We just have to find it.
James was born Dec. 8, 1928. Don’t know where.
He was 21 or so when the U.S. Army sent him a draft notice. The military needed soldiers for the Korean War. He fit the bill. Male, young, able. When he reported for duty, he listed Calhoun County as his home of record.
Off he went.
He hasn’t returned.
The Army says James was assigned to the 7th Infantry Division; records say he was in Charlie Company of that division’s 32nd Infantry Regiment.
The Army also says Pfc. Nelson went missing — his “date of loss” — on April 26, 1951. The war wouldn’t end for another two years.
That’s not much information.
It’s also where Harold Davis enters the picture.
Davis, a Korean War veteran in North Carolina, has dedicated no small part of his life to finding family members of missing-in-action soldiers. The goal, he told me earlier this week, is to locate relatives of missing soldiers and direct them to the Department of Defense offices that handle recovery and identification of U.S. military personnel.
It’s hopeful, Davis explained, that relatives will willingly donate DNA samples the DoD can store and use when identifying recovered remains.
The final objective is closure: missing soldiers found, remains identified through DNA, then buried with full military honors. He’s searching for family members of James Hillary Nelson. He has no leads.
It’s a noble, if not daunting, task.
Davis doesn’t work for the Defense Department. He says he receives no compensation for his work. He describes his mission this way: “I’m very unofficial; I’m just an old Korean War veteran. Once I find the family, I’m done.”
It’s easy to see why Davis cares so much for this cause. From Korea he brought home the lingering pain of frostbite on his hands and feet, but at least he made it back. Today, more than 8,000 U.S. servicemen are still missing from that war.
“I was over there,” he says. “Korea is a country of extremes. It’s extremely hot; it’s extremely cold; it’s extremely wet, and it’s extremely dry. I suffered in 35 degrees below zero (temperatures). It was just a terrible time. On top of that, a lot of these (soldiers) suffered tremendously before they were finally killed or starved to death.
“I just have a deep feeling for these people over there. They were young kids taken right out of high school and put through a quick basic training. Some of these kids never had a life of their own. Some of these kids had never kissed a girl (before they died).”
It’s important to note that this isn’t a far-fetched idea. Soldiers’ remains are being found in Korea, in Vietnam, and in World War I’s and II’s far-flung theaters. The impossible is possible. Just this week, the DoD’s POW/Missing Personnel Office announced that it had identified the remains of a soldier, Army Cpl. Floyd E. Hooper of Stratton, Colo., missing from the Korean War.
Hooper was taken prisoner in February 1951. He died from malnutrition and dysentery in a POW camp in 1953.
His family will lay him to rest Saturday in his hometown.
Which brings us back to our soldier, James Hillary Nelson of Calhoun County.
It’d be splendid to piece together his story. Where was he born? Where’d he go to school? Did he play on his school’s football team? What were his plans before that draft notice arrived in his mailbox? Where would life had taken him if he’d been one of the fortunate sons to survive the war? Would he have married? Had kids?
Likewise, we know scant details of his military record. He was a private first class in the infantry, a young man from Calhoun County turned footsoldier in a brutal Asian war. Did he die in combat against the North Koreans or Chinese communists? Like Floyd Hooper of Colorado, did he die sick in a barren POW camp?
His story needs telling. His life needs closure. Perhaps his remains will be found soon somewhere in the Korean hills.
Perhaps the impossible will happen, and James Hillary Nelson will come home.
Phillip Tutor — firstname.lastname@example.org — is The Star’s commentary editor. To contact Harold Davis with information about Pfc. Nelson, e-mail: email@example.com.