When I first discovered that my father’s nephew, Robert Vernon Estes, was a prisoner of war in North Korea and died, probably of starvation, in their hands during his captivity, I was determined to discover as much as possible about Robert’s short life – and death. Maybe after all of these years more information would be available, although many of his records burned in the Records Center fire in St Louis in 1973.
I asked a research firm to find and obtain as many of his military records as possible, from as many sources as possible.
I felt that this is the very least I could do for Robert, known as Bobby in the family, 68 years after he was robbed of life by an inhumane enemy.
Killed in warfare is one thing – but starvation is another. I just don’t understand how humans WITH food could deprive other starving humans – to the point of death. How could they not only observe that horrific suffering, but be responsible for inflicting it willfully upon the miserable and dying who were probably begging for any morsel of food?
That’s not war – it’s torture, pure and simple.
The packet of information arrived in an e-mail while I was speaking at a conference last week. I was almost afraid to open the document for fear of what might be inside, but I had to know.
The first record reveals the date that Bobby’s Missing in Action (MIA) status was communicated to his family. He became MIA and was taken prisoner on November 30th, 1950 but the family wasn’t notified until January 4th, 1951 using message “68.”
MyHeritage shows that Bobby was a truck driver.
I was hopeful that the MyHeritage yearbook collection would include Bobby’s photo, but neither Bobby nor his brother Charles is shown in any yearbook from their collection. I called the local Monon library as well, and while there are some years missing in the Monon yearbook collection, there are also years present where Bobby should have been included. Perhaps the Estes boys attended a different school system, or maybe they dropped out early to farm. In any case, sadly, there is no known photo of Bobby.
The closest I can get is a photo of Joseph “Dode” Estes, Bobby’s father, taken during WWI. Bobby probably looked something like Joe.
Bobby was an Army Corporal, promoted during his captivity. His address was given as Route 1 in Monon, Indiana, which indicates that he lived in the country.
Bobby’s mother, Lucille Latta, had remarried to Harry Stockdale in 1941. She died at age 45 of a stroke on August 18, 1952 where her obituary states that Robert is MIA and had been since November 30, 1950.
Lucille was not notified in person that Bobby was missing, but by an impersonal letter, even after a several weeks delay.
My heart aches to think about Lucille opening this letter. Did she know as soon as she saw the envelope in the mailbox, standing on that country road that cold January day?
By the time the military sent the letter, Bobby had been missing for all of December and into January. By the time his mother received it, another week or so.
Did Lucille wonder why she hadn’t received any mail from Bobby, especially given the Christmas holiday? Or was mail so scarce from the front that no mail was normal?
Unbeknownst to the family, Bobby had probably been starving since his capture, was laboring in a mining camp, and may have already died by the time this letter reached his mother.
Did her mother’s sixth sense tell her that her son was in trouble and was being tortured?
All Lucille could do was wait half a world away.
By June, even though Lucille wasn’t aware, the military was requesting dental information which suggests that they had no information that he was alive. They probably had no information at all.
In June of 1952, Lucille was apparently very frustrated with the lack of response from the military and engaged her elected representatives for assistance.
Based on dates, letters seemed to have crossed in the mail.
Lucille just wanted Bobby’s things, whatever remained with the military. He certainly couldn’t use them whether he was missing, dead or in captivity.
At this point, Lucille didn’t know if he had been captured or killed. What she did know was that he didn’t reappear after being considered MIA, so he wasn’t just lost, injured or displaced.
Bobby’s personal items were going to come home. Lucille, as a mother, would have been hopeful that Bobby would return home too, eventually.
The letter to Lucille’s Congressman was written by the Army a few days before the letter to her.
“Period of anxiety.” That’s an incredible understatement.
It’s interesting to note that Lucille’s Congressional inquiry did serve to expedite things.
Dirty towels and worn, torn socks. Lucille probably cherished them since they carried part of Bobby.
