Robert Vernon Estes was born on March 27, 1931 to Lucille Latta and Joseph Harry “Dode” Estes, my father’s brother and best friend.
Robert’s nickname was Bobby. He enrolled in the Army during the Korean conflict and was captured on November 30, 1950. He was held as a prisoner of war and died in Korea on January 31, 1951. The family was not notified.
His nickname was Bobby.
This isn’t the end of Bobby’s story, but the beginning.
Bobby is my uncle’s son. His father, Joseph “Dode” Harry Estes born September 13, 1904 in Claiborne Co., Tennessee and died December 9, 1994 in Fairfield, Wayne Co., Illinois.
Bobby has been a “missing” family member for years. His father, Dode, suffered from amnesia, probably from an automobile accident, and became lost to the family who believed he had died. With Dode’s absence, his sons also became lost to the family.
This week, I found Robert Vernon Estes. He is memorialized on FindAGrave, although his remains were never returned and he is not buried on American soil.
Bobby is listed at both Fold3.com and with the American Battle Monuments Commission, but some of that information was incorrect, such as his death date.
United States Korean War Battle Deaths
Name: Robert V Estes
Event Type: Death
Event Date: 30 Nov 1950 (captured on this date, he didn’t die until January 31, 1951)
Event Place: Korea
Citizenship Status: U.S. Citizen
Casualty Type Note: HOSTILE – Died while captured/interned
Military Service Branch: U S ARMY
Military Component Reserve (USAR, USNR, USAFR, USMCR, USCGR)
Military Rank: Private First Class
Service Number: 16312230
Birth Date: 1931
Residence Place: White (County), Indiana, United States
Source Reference: 7234
Newspapers.com hasn’t indexed the newspapers for Monticello, Indiana where his POW status, or death, would have been reported. MyHertiage hasn’t digitized the yearbook where he went to school either. However, FindAGrave has more, thanks to GraveHunter, including his regiment and division, which made it possible for me to track Bobby further.
Corporal Estes was a member of Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division. He was taken Prisoner of War while fighting the enemy in North Korea on November 30, 1950 and died while a prisoner on January 31, 1951. His remains were not recovered. Corporal Estes was awarded the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, 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.
Bobby’s remains still have not been recovered or returned for burial, 67 years later.
I can’t help but wonder at the circumstances surrounding his death. Was he wounded as he was captured? Was he captured because he was wounded? Was he wounded or ill and left untreated? Or was it the unthinkable, unspeakable? Was he tortured to death?
The Korean War
The Korean War (1950-1953) began in June 1950 when the North Korean Communist army crossed the 38th parallel and invaded non-Communist South Korea. Armed with Soviet tanks, they quickly overran South Korea, executing every educated person who could, would or might lead a resistance against North Korea. The United States came to South Korea’s aid in a “police action” sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council.
The war lasted a miserable 3 years, with over 55,000 US men killed. The goal was to prevent a third world war. The American troops and people were frustrated with the lack of a decisive victory, unlike with WWI and WWII. Instead a divided Korea was established, with North Korea remaining a hostile dictatorship to this day.
The United States reported that North Korea mistreated prisoners of war. Soldiers were beaten, starved, put to forced labor, marched to death and summarily executed. War crimes were reported by both North and South Korea and document by photos of soldiers with piles of bodies. I can’t even look.
What Happened to Bobby?
From Wikipedia, we can surmise something of what was happening in Korea during the time Bobby was captured under the heading “China Intervenes.”
After consulting with Stalin, on 13 November, Mao appointed Zhou Enlai the overall commander and coordinator of the war effort, with Peng as field commander. On 25 November at the Korean western front, the PVA (Chinese People’s Volunteer Army) 13th Army Group attacked and overran the ROK (Republic of South Korea Army) II Corps at the Battle of the Ch’ongch’on River, and then inflicted heavy losses on the US 2nd Infantry Division on the UN forces’ right flank. The UN Command retreated; the U.S. Eighth Army’s retreat (the longest in US Army history) was made possible because of the Turkish Brigade’s successful, but very costly, rear-guard delaying action near Kunuri that slowed the PVA attack for two days (27–29 November). By 30 November, the PVA 13th Army Group managed to expel the U.S. Eighth Army from northwest Korea.
This is exactly when Bobby was captured, November 30th, so it would make sense that he was involved in the Battle of Ch’ongch’on River which was launched by General McArthur under the “Home by Christmas” offensive to expel the Chinese forces from the Korean peninsula and end the war. Not only did the war not end, no one came home by Christmas and Bobby still isn’t back.
