CORINTH — Douglas Smead has spent 70 years wondering about the fate of his oldest brother, a U.S. Army private who went missing during savage fighting in bitter cold weather around the Chosin Reservoir, in what is now North Korea, in the early months of the Korean War.
Pvt. Walter A. Smead disappeared while his artillery unit was holding a hill, covering the retreat of other forces and then itself falling back. He was listed as missing in action. After three years, the military declared him presumed killed — but his body was never found, and his fate in some sense remained unknown.
Not anymore. Relatives of the 24-year-old soldier, who grew up in the northern Saratoga County hamlet of Hadley, were recently notified that the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, using a DNA match from Doug Smead, has identified Walter’s remains as among those returned by North Korea in the wake of the Donald Trump/Kim Jong-un summit in Singapore in 2018.
The family received phone calls from a notification officer on St. Patrick’s Day. Now, tentative plans are being made to bury the remains — a few arm bone fragments — at Saratoga National Cemetery late this summer, with full military honors.
“When I saw the name on caller ID, I just knew what it was,” said Doug Smead’s daughter, Bonnie Wolff, who lives outside Philadelphia and has taken an interest in her uncle’s case. “I haven’t had a better day in a long time, with the pandemic.”
Her 84-year-old father, who lives in the village of Corinth about 30 miles north of Schenectady, is Walter Smead’s youngest brother. While they were too far apart in age to be close, Doug Smead actively tried to determine what happened. In 1955, he enlisted in the Army thinking he might solve the mystery. He was stationed in Korea — though by then the active fighting was over — where, as a member of the Signal Corps, he tried working the phones. The effort was to no avail.
“I was Signal Corps, so I had access to telephones,” Smead recalled last week. “I made calls to headquarters, and from there to Japan. [The call] came through as from headquarters, so they thought it would be important. You’d have a little old private calling a major. Of course, I thought he was a private, too.”
But, Smead found, authorities had “no idea” what had happened to Walter, whose status was changed from MIA to “presumed killed” at the end of the fighting in 1953.
Doug Smead got out of the Army after two years, came back to Corinth and worked a 40-year career at the International Paper mill in the village, then its largest employer. He never forgot his brother.
And the military, in its slow, precise way, never gave up. In 2003, the Army asked Smead for a blood sample, the sample later used to make the DNA match. He said they didn’t tell him why the sample was needed.
But the POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which since World War II has analyzed and identified thousands of unidentified military remains from World War II, Korea and Vietnam at a state-of-the-art laboratory in Hawaii, was doing its work with the blood sample and newly available remains, matching DNA. It officially updated Walter Smead’s status to “accounted for” on March 16.
There were more than 7,500 service members unaccounted for at the end of the Korean War, and just 591 had been positively identified as of last week. Those positively identified include 71 people from the boxes of remains North Korea turned over to the United States in 2018.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency says its mission is to provide the fullest possible accounting for missing personnel to their families and the nation, and it adds several dozen service members a year — sometimes more — to its list of those accounted for, based on analysis of bone fragments, DNA, and other factors.
While the Smead remains were turned over through a diplomatic summit, there have also been periods, especially between 1996 and 2005, when Korean and American teams have been allowed to conduct searches in North Korea, including digs around Chosin in 2001 and 2005.
Walter Smead spent much of his short life in the Army. He served in Europe at the end of World War II and was called up again for Korea. There, he was a member of Battery A, 57th Field Artillery Battalion, 7th Infantry.
Four years after the Korean Peninsula was divided along the 38th Parallel in the wake of World War II, the war began in June 1950, when forces from Communist North Korea invaded the South. While they were initially successful on conquering most of the country, U.S./U.N. forces under Gen. Douglas McArthur counter-attacked, and pushed the communists back to nearly the Chinese border by November.
That prompted the Chinese to enter the war in support of North Korea, the precipitating event that led to the Chosin Reservoir fight. An overwhelmingly large Chinese force attacked Army and Marine divisions encamped around Chosin in bitterly cold, subzero weather, leading to enormous losses on both sides and the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
Chosin is not only infamous for its brutality but because the battle changed the course of the war: It ended any thinking that the U.S./U.N. forces would achieve an easy and complete victory. The sides would fight for nearly three more years, settling into a stalemate and a return to the original dividing line, which remains today.
During the battle, 4,385 U.S. Marines and 3,163 U.S. Army personnel were listed as casualties of fighting, with thousands more listed as casualties of the freezing weather. The fighting over a two-week period was so bloody, and U.S. losses so high, that those who survived branded themselves “The Chosin Few” or “The Frozen Chosin.”
During the Chinese attack, Seventh Division units, including Smead’s, held out for five days on the east side of the reservoir, giving the Marines more time to organize a retreat, military historians say. Smead is listed as having died on Dec. 6 near the south end of the reservoir, holding the Chinese attackers at bay while other units beat a strategic retreat.
“Every once in a while I get to thinking about what he must have been thinking, and it’s just devastating,” Bonnie Wolff said.
She said the family has had members serve in the military going back to the American Revolution, but it isn’t really a “military family” — serving wasn’t a tradition, but seen more as a way to advance and get away from small towns dominated by mills, as Hadley and Corinth once were.
Growing up, Wolff and her brother knew there was a Purple Heart medal in the basement, though their dad didn’t talk much about his missing brother. But she knew he was a missing soldier, and when the POW/MIA Accounting Agency held a meeting for families of the missing in Philadelphia a few years ago, she went out of curiosity.
“As I saw other people stand up and say, ‘My dad was found,’ or ‘My brother was found,’ it gave me chills,” she recalled. “Just knowing that that has happened gives hope.”
Wolff is glad the identification was made while her father is still alive and she appreciates the North Koreans for returning the remains, which she believes were found when excavation was being done for a power plant.
“The Koreans are very strategic about what they do, so I don’t know if it was convenient for them. But either way, we are grateful to them,” she said.
Walter Smead’s aren’t the only Chosin battle remains to be returned to the Capital Region in recent years.
In 2018, the remains of Army Pvt. First Class John Martin were returned to his family in Albany and Martin was interred at Saratoga National Cemetery. Those remains weren’t identified until 17 years after they had been turned over to U.S. custody.
John Martin’s story: Saratoga Korean War soldier’s remains coming home, Nov. 19, 2018