Apparently, these items had been sitting someplace since April.
The shipment inventory of effects is dated May 16, 1952.
These few items were sent to Bobby’s mother. The bottom items appear to have been sent in July, but the top 2 were sent in a second, later, shipment.
In October of 1952, the Army requested his dental information, again.
Lucille died in August 1952. When I made that discovery, I wondered if the stress of Bobby’s captivity in any way contributed to her early death of a stroke.
Bobby’s Bible and “misc brass” weren’t returned until after Lucille had passed away.
Given that Lucille had died, Harry wrote to the military on her behalf.
Where’s Joseph “Dode” Estes?
Reading this letter from Harry, I realized that no-place in Bobby’s records is his father, Joseph “Dode” Estes either mentioned or communicated with. In fact, it’s Bobby’s step-father who wrote this letter, which leads me to wonder about the absence of Dode.
Where was Bobby’s father and why was he not involved at some level? One would think the military would communicate with a father before a step-father, although Harry married Lucille when Bobby was 10 years old.
The Estes family knew, at least eventually, that Bobby had died. Somehow, someplace, Joe had been told. I noticed in one of my father’s records that the authorities in Lafayette, Indiana in 1938 were asking my father if he had seen Joe. My father stated that he had not seen Joe since the previous Christmas at their mother’s house in Chicago.
This makes me wonder if Joe was in some sort of legal trouble.
Regardless, it tells us that by 1938, Joe was not in the area, assuming my father was truthful, which might not be a valid assumption.
This September 1940 newspaper clipping tells us that Lucille and Joe were getting divorced and had been separated for a decade. In fact, their separation date is in September 1930 and Bobby’s birth date is March 27, 1931, telling us that they separated when Lucille was 3 months pregnant. Joe may never have been involved much in Bobby’s life.
This might, just might, have something to do with the fact that Lucille wanted to marry Harry Stockdale. Joe seemed to be chronically in trouble and clearly failed to provide for his family.
In 1926, Joe had been in trouble for stealing a car, although he wasn’t convicted because the prosecution’s witness failed to appear.
However, in February 1930, Joe was jailed due to intoxication.
The State Penal Farm isn’t the local jail, so this sentence must have been non-trivial, although we know he had been released by late June 1930 when Bobby was conceived.
On September 27, 1930, Joe went to jail once again for stealing chickens.
This date coincides with the separation date in Lucille’s divorce pleading. She had had enough, pregnant or not. Joe was still in jail, unless he accrued “good time,” when Bobby was born.
Apparently, in 1930, Joe escaped and returned home. He was obviously caught and returned to prison.
The daughter of Bobby’s brother, Charles, told me years ago that Charles remembered that, as a child, between the ages of 8-10, a group of men with guns came and took Joe away in a vehicle. If Charles’ memory is accurate, that would put that event between 1935 and 1937. The family was shrouded in secrets, and Charles, born in 1927, didn’t see Joe again until he was an adult and somehow found his father.
I’d wager that the event between 1935 and 1937 was yet another jail episode. If the White County newspapers are ever indexed, maybe we’ll find out.
Aunt Margaret sent a photo of Joe in San Pedro, California in 1942.
Joe’s location in 1950/51 is a mystery but Aunt Margaret’s letter says that prior to her mother’s death in 1955, she had been sending Joe money to help with his medical bills. He had reportedly been hit by a car in Indiana or near Chicago. My father thought Joe had died, either then or eventually, as did the rest of the family. Joe didn’t pass away until 1988 in Fairfield, Illinois. More secrets.
Another of Margaret’s letters places Joe in Claiborne County, Tennessee in 1957.
“I also chewed him out in 57 when Ed and I visited Eppersons and Dode was working in the cain patch after telling me he was down and couldn’t get up. We went after him and when Aunt Corny Epperson told me Joe had come there splurging money received from his son’s death in the armed service – yet crying hard luck to me, I flipped my lid and really laid him out flat with a good lecture.”
