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To the frustration of veterans and relatives of the missing, the U.S. in 2010 rejected a North Korean offer to recover remains it had unearthed during agricultural work at several locations, linking it to progress on the nuclear negotiations.

Mr. Downes, whose airman father, Lt. Hal Downes, has been missing in action since his plane went down over North Korea in 1952, also complained that the U.S. military has been slow to share information with relatives. But he says the process has picked up pace as the government looks to meet a target set by Congress: to be able, by 2015, to identify 200 MIAs from all conflicts each year.

The 1950 battle at the Chosin Reservoir in which Schmitt fought was one of the bitterest of the Korean War, after a huge Chinese force crossed the northern Korean border to repel an advance that U.S. commanders expected would win the war. Outnumbered U.S. Marines and Army soldiers were forced to beat a retreat in frigid conditions, but they inflicted heavy casualties on the communist-led side as they withdrew.

Schmitt’s 31st Regimental Combat Team, 7th Infantry Division, was deployed on the eastern shore of the reservoir to replace a Marine regiment just before the Chinese attacked.

A letter to Schmitt’s mother by friend and comrade Lt. Henry Trawick recounted that on Nov. 28 at 3:30 a.m. they awoke to hearing shooting, whistles and the bugle calling. They were surrounded by thousands of Chinese forces and were completely cut off.

That night, Schmitt’s company retreated. “He was shot thru both legs, but he would never lie down for long,” Trawick wrote, recounting how he and Schmitt compared the dozens of bullet and shrapnel holes they now had in their field coats.

The friends fought-by-side for two more days and nights without sleep until, with their food and ammunition depleted, it was decided the regiment would make a break for it.

With trucks carrying the wounded, they tried to link up with Marines 12 miles to the south, but were blocked by Chinese forces. According to Schmitt’s citation for the Distinguished Service Cross, the U.S. Army’s second-highest honor, he gave his carbine to an unarmed man and, using a stick for a crutch, led an assault on a hilltop to try to clear the way.

Ultimately, the regiment had to abandon the trucks carrying the wounded and flee on foot. Of its 2,500 troops who had deployed at the reservoir, only 1,000 returned, and just 385 were able-bodied.

“He (Schmitt) stayed with the fighting group though he could barely walk. He is a very brave man,” wrote Trawick. “I did not see Bob again after he went up the hill, so I can’t say what happened to him.”

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Online:

State University of North Dakota ROTC memorial page on 1st Lt. Robert Schmitt: http://tinyurl.com/8xsylh7

Coalition of Families of Korean & Cold War POW/MIAs: http://www.coalitionoffamilies.org/

Pentagon’s Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office: http://www.dtic.mil/dpmo/

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