Korea as conditions and politics permit. Any remains or personal artifacts are sent to JPAC’s headquarters in Hawaii, where experts at the command’s Central Identification Laboratory use the most advanced science available to match them to a specific missing service member.
In January of 2012 the remains of Army Cpl. William R. Sluss were identified and returned for burial. Sluss also served with the 38th Field Artillery Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division, near Kuni-ri, North Korea, until he was captured by enemy forces in late November 1950. Sluss also died at POW Camp 5 in April 1951 just months before Van Steenvoort’s death. Gene’s DNA is on file and perhaps someday, he too, may be located and brought home to rest.
So before you start the barbeque, head out to that picnic by the lake, or take in a new movie, find a minute this Memorial Day to think about your nineteenth year of life and maybe compare it with the life of Eugene Van Steenvoort. As you remember him, be sure to remember all the other young men and women who have given their lives in service to this county.
History will speak of freedom and the liberation of our fellow man from the horror and corruption of nations that seek to dominate others. Yet no death of a soldier is worth the wages of war to the loved ones left behind. Only by honoring their memory do we give purpose to their life and let them rest with honor as we celebrate this Memorial Day in quiet reflection.