My Turn: Ghosts of the Chosin

Army Cpl. William C. Knight

Army Cpl. William C. Knight CONTRIBUTED

Army Cpl. William C. Knight was 20 when he was killed in December 1950.

Army Cpl. William C. Knight was 20 when he was killed in December 1950. CONTRIBUTED

By JACOB CASAVANT

Published: 05-27-2024 9:48 AM

 

The tarmac at Logan International airport stretched out before us as we stood in solemn anticipation. The Boeing 737 touched down with a sense of gravity that echoed the weight of history onboard. Shrouded in a flag that bore the Stars and Stripes lay the remains of a hero — my great-uncle, Army Cpl. William C. Knight. After 63 years of being missing in action from the Korean War, his journey home was finally over.

Cpl. Knight was a young man of just 20 when he was killed in action in December 1950, falling at the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir. His remains were lost in the annals of war until a mass grave was unearthed in North Korea in 2002. It took until 2013 for modern science, in the form of DNA testing, to definitively identify his remains. With due honor, his body was brought home to be laid to rest alongside his parents in the peaceful soil of Oakham, Massachusetts.

Yet, there was an omission, a haunting reminder of the horrors of war: North Korea refused to return his skull to American soil, a stark symbol of the inhumanity that lingers long after the battle’s last shots.

The Battle of the Chosin Reservoir is etched in history as one of the most brutal and harrowing chapters of American military engagements. The unforgiving terrain, relentless enemy advances, and merciless cold stand out in the collective memory. It was on the 14th of November 1950 that a brutal Siberian cold front descended upon the Chosin Reservoir, driving temperatures down to a bone-chilling -36 °F.

Soldiers not only faced the threat of the enemy but also the creeping danger of frostbite as they trudged through frozen ground and icy roads. The weapons, essential for their survival, often malfunctioned under the extreme conditions.

Cpl. Knight’s story, as recounted within my family, unfolds against this backdrop of a frozen hellscape. Under a storm of ice and enemy fire, Cpl. Knight took a selfless moment to assist a comrade with a rifle malfunction and, in a cruel twist of fate, was felled by an enemy bullet. The Chinese forces, numerically superior and wielding burp guns and grenades, swarmed the American positions with bugles blaring, an eerie symphony of death.

The bravery exhibited by the U.S. soldiers at Chosin is almost beyond words. Out of 25,000 American troops, a staggering 6,000 were killed, wounded or captured, while another 6,000 suffered the cruel embrace of frostbite. The Chinese, despite their eventual victory, paid a terrible price — 72,500 casualties, 60% of their 120,000-strong army.

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The Chosin Reservoir marked a pivotal moment, taking Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the United Nations forces completely by surprise, and instantaneously reshaping the trajectory of the war.

My grandfather, a young boy when his brother embarked on his fateful journey to war, had aged into a gray-haired old man by the time Cpl. Knight’s remains were finally brought home. The retrieval of William’s remains was, for him, a profound closure: a lifetime of questions finally answered. A year ago, my grandfather passed away, and it brings comfort to know that he had the chance to say a final goodbye to his brother before his own time came.

But the bitter truth remains: More than 7,900 Americans remain unaccounted for from the Korean War, as reported by the Department of Defense. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, with a solemn mission, strives to provide the fullest possible accounting for those missing in action from past conflicts — a task that encompasses World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the Gulf Wars, and other recent conflicts. As of the latest update on May 22, 2023, the number of missing American soldiers stands at more than 81,000.

The story of my great-uncle, Army Cpl. William C. Knight, serves as a stark reminder that honor never expires. We bear a sacred duty to bring the fallen home, to return them to their final resting place. The act of retrieval and the act of remembrance are but the smallest gestures we can offer in the face of their ultimate sacrifice.

These men, my great-uncle included, are the ghosts of the Chosin — their spirits linger in the chilling winds of history, and their memory will never fade.

Jacob Casavant lives in Winchendon.