Unfortunately, there are no records regarding payment of any funds related to Bobby’s death.
Bobby’s Bible wasn’t returned until after Lucille died. $1.47 and a Bible – all the makings of an appropriately sad country song.
The Bible was worn from usage. I hope Bobby found solace and comfort there.
The months must have dragged on for Harry after Lucille’s death and the interminable waiting on word about Bobby’s whereabouts.
Hopefully, Bobby was just a prisoner of war and would be released or exchanged after the war ended. If Harry was a praying man, that would have been his daily prayer.
The Korean conflict ended in 1953. Other men who were missing and actually POWs were released, but still nothing about Bobby.
Then the inevitable…
Word had come that Bobby was dead, not informed by the Koreans diplomatically, but from a friend of another soldier who had direct knowledge of Bobby’s death. The soldier grapevine.
And then this entry in Bobby’s file.
Another antiseptic letter. You’d think a personal visit would have been much more respectful to deliver this type of devastating news.
Word came, albeit through the grapevine, that Bobby had died of dysentery and pneumonia. I have to wonder if this was secondary to starvation, or his body was unable to heal due to lack of food. We know that other men died of starvation in these camps days on either side of Bobby’s death.
Clearly, the North Koreans were not interested in the health and welfare of their captives – or even basic human decency.
The money that Joe was spending that he received from Bobby’s death was likely Bobby’s pay for the time that he was captured in November 1950 until he was declared dead in January 1954. Bobby’s pay would have been $83.20 per month, plus $8 for foreign duty pay as a private, and slightly more as a corporal. That promotion was actually posthumous.
Three years and a couple months pay was certainly a windfall to Bobby’s father, equivalent to about $30,500 today. One family member said Joe purchased a restaurant in Tazewell, Tennessee, but I found no documentation of that rumor.
This card in Bobby’s file documents the source of the determination that he had died.
“The Letter,” direct, to the point, short and final.
Pneumonia – not starvation directly – although other men did starve at this camp during this time.
I wonder if the family actually accepted this letter as final. If one wanted to continue to hope, there is enough ambiguity with the notification being a friend of a friend that one could possibly refuse to abandon hope. Lucille was gone, Harry as a step-parent might have been more accepting, but I wonder about Bobby’s brother, Charles.
An identical letter was sent to Charles, Bobby’s brother, but nothing was sent to Bobby’s father. The military may have had no information about Joe. Joe was known to drink and was reported to have been hit by a car, incurring amnesia. Joe could also have been in jail someplace. The Estes men of Joe’s generation were not known for their good behavior.
January 1956 brought this letter.
Such a final verdict.
Bobby was held in North Korea, not in the DMZ. The Koreans never tracked their prisoners, never informed anyone of their capture, and never kept records of their location, treatment, deaths or burials. Bobby may be in a mass grave someplace with the other men that died each day.
In short, the Koreans never had any intention of these men surviving to release.
Bobby’s remains would never leave Korean soil. He is literally buried at the feet of his tortuous captors.
The only saving grace is that Lucille had joined Bobby and she already knew. She no longer cared about bodies.
I narrowed the possible POW camps based on the description of the camp where Bobby was held as a mining camp which helped immensely. I found the following candidates.
- Pukchin Mining Camp – between Kunu-ri and Pyoktong – (aka. Death Valley Camp).
- Suan Mining Camp – P’yong-yang
- Koksan Mining Camp
Based on the location, near Kunu-ri where Bobby was captured, he was most likely at the Pukchin Camp, also known as the Death Valley Camp.
I wish Bobby’s records had said specifically where he was held and died. Surely Eugene Inman, the soldier who provided the death information, knew.
Eugene provided the following description of the Death Valley Camp in the book, American POWs in Korea, Sixteen Personal Accounts.
Eugene Inman, POW
Eugene Inman was the soldier and fellow POW who informed the military that Bobby had died. Eugene and Bobby were in the same unit when they were captured.
