MALTA, Ohio — Military families have a bond like no other. They move together, they stay together, they pray together. Then, by way of an overpowering destiny to serve their country, later generations follow in the footsteps of their mothers, fathers, or grandparents – becoming soldiers. Some take their familial military alliance to the limit. The harrowing hunt Donald Tomblin of Malta has taken upon himself for his uncle, Eldred Hensley of Mud Fork, does just that.
One day, when Tomblin was 10, his uncle disappeared.
A man, who had a mother and father, as well as brothers and sisters, was gone.
At 7:30 a.m. on July 5, 1950, PFC Hensley and his infantrymen, while protecting a railroad line in the pouring rain, was overrun by 30 descending enemy tanks.
Hensley was in the U.S. Army, 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, of the 24th Infantry Division. He was 18 years old when he enlisted. Hensley was stationed in Japan in 1948, and then he was thrown into combat in the summer of 1950. It was the first significant armed conflict of the Cold War – the fight against North Korea.
The 1st Battalion of the 21st Infantry lost 153 men in the first 24 hours of fighting along the South Korean railroad line. During the onslaught of North Korean tanks, American soldiers were taken over.
Some were lucky enough to retreat. Hensley was not so lucky. He was captured and taken as a Prisoner of War (POW).
As a young kid, Tomblin remembers when his Grandpa Pete Hensley was notified that his son was missing in action. “Everyone was upset, like people today, when something like this happens,” said Tomblin.
In captivity, Hensley made his way north to Seoul and Pyongyang, and was then taken by train to Manp’o on the south bank of the Yalu River. He was in a mixed group of 758 POWs and civilian internees.
After walking over 150 miles to Pyongyang, North Korea, exhaustion and malnutrition quickly weakened the POWs and claimed their lives. Pneumonia was also a clear and constant menace among the prisoners.
After several days at Manp’o, the POWs were hidden away in nearby villages to keep them from seeing masses of Chinese troops marching into North Korea. They returned to Manp’o in the last days of October 1950.
Hell descended upon the captured. A brutal North Korean army major, dubbed the “Tiger,” took command of the 758 sick and dejected POWs in October 1950.
“We are going on a long march,” said the “Tiger.” “Let them march until they die.”
A death march ensued and ended at an Apex camp near the border with China, some 350 miles from where the POWs were captured.
PFC Johnnie Johnson of Lima, Ohio, now known as one of the most honored soldiers to come out of the Korean War, was captured six days after Hensley. Both suffered the wrath of the “Tiger.”
Johnson kept a list of all POWs, and his list allowed many families to find peace. Without that list, no one would have known what happened to the 496 POWs who perished, except for hearsay.
The government declared 758 men were captured, and three years later, after the war, there were 262 “Tiger survivors.”
Johnson stated that he “kept [his list] for the families.” He kept the names and descriptions of 496 fallen POWs on two and a half notebook pages crammed with columns of tiny, neatly printed block letters in a toothpaste tube.
The captured 758 POWs, minus the surviving 262, equals 496. Johnson did not miss one soldier who died during the death march or in the camps.
Not even PFC Eldred Hensley.
On October 31, the “Tiger” began the march with Hensley and the other POWs to the Apex camps 350 miles farther northeast.
“Companions recall that Hensley was mortally ill. Reports say, that on November 5, he fell along the wayside, as the group was making its way over a mountain pass just prior to reaching the Apex camps where they would spend the next year. Unable to continue and possibly unconscious, he was reportedly shot by a North Korean guard as the group was forced to go on,” reads a once-restricted Army document written on April 16, 2001.
Hensley was just shy of the Apex camps when he died during the nearly 400-mile death march. He had just turned 20 years old on October 10, less than a month before he died.
Upon a request of Hensley’s nephew, Donald Tomblin of State Route 555 in Malta, the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office and the Department of the Army sent him what was once restricted information. One sheet reads, “Hensley was a Prisoner of War on 5 July 1950. Death reported on 5 November 1950. Appears on the “Johnnie Johnson List.”
When Johnson came home from the camps in 1953, a lieutenant made a brief note in Johnson’s debriefing report: “Subject very cooperative – has recorded names, dates and places – should be commended.”