This photo shows soldiers from the US 2nd Infantry Division in action near the Ch’ongch’on River on November 20th. This was Bobby’s unit just 10 days before his capture. For all we know, one of these men could be Bobby.
The terrain was rugged.
Soldiers from the Chinese 39th Corps pursue the US 25th Infantry Division. This wasn’t Bobby’s unit, but the pursuing Chinese probably didn’t look much different anyplace. Men chasing you, shooting guns is universally terrifying.
The Secret Report
A now declassified secret report states that on November 30, 1950, the day Bobby was captured, all records of the S-1 section were lost in the vicinity of Pugwon, Korea due to enemy action. This unit, Bobby’s, was known as the 9th “Manchu” infantry regiment. The secret report details the “defensive and rear-guard delaying action” that took place November 26-30 which followed an attack that had taken place November 12-25.
Extracted from the report:
On November 2nd, the unit was assigned to counterattack and destroy or hold the enemy that had broken through the Republic of Korea (now South Korea) lines and was advancing with no resistance.
On November 8th, the unit made contact with the enemy. On November 10th, tensions mounted and on the 11th, the unit celebrated Armistice Day “in its own special way firing a three-round concentration from all weapons at 1100 hours on appropriate enemy targets.”
The battled ensued until November 25th when the unit began the final push to crush the enemy and drive him across the Xaln River.
On November 25th, the 1st Battalion was attacked by the enemy and by 3 PM the following day, the entire 9th had been forced to withdraw and take up defensive positions across the Chongchon River.
On November 28th, they withdrew to Yongdam-Ni where a new defensive position was established. The 1st Battalion was attempting to withdraw from south of Pugwon.
Just before midnight, they fell under heavy enemy attack that completely cut them off until the early morning hours of November 27th when they fought their way free and reorganized in the vicinity of KuJang-Dong.
Under fire, on the 28th and 29th, the 9th reorganized in the vicinity of Kunu-Ri. As a result of the action from the late hours of the 25th to the 29th, the three battalions of the 9th had sustained over a 50% casualty rate, as a result leaving the 2nd and 3rd with less than 400 men each.
The 2nd was Bobby’s unit.
At approximately 8 PM on the 29th, a verbal order was received to attack and destroy the enemy roadblock on the Kunu-Ri-Sunchon Road. Combining the men left in each of the 2nd and 3rd into a reinforced company of approximately 400 men, the order was received and carried out during the remainder of November 29th and the early morning hours of November 30.
At 3:30 AM, the 2nd followed by the 3rd Battalion moved from the assembly area at Kunu-Ri to vicinity of the roadblock. At 6:30 AM, the 2nd Battalion on the right received enemy fire that increased in strength until 7 AM when enemy fire was coming from all sides. All vehicles withdrew. Although the fire continued for about 2 hours the unit held its position. The 3rd with a platoon of tanks contacted the enemy in the vicinity at approximately 7:15. The 9th advanced about 1000 yards through the roadblock until resistance of the enemy was such that farther progress forward was stopped.
The 9th completed a perimeter defense of the area and elements of the 2nd were allowed to pass through the roadblock. At 1:30 PM, with all available transport, the unit began to run the roadblock and engaged in a running fight while crossing it until 4 PM. However, enemy S/A fire was continuous and heavy along the entire 8 to 10 miles of the roadblock. The 2nd, on order, mounted all available transportation and engaged in a running fight with the enemy until reaching the vicinity of Sunchon at 4 PM. At 5:30 PM the group cleared the roadblock, taking fire on the rear and left flank, arriving in Sunchon area at 8 PM, proceeding to Hwange to set up a perimeter defense and reorganize.
Bobby clearly never made it to Sunchon. The report continues:
The regiment has suffered losses, heavy loses, in both men and equipment with what that undefined something that all great units have, the regiment wasn’t talking about the “downs” but what they would do the next time and hoping that time would be soon.
There was sadness, yes, but with that a grim determination that the enemy would pay, and pay the terrific price for what they had done. Instead of a defeated regiment the “Red” forces had succeeded in making a stronger, greater and inspired regiment of the 9th “Manchu” Infantry Regiment of the 2nd Infantry Division.
Signed, Edwin J. Messinger, Colonel, Infantry Commanding
The map above shows the roadblocks, the route along which Bobby was captured.
The declassified report includes summary documents stating that the regiment’s many losses occurred during November 27-30 “when the Chinese troops attacked our positions in overwhelming numbers. A total of 1766 battle casualties were suffered, 37 killed, 370 wounded and 1359 missing in action.”
On November 30th, the unit had a total of 257 enlisted men, but they don’t say whether that count is before or after the offensive.
