2017-09-13 / Op-Ed


Thinking of Harland N. Wilcox on POW/MIA Recognition Day Sept. 15
By Gaylon ‘Jeep’ Wilcox

Born and raised the seventh child in a family of 12 on a hardscrabble farm, money was scarce, but happiness was plentiful. Love and concern between siblings in a large family seemed to add strength to the family values. One member’s hurt is everyone’s hurt. Devotion and concern were shared equally, but 12 births spanning 24 years didn’t necessarily mean everyone shared the same interests at the same time in their lives. The interests of a 16-year-old differed from a six-year old. The closeness in age seemed to strengthen the ties that bind.

One of my brothers —Harland— being only two years older than I, while growing up, we became inseparable. Whether doing our chores or hunting and fishing, our ways became one. It was often said we were so close it reminded people of the well-known picture of a boy from Father Flanagan’s Boys Town carrying another on his back with the caption “He ain’t heavy Father … he’s m’ brother.”

Teenage years pass swiftly, and while I was 15 my brother turned 17 and proudly enlisted in the U.S. Army to serve his country, which I also did when I turned 17. The two years I had to wait to follow him was long and lonely and also became the saddest.

In November of 1950, my brother was one of 2,500 U.S. Army soldiers engaged in combat with enemy troops on the east side of the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea. Those U.S. Army troops, thinking the battle would be short and they would be home for Christmas, were taken by surprise when, on November 27th, 20,000 Chinese troops that had unknowingly massed, surrounded them with relentless onslaught, including hand to hand combat. Those U.S. Army troops were outnumbered eight to one. The battle’s lasting four days and five nights certainly speaks of the bravery and determination of our troops. By the time the order came on Dec. 1st to withdraw to Hagaru-ri at the southern tip of the Reservoir, the U.S. troops were reeling with heavy casualties—many killed, wounded or taken prisoner.

I vividly recall December 12th, 1950, 13 days before Christmas, as the messenger from Western Union delivered the telegram from the Department of the Army: “With regret, missing in action.” Three years later in 1953, my brother was reported “assumed dead but unaccounted for.” The Department of the Army has family blood on file for DNA testing, in case any remains are found. But with passing of nearly 70 years, hope is fading that the military’s most sacred vow — “Until they are home” — will be fulfilled, bringing closure for both the Department of the Army and myself.

In the center of my hometown of Rangeley, there is a granite war memorial inscribed with names of those from the Rangeley region who answered our country’s call and served in the Armed Forces, including the names of my father and his five sons. It’s a very impressive list of names from a community so small, and gives me a deep feeling of being hometown proud. It also provides me with some consolation. Each Memorial and Veterans Day as I visit the gravesites of family and friends who have passed on —there being no site for my missing brother— I view the war memorial as a substitute, clinging to hope that his remains will be found and returned to his homeland, no longer to be the missing one.

Poet and storyteller Gaylon “Jeep” Wilcox is a resident of Rangeley.

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