But as America tried to forget the tragedy of Korea, “the record of Johnson’s list slipped into bureaucratic oblivion,” reads a Reader’s Digest publication on Johnson. It wasn’t until 1996 that he was recognized for his wartime valor, accepting the Silver Star for risking his life with “exemplary courage and selfless determination to provide a record of deceased soldiers, even in the face of death by a hostile enemy.”
Other sources in the hundred-plus documents from Hensley’s Deceased Personnel File revealed witnesses who claimed they knew what happened to Hensley.
Hensley’s Report of Death Memorandum, dated Feb. 26, 1952, states: “The following information is extracted […] submitted by the repatriates indicated:
PFC Wayne [Johnnie] Johnson […] on 10 Sep 53 stated EH [Eldred Hensley] was captured […] He was informed by friends that EH died while on march enroute from Manp’o to the Apex camps when he was shot on 5 Nov 50. PFC Johnson had known EH 3 months.”
It is surprising that anyone could have lived through the death march:
“That winter, in the prison camp on the ice-choked Yalu River, was one of the coldest in Korean history. Almost 300 more prisoners died,” and before they reached the camp, for “nine days the POWs marched across 120 miles of steep mountain terrain. Despite the bitterly cold November weather, the prisoners wore only summer fatigues. The guards promised that the sick who fell out [of line] would be picked up by ox cart. But as the POWs climbed the next ridge, they heard gunshots,” reads the Readers Digest publication on Johnson.
Hensley fell out of line in his weakened state and was executed.
“My mother always thought that he was still alive. She went to her grave thinking he was going to come home someday – that he was hiding out in the hills over there,” said Tomblin.
Donald Tomblin is a modern-day Johnnie Johnson, trying to preserve the memory of his uncle and his other family members who served in the military. Tomblin, too, served in the Army, and his three brothers served during the Vietnam era. Tomblin also has a grandson, Nick Tomblin, who is serving in Afghanistan as an Army specialist.
Tomblin has always felt the soldiers who served our country should never be forgotten. He has spent more than a decade tracking down Ohio’s state representatives, the Department of the Army, the Defense Prisoner of War office in the Pentagon, and the National Personnel Records Center, trying to extract information about his Uncle Eldred.
He has over 200 pages of documentation from these organizations, which reveal what would have been buried information about his uncle.
Tomblin not only fought for Hensley’s files, but on January 12 the Department of the Army sent him a letter, and it gave Tomblin something to really fight for.
The letter reads, “This is in response to your request to […] obtain replacement awards your late uncle, Corporal Eldred J. Hensley, is entitled to following his Korean War service.” [He was made corporal after his death.]
Hensley received the Purple Heart and the Prisoner of War Medal, Army Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Korean Service Medal with one Bronze Service Star, Presidential Unit Citation, Combat Infantry Badge, United Nations Service Medal, Republic of Korea-Korean War Service Medal, and the Gold Star Lapel Button.
The department ends the letter saying that Tomblin can receive certificates and some medals in the mail, but for most of them, including the Purple Heart, the “awards may only be issued to the Veteran […] spouse, eldest surviving child, father or mother, eldest surviving brother or sister, or eldest living grandchild. As Corporal Hensley’s nephew, you are not eligible to receive his awards.”
With that, the Army stated, although he cannot receive them as next of kin, he could receive them for a price, Tomblin indicated.
“That’s what I plan to do,” said Tomblin.
“I think our vets have sacrificed so much. It touched my heart when I thought of my grandson, Nick, who is serving in Afghanistan, and how my uncle was the same age as Nick is now when he died,” said Tomblin. “I just think that we never want to forget the sacrifices the young men and women are making so that we can have our freedoms here to go and come as we please.”
Tomblin has a few loose ends to tie up before he lays the spirit of his uncle to rest. He did submit his DNA to the Department of the Army in case they ever recover Hensley’s body, but there is limited excavation allowed past the North Korean border. The day they dig up the ghosts of a forgotten war will be the day our fallen soldiers will be allowed ultimate repatriation.
The above article was previously published in the Morgan County Herald in Malta, Ohio, on March 1, 2012.