Eugene Inman is honored as a veteran and former Korean POW on this page. I want to thank Mr. Inman, now deceased, for his sacrifices and for telling the story of his capture and subsequent POW experience – which is also Bobby’s story.
I am quoting the full portions of Eugene’s biography relevant to Bobby, below, because Bobby can’t tell his own story:
I served with the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division, 9th Infantry Ret. I saw action in various parts of Korea from the Naktong River Line in last of July-Aug. 1950 as a member of an RCT plugging holes here and there under highly stressed and traumatic scenes until Chongchon River Line in November 1950.
The early activities in July were struggles to beat back probing and breakthrough efforts of the Koreans. Then my capture running the gauntlet at the pass in the Kunu-ri-Sunchon roadblock of the Kuni-ri area November 30, 1950, when the Chinese entered the conflict. Years of torment and abuse followed, thinking only of survival. Finally my freedom when I was repatriated at “Big Switch,” crossing “Freedom Bridge” Aug. 30, 1953.
The last week or so before capture was very difficult and dangerous. The extreme cold and confusion of the ambushes at roadblocks had cut us off from our own lines. At the time of capture we were separated from the main company, and my outfit was cut off by the enemy forces. Resultant conditions forced our surrender by ones, twos and small handfuls. Broken up into small groups we were to seek our own way out. We were out of ammunition and supplies, and the way to our lines was totally blocked. As the battle of Kunu-ri receded, there were many wounded and dead lying on all sides of us on the hillsides, on the road and in the ditches. The pass was blocked with all kinds of equipment, a mass of destroyed junk.
We were gathered up and placed into a holding area of animal sheds and vacant huts without any protection from the cold. The chill factor drove the cold deep into our bodies to the point that it was debilitating pain and restricted movement, thinking and reaction. The weather was at its worst, for the area was mountainous and it was bitter cold. The temperature was well below zero, in the 30- below-or-more area.
We lost all our warm clothing we had to the enemy who took off of us whatever they wanted. I was left with only light clothing, a field jacket being the heaviest article with a fatigue cap and a tattered scarf. I used the scarf, which was very long, to wrap around my face and neck covering all the exposed area I could. My breath caused a layer of ice to form from my jaw down to my waist. It acted somewhat as an insulator in the area it formed. There was no real protection from the extreme cold, even the equipment, rifles, machine guns, trucks, jeeps and most things with oil turned to glue in the punishing cold refusing to function.
We were forced to march under these frightening conditions for 15 or so days from sundown to sunup. We walked without food, and as we passed civilians they would stone us. Many of the stones found their mark and caused serious injuries. The police and home guard were especially brutal. The wounded and the exhausted among us began to suffer. It was unbelievable. If they fell out and could not go on they were indiscriminately shot, bayoneted, or clubbed to death. During the march we truly had no shelter from the elements, and food, as such was provided, only on irregular intervals of days. It consisted of cracked corn and sometimes was mixed with soybeans. This kind of food did two things to me on each intake; (1) a case of dysentery, fever, bowel discharge of mucus and blood. I was always thirsty, that never really stopped, (2) abdominal cramps and rectal pain. No time of the day or night freed one from the constant urge to purge oneself.
In what I believe was the month December in 1950 we arrived in a deserted mining town in the Pukchin area. The place was called “Death Valley.” We faced the inclement weather, lack of shelter, food, death, and the attempts to indoctrinate us, with “Marxism” given in small groups. It was here that various conditions of fear, beatings and death of many from lack of proper food, potable water and bowel discharge of mucus and blood increased. It took a large toll in lives.
The huts and animal shelters were made from mud, stones and thatched roofs. The room was made of dried mud and the floors were large flat rocks and mud. The rooms were extremely small and we were packed into them in such a manner as to have no room to rest. It seemed that every time a guard wanted to express his anger at the world in general and me in particular he would strike, shove or kick me in the same areas and I never seemed to completely heal. The favorite areas for the guards on the march and/or in the camps seemed to be the arms, shoulders, leg joints and back area.