The 2nd reported 15 killed, 125 wounded and 191 missing. They had started out with 798 on November 1st, so one way or another, lost 41% of their men. Bobby was one of those 191 missing, many of whom would have become prisoners of war.
This horrific battle was later named “The Gauntlet.”
Lieutenant Colonel William Kelleher of the US 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment described the carnage at the Gauntlet:
“For the next 500 yards the road was temporarily impassable because of the numerous burning vehicles and the pile up of the dead men, coupled with the rush of the wounded from the ditches, struggling to get aboard anything that rolled…either there would be bodies in our way, or we would be almost borne down by wounded men who literally throw themselves upon us…I squeezed [a wounded ROK soldier] into our trailer. But as I put him aboard, other wounded men piled on the trailer in such number that the Jeep couldn’t pull ahead. It was necessary to beat them off.”
A summary written later stated that when the North Korean forces collapsed, the Chinese sent their units to establish the roadblock which would have isolated and surrounded the entire Eighth Army. The 2nd infantry didn’t know the strength of the roadblock and US intelligence mistakenly reported that an alternative escape on the road from Kunu-ri to Anju was also blocked by the Chinese. Therefore, the unit decided to withdraw through the valley and the attack on the roadblock began.
On that fateful morning, four tanks were initially sent down the road, but the Chinese held their fire. The length of the roadblock caught the infantry by surprise, as they were not aware that it has been extended by the Chinese the previous day. The Chinese lured the unit into the trap, and the road was soon filled with bodies and disabled vehicles. The sterility of the official (now declassified) report belies the horror of the men inescapably trapped and abandoned there.
Those who tried to take cover in the ditches were left behind by the convoy rushing south. Air cover provided some protection in the day, but not at night. The Chinese finally blocked the road entirely by destroying parts of the 2nd Infantry Division which immobilized artillery pieces, forcing the abandonment of the rest of the vehicles. The men that could retreated by hiking through the hills, but not everyone was able to escape. The men from the 2nd, trapped in place, continued to fight after the rest had left.
In one of the last acts of the battle, the retreating 23rd infantry fired off its entire stock of 3,206 artillery shells within 20 minutes, shocking the Chinese troops and preventing them from following the regiment. The last stragglers from the 2nd Infantry division, the few left alive, arrived at Sunchon on December 1st.
On this satellite map, you can see Kaechon (Turk) near where the battle started, Sunchon and Anju, a distance of about 25 miles.
By comparing the rivers, I can map the rough location of the roadblocks. However, given the map distances and the fact that the roadblocks were reported to be 8-10 miles long, the roadblock area was probably about a third of the distance between Kaechon and Sunchon.
I believe this this region is the area where Bobby was captured. It’s somehow ironic that today, I’m viewing far more information about where their son was on that fateful day than either of Bobby’s parents were ever able to do in their lifetime. The report wasn’t declassified until after both of Bobby’s parents had died.
By the next day, the Chinese had moved on, but Bobby was in the hands of the North Koreans. The horrific final chapter of Bobby’s inescapable death had begun.
Korean Concentration Camps
Bobby didn’t die for 2 months and 1 day, so he very clearly was in some kind of detainment facility. I discovered this list of Korean POW camps. Based on proximity and the early date, the only camps possible where Bobby was held would have been:
- Camp 5, [old] Pyoktong, 1950-52—town name moved after war
According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, the original site on the south bank of the Yalu River is believed to hold 550 remains of US servicemen.
The following holding points were in operation at that time as well:
- The Valley at Sambakkol, mainly Nov 1950-Jan 1951 (near Pyongyang)
- “Death Valley” at Pukchin-Tarigol, mainly Dec 1950-March 1953 (this site is believed to hold the remains of 350 US POWs)
- “The Apex” camps at Chunggang-jin, Hanjang-ni, and An-dong, Nov 1950 to Oct 1951
- Kanggye, used by POWs from the Chosin Reservoir, Dec 1950 to Mar 1951 (further east)
The official US POW/MIA page states that the majority of the men who died in these sites passed away during the winter of 1950-51 before food could be delivered reliably and shelter was haphazard at best. Temperatures in Korea in December and January range from 15-30 degrees. More than 7800 men were lost and remain unrecovered and about 5300 of those were lost in North Korea. This site shows a map with the locations of the various POW camps annotated.
This chills me to the bone.
Another soldier from Bobby’s unit captured in the same battle was sent to the Pukchin-Tarigol Camp Cluster, shown on the map below, about 30 miles north of Kaechon, where he starved to death on February 16, 1951, just two weeks after Bobby died.
