Friday, January 11, 2019

James Williams' Not So Easy Ride

1950. Korea. An intrepid jeep driver and crew race their cargo under fire. Photo by PFC Hancock, U.S. Army.
Ward and Mary Williams of East Alton, Illinois may have struggled through the Great Depression, but they provided as best they could for their two sons.  In 1940, Ward drove a taxi, while Mary worked in a munitions plant.  They had enough resources to seek medical remedy for the younger of their two sons, James, who was born with a cleft lip.  Surgery improved the condition, but did not totally erase evidence of the ailment. James joined the Army as a teenager, and was counted among the first boatload of American soldiers sent from Japan to Korea upon the outbreak of hostilities there.  He arrived on July 4, 1950.

"You could tell he was self conscious about it," as Lacy Barnett, age 91, recalled James' cleft lip in a recent email.

Lacy and James Williams served together in the 34th Infantry Regiment's medical company. Curiously, there were then three young men named "Williams" in that company during July 1950. Lacy knew them all.

The Army assigned the occupational specialty of "light truck driver" to Ward and Mary's boy. James was performing this vocation on July 20, 1950.  On that day, the 34th Infantry was trying to hold on to the city of Taejon just one more day as North Korean tanks and infantry bore down from the north. The 34th's third battalion held a tenuous line around the airfield just north of the city.  Outnumbered and surrounded, the battalion was preparing to withdraw, hoping to make it back to Taejon and eventual escape southward by rail.  But first, they had to break through the enemy encirclement. They had wounded to evacuate.

It was James C. Williams' job to drive a litter jeep - a vehicle that bore 2-3 stretchers each with a wounded soldier. The North Korean encirclement of the airfield was not complete, but it was effective enough. James and the wounded comrades he carried were killed at some point on the gauntlet to Taejon. James was not yet 20 years old.

All three of the medical company's Williams boys died that day during the North Koreans' advance on Taejon. Several survivors would later provide written statements that they returned the remains of James C. Williams to a collection point. However, July 20 was not a good day for the U.S. Army. The Americans' withdrawal turned into a panicked rout.  To put it mildly, the remains of James and many other soldiers were hastily abandoned. Nevertheless, James was officially listed as "missing in action." His name was added to one of the granite slabs in the Courts of the Missing at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.

That was pretty much the end of James' story until January 3, 2019, when the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency news release announced the positive identification of PFC James C. Williams. The boy with the cleft lip will be repatriated for burial at home. A rosette will be inscribed on the slab next to James' name in the Courts of the Missing - to indicate that he has been accounted for.

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