These areas always seemed to be re-injured by the repeated hits and falls when carrying heavy wood products in the slippery ice and snow.
We left the “Valley” and marched to Camp Five at Pyoktong, arriving Dec 25,1950. I stayed there until Aug 12, 1952. The cold in the marches and food of poorest quality of whole kernel corn, sometimes mixed with soybeans, given every 24 to 72 hours didn’t help matters either. There was little change in food to corn and millet with a little rice on special days. But still men died of starvation.
Then the camp authorities added bean curd and seaweed, which helped those not too weak to make a recovery. Malnutrition was very ghastly in the period from Jan. 1951 to August 1952. I experienced profound changes in the condition of my body. My ankles and legs swelled, and the pain in time became acute. This “bone ache” pain was not in the swelling but seemed to center in the very bones that no rubbing or any other efforts could relieve.
This condition never seemed to let up. It acted up through the day and at night followed up by leg cramps. Then the work details began with long trips to carry wood back on my person over ice and snow causing many slips and falls causing much pain to my extremities. The pain drove me with the insanity of it, to argue and/or resist the camp authorities. It was at this time a guard knocked out some of my teeth when I failed to satisfy him. I was made to stand at the proper figure of attention in the cold and snow, without shoes until the guard was satisfied that I learned to be humble and obedient after knocking me around.
I could barely read these words, dreading each next one, because I knew that Bobby’s experience was even worse. He died. It would have been better, more humane, had Bobby been killed outright.
The Korean War Legacy Foundation provides additional information on the Korean War, including interviews with former POWs, here. I will tell you that I cannot watch these at this point. If any of you watch the videos, please tell me if by some remote possibility, Bobby is mentioned, which video, and where.
Honoring Corporal Robert Vernon Estes
The American Battle Monuments Commission maintains a page honoring each missing soldier in addition to operating and maintaining military cemeteries.
Bobby’s page lists his service and military awards. I wonder if anyone in the family ever received those.
Family can print Memorial Certificates.
Photo of Bobby’s name, along with others in “Court 4” of the missing.
I’m glad his service to his country is memorialized.
I believe I have all of Bobby’s extant records from the military now. Anything else will have to be accomplished using DNA on recovered remains, if we would be that fortunate.
More than 7,800 men were lost who remain unrecovered in North Korea. Eugene’s story explains why, given the conditions. Many POWs were probably not buried in “graves,” per se, but along roads and wherever was expeditious at the time to dispose of a body.
I’m still hopeful, in spite of seemingly insurmountable odds, that Bobby’s remains will be found, identified and brought home. He did reportedly die in a “camp,” although North Korea never acknowledged that soldiers were held at Pukchin, shown below. In an effort to conceal the site, bodies were removed from the camp known as “Death Valley” and were reburied or sealed up in nearly abandoned mine shafts.
Bobby’s remains, such as they are, are probably someplace in this photo in North Korea, far, far from home.
Pukchin is located about 40 mountainous miles south of the North Korean border with China as the crow flies, in an inhospitable region. Access is only via roads following rivers and valleys.
I don’t carry Bobby’s mitochondrial DNA, typically used to identify the remains of soldiers, but I assuredly would match him autosomally if enough DNA could be recovered for that type of comparison.
I stand ready to claim Bobby, for whom I was named after the family was notified of his death.
Ready to welcome Bobby home and watch his flag covered coffin roll off of the airplane into a waiting Honor Guard.
Ready to thank Bobby for his service and ultimate sacrifice, as tardy and insignificant as that might be.
Ready to proudly stand at his grave site as Taps is played and Bobby is truly laid to rest, a hero, on American soil.
I will remain ready all the days of my life.
I still pray for the return of Corporal Robert Vernon Estes.
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