Enlisted at 17. Dead at 19. Returning home 65 years later

Wayne Minard
Wayne Minard

Wayne Minard was 17 when he talked his mother into giving written permission for him to enlist in the U.S. Army.

Wayne starved to death in a North Korean prison camp two years later, on Feb. 16, 1951. His mother, Bertha Minard, never forgave herself and died nine months later.

“They say she died of a broken heart,” said Wayne Minard’s great-nephew, Bruce Stubbs.

It’s a sad story, and it’s not quite over.

On Nov. 12, in unincorporated Furley, Kan., near where Minard grew up on a farm, the U.S. Army will help Wayne and Bertha Minard’s family bury him with full military honors.

They say she died of a broken heart.

Bruce Stubbs, relative of Korean War soldier Wayne Minard

Against great odds, the U.S. military found his remains in far northern North Korea, at a time (2005) when that troubled country still allowed some searches for remains by U.S. military recovery teams.

The Army wasn’t sure for the next 11 years about whose remains they’d lifted out of that roadside grave. But DNA analysis proved the remains were Minard’s in August, Stubbs said.

There are likely to be tears shed at the service, though 65 years have passed since a 19-year-old Kansas farm kid died on the far side of the world.

“I remember the pain his death caused my grandmother Helen when I was a kid,” Stubbs said.

“She was his brother,” Stubbs said. “When I was at the farm with her, she’d wring her hands and tear up, looking out the door, and tell how he was captured, and then how he was missing in action, and then how he died. The hurt and pain they felt, you could see it. I didn’t fully appreciate it as an 8- or 10-year-old kid, but as you get older you understand why they hurt so badly.”

The grief came in part from what a good person Wayne Minard was. Stubbs was born 14 years after he died, but he heard a lot about Wayne.

“He was very personable and a likeable kid,” Stubbs said. “He liked to read comic books. He was fun-loving and ornery sometimes. He liked people. He joined the Army at 17 because he wanted to serve his country. A lot of kids from that ‘greatest generation’ felt that way.

“The family still has letters he wrote home,” Stubbs said. “In the early battles in Korea, they were always outnumbered. He’d write home about how the enemy were all like a whole lot of ants running down a hill at them. He actually got shot in the hand in one battle; and made a joke out of it. He wrote that it showed that the other guys were really poor shots.”

Little is known about Minard’s final months alive.

The Korean War began in mid-1950 when North Korea invaded South Korea. The North Koreans drove the U.S. and South Korean armies far south at first, but United Nations reinforcements