Heartbreaking and Bittersweet Memorial Day Memories

My uncle Fernando Rivera JR was named after my grandfather John Fernando Rivera. He was born in Hilo Hawaii on September 28, 1929 and was one of 13 children and youngest brother to my mother.

Uncle Fernando was a POW in the Korean War. My aunties vividly remember the day in 1950 that the army officer came to their house with the "yellow envelope" informing my grandparents that their son was missing in action and probably captured.

Fernando Rivera JrHe was just missing they thought, there was hope. So they waited. Everyone had hope, perhaps someday Uncle Fernando would return home.

In 1954 my grandparents received the news. After 4 years of waiting even the news delivery of my Uncle Fernando's death was sad. My Auntie Anita said that a large "manila envelope" came in the mail. Auntie gave it to my grandfather who was working in the garden. Grandpa read the letter, sat down and cried. Auntie remembers someone from the military stopping by a few days later.

My grandmother always thought Uncle Fernando would come home. It was very sad to see her waiting at her kitchen table, looking outside.... just waiting. She would wait for hours. She waited for Uncle Fernando to walk into the door.

Not having a body was extremely difficult for my both grandparents. My grandmother died in 1995 not knowing for certain the fate of her youngest son. Delivery of the news via the "yellow envelop" and later the "manila envelope" essentially placed my uncle as a number, one of many.

In January 1997 the "Readers Digest Magazine" published a list of 496 names written by PFC Wayne A. "Johnnie" Johnson, from Lima, Ohio when he too was a POW. While Johnnie was a POW, he used a pencil stub and on a scrap of paper documenting the deaths of 496 Americans. He wrote the names of the Americans, units, enlistment city and state and date of death. There were so many names that the list continued on bits of discarded cigarette packages and a strip of wallpaper. Uncle Fernando's name was on the list. 

It angers me then makes me sad. Why didn't our government immediately provide names on the list? It would have brought peace to my grandparents.

Uncle Fernando was among the first American POWs taken in South Korea. The 34th Infantry had attempted to block the initial North Korean incursion into the South, and had already been pushed back in several desperate holding actions. It then stood, with other quickly formed elements of the 24th Infantry Division, on the south bank of the Kum River, in a valiant effort to hold Taejon, one of the main cities in the Republic of Korea. This intended defense was ultimately unsuccessful, but it bought vital time. Eventually, lost ground was recovered, and South Korea saved, but many good men were lost in the process.

Uncle Fernando was taken prisoner on the very day that Taejon fell to the enemy. He was then marched north by stages to Seoul and Pyongyang, and from there went by train in a mixed group of 750 military and civilian prisoners to Manpo on the south bank of the Yalu River. The Tiger Group of POWs, as it became known, went to nearby villages—this, as Chinese troops began to enter North Korea.

Tiger Group then reassembled at Manpo, and began its infamous Death March to three isolated holding points, the “Apex Camps,” farther north but still on the south bank of the Yalu River. My uncle died during the course of this march, on November 2nd. Tiger Group left Manpo on October 31st and crossed the Chasong Pass on November 4th to arrive at the first of the far-away “Apex Camps” on November 9, 1950. It is believed that my uncle fell beside the road or died in his sleep along that dismal road between Manpo and Chasong.

My mother was pregnant with me when she received Uncle Fernando's last letter. Uncle said that he was anxious to get back home to Hawaii and see his new niece or nephew.

My uncle was a hero. Thank you Uncle Fernando.

The United State of America is the Land of the Free, because of the Brave.

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