In 2018, sixty-five years after the end of the Korean War, North Korea returned 55 boxes of war-dead remains to the United States. Among those recently identified through the DNA analysis process were three arm bone fragments belonging to Elwood Truslow, of Batesville, who had joined the military in 1948 at the age of eighteen and, less than two years later, went MIA in Korea.
While the identification meant a physical part of Elwood would be coming home, it was the mystery of what had happened to him that drove Lucy Howe, Elwood’s niece and the last living relative to have any memory of him, to embark on a decades long effort to recover not just his physical remains, but to uncover, as much as possible, the story of what happened to him.
“It all really started when I got the things from the trash.”
Sitting in her kitchen surrounded by photos, letters, and personal items of her uncle, Mrs. Howe noted that her efforts to find out what happened to her uncle really began with a bag of trash.
“When my grandmother [Elwood’s mother] passed away in 2001,” Lucy noted, “I was there and we were cleaning and throwing all these things in the trash. And I looked down and I saw Elwood’s name on a piece of paper and I said, ‘Can I have all this trash?’” Lucy took the trash home and going through it she found a name: John Gibbs.
“I wrote to him,” she said. “And explained I was trying to find anything I could about Elwood.”
She was somewhat surprised when John Gibbs wrote her back. Even more surprising was the letter’s opening: “Elwood was my best friend.”
It was John Gibbs who filled in some of Truslow’s final months. Gibbs told Lucy that he and Elwood were cooks while stationed in Japan and both were sent to Korea, to an area near the Chosin Reservoir, scene of the most famous battle of the war.
Gibbs said that early in the morning on November 29, 1950, he and Truslow had just hooked up gas lines to cook breakfast for the soldiers when a young Korean boy ran in and warned, ‘The Chinese are coming.”
“John told me they just had time to cut the gas lines and then were just sprayed with bullets,” Lucy said. “They hid behind boxes of food and all five soldiers got shot: Elwood in his left leg above the knee and John’s head grazed. When they left in the morning,” Lucy said, “John described a sea of blood and bodies as he dragged Elwood to the medical aid station. Elwood got fixed up and went back to fight, and that was the last time John, who was later awarded a medal for saving Elwood, saw his friend.”
The Final Two Letters of Elwood Truslow
The information Gibbs shared supplemented the final two letters from Truslow that Lucy had catalogued and kept in a thick binder along with photos, letters, and other documents.
The second-to-last letter Truslow wrote to his family arrived in September of 1950. He informed his family that he and his fellow soldiers had boarded a ship in Japan and that they had been told they would be “going to Hawaii.” In the letter, Truslow expressed his doubts, and noted that they had been issued “heavy wool coats” for cold weather. “I don’t think we are going to Hawaii,” he wrote. His suspicions were soon confirmed: within a week he arrived in Korea.
His last letter, dated November 19, 1950, indicated that they had not been able to get mail out but that he had received the letter with pictures of the family. “It snowed up here night before last and we are 25 miles from the border,” Truslow wrote. “We are all expecting to be in Japan for Christmas–at least I hope so.” He mentioned sending home a money order to the family and ended the letter, “I guess I’ll have to close as I’m in a Korean house and I haven’t got anything to write by but a carbine light. So, answer as soon as you get this. With love to all, Elwood.”
Ten days later Truslow and Gibbs were wounded while taking cover behind boxes and Elwood was “patched up” and sent back out to the front. By Gibbs’ estimation, and what the Casualty Officers have told Lucy, it was three days after that on December 2 that Truslow was killed in action in what become known as the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. That seventeen day, brutal engagement in temperatures reaching minus 30 degrees saw 30,000 American, UN, and South Korean forces surrounded and attacked by 120,000 Chinese soldiers with both sides suffering heavy losses to vicious fighting and extreme cold.
One of Gibbs’s letters to Lucy described what he witnessed as U.S. trucks attempted to break through the Chinese lines to reach safety. They took heavy fire and many were “blown up.” Gibbs thought Truslow was on one of those trucks.
In her kitchen, Lucy considered the relief of locating his remains and weighed the memories Gibbs shared alongside her own memories of her uncle. “I was the oldest grandchild and so nobody else knows,” she said. “There are piles of grandchildren, but I am the only one who can remember him. It’s sad because I know that at times when I was trying to find him, I felt very lonely. I haven’t found anybody else who remembers him.” She noted that Elwood’s last remaining sibling, age ninety-six, “died during the night before I got the call that morning saying they had found him.”
She didn’t want her uncle to be forgotten. “I just felt in my gut,” she said, “that I wanted to do everything I could as long as I was alive.”
Eight or nine when Elwood joined the army, Lucy recalled him as a handsome young man who worked in his father’s sawmill, was gifted with the fiddle, and often rode his motorcycle.
Among the letters and photos she collected was a picture, probably taken in 1947, of Truslow’s girlfriend on the motorbike, a “beautiful young woman” named Gloria whom Lucy tried to track down but never found.
She remembered being “very little” and Truslow and the family gathering in a circle to play music—her grandfather on the juice harp, her uncle on the autoharp, Truslow’s siblings on the banjo, and Elwood on the fiddle. She recalled that she would get in the middle of the family and dance.
She said one memory particularly stands out: “I remember the whole family on the back of a truck going to Red Hill School to be in a talent show and the bugs flying in our faces.” While she can’t recall the songs that she, her grandparents, or Truslow’s nine siblings performed, she does remember his performance. “He played this song on his fiddle, ‘Listen to the Mocking Bird.’ You have to make that mocking bird sound with the bow and he could make the fiddle tweet, tweet, tweet. It was pretty cool.”
Elwood’s remains are still at the facility in Hawaii where they were sent for DNA analysis. The irony is not lost on Howe: Seventy-one years after being told he and his fellow soldiers were being taken to Hawaii, Truslow is finally there.
This spring he will be back with his family, who plan to hold two ceremonies to celebrate him. The first will be a Remembrance Day this month at Mount Ed Church in Batesville where they will place a headstone (but not his remains) next to other members of his family who have been laid to rest. There will be a slide show of the pictures and letters Lucy collected on display so that the family and all the cousins can learn “what he has done for our freedom.” Lucy has many personal touches planned. She still has Truslow’s fiddle, a Stradivarius that she’s “pretty sure is an imitation,” and homemade bow, the same one he played seventy-four years earlier at the Red Hill School talent show. “I have talked to this blind musician,” she said, “and he’s agreed to use Elwood’s fiddle.” He’ll play Listen to the Mockingbird as Truslow’s family lays his headstone.
The second ceremony will be more formal. In May, Truslow’s remains will be taken to Arlington National Cemetery where he will be buried with military honors.
It’s estimated that the remains of 5,300 missing US servicemen are still unaccounted for in North Korea. Though she is quick to credit others, particularly those family members who gave their DNA so that Elwood’s remains could be identified, it’s largely through Howe’s indefatigable, decades-long effort that her uncle will not be among the unaccounted for or the forgotten.
Savannah Ritter contributed to this article.