Yet another soldier from the same unit captured at the same time died in the same prison camp four days before Bobby. There’s a reason it was called “Death Valley.” Those two soldiers were not listed on POW lists, were not among the remains returned in 1954 and were declared unrecoverable, but were found in a secondary burial site and returned in 2016 and 2018, respectively. Maybe there’s hope for Bobby yet.
I found the Pyoktong concentration camp location on the map as well, although the Korean War site says the town was moved after the war.
The notorious Pyoktong on the map today was located 60 or 70 miles north of Kaechon. Death Valley would have been closer to where Bobby was captured.
Exorbitant death rates in concentration camps probably account for the 900% (not a typo) discrepancy in the number of POWs that North Korea officially claimed to have held after the war, as compared to their own announcements and known South Korean captives during the war.
The original Pyoktong location is shown in the photo below on the south bank of the Yalu River that divides China and North Korea.
It’s reported that more than 2000 bodies are buried behind this location.
The 55 sets of remains (of over 7700+ still missing) that were recently returned by Korea only included one set with dogtags, and they weren’t Bobby’s. Given that Bobby was a POW for 2 months, they clearly had his tags. It’s unlikely that any of the remains repatriated are his.
Bobby’s Military Awards
I wondered if the awards that Bobby received posthumously might tell us more about his duty. Regardless, he deserves to be fully recognized for each one.
Combat Infantryman Badge – Awarded to infantrymen and special forces soldiers who fought in ground combat after December 6, 1941.
Korean Service Medal – Created November 1950 by President Harry Truman for participation in the Korean War.
United Nations Service Medal – An international military decoration established by the United Nations December 12, 1950 in recognition of the multi-national defense forces which participated in the Korean War. The back reads “For service in the defence (sic) of the principles of the charter of the United Nations.”
National Defense Service Medal – Established by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953, the medal is a “blanket campaign medal” awarded to service members who served honorably during a designated time period of which a “national emergency” had been declared during a time of war or conflict. This medal is awarded to men who served in Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War or the War on Terrorism.
Korean Presidential Unit Citation – Award presented by the government of South Korea to any military unit of outstanding performance in defense of the Republic of Korea. In recognition of allied military service to South Korea during the Korean War, all US military departments were authorized the unit award for that period.
Republic of Korea War Service Medal – Military award of South Korea originally authorized in December of 1950 to honor those who participated in the counter assaults against North Korean aggression in June 1950. In 1951, South Korea authorized the award to “the brave and valiant members of the United Nations Command who have been, and are now, combatting the communist aggressor in Korea.”
Bobby’s mother, Lucille Latta Stockdale died on August 18, 1952 of a stroke at age 45. She only knew that Bobby was missing, not that he had died. Or did she, in her mother’s heart? She must have worried every single hour of single every one of those 625 days between his capture and her death.
As a mother, I can’t even begin to imagine how Lucille suffered. Surely she hoped for the best. And feared the worst. Every minute of every single hour
She probably jumped every time a phone rang or someone knocked at the door. She would have been constantly waiting for a good news call, or, for the dreaded telegram to arrive. Would it be Bobby’s voice on the other end of the line, or the men in military uniform at the door, bearing dreadful news?
It was never either.
Did the constant stress of his captivity lead to her stroke? It certainly didn’t help, that’s for sure.
I wonder when the family was finally notified? I knew that my uncle’s son had been killed in “the war,” but I never knew any details, including which war, when he died, nor even Bobby’s name.
My own father died when I was young, although he kept in touch with his brother as best he could until they were both lost to all of us.
As I processed this heartbreaking sequence of information: the battles, Bobby’s capture, his horrific time spent in Korea including those torturous last two months, his prolonged “absence” that was in fact the stillness of death, his mother’s demise and his father’s subsequent disappearance – the warmth of a revelation suddenly crept across me like sunshine emerging from the clouds after a devastating storm.
I had always known I was named “for” someone, but I had never known who that someone was. I knew positively it wasn’t anyone on my mother’s side. Mother said my father selected my first name and she chose my middle name. She seemed none too happy about that circumstance, but it was years too late when she and I had that discussion. My mother had ongoing issues with my father, but if she had known I was named for Bobby, and the circumstances, she would have told me with pride.
Now, I realize that I was named for Robert Vernon Estes, along with his nickname, Bobby, which my father bestowed upon me as well. I love my nickname, which I spell Bobbi, but I was never the least bit pleased with Roberta. I never understood. That’s all different now.
Robert, I’m busting-at-the-seams proud to be your namesake. I will stand in the stead of your parents until my death, still praying that we can bring you home soon, hoping that the least I can do is stand at your graveside as you are buried. It would be my honor.
Thank you for your service, your name and your ultimate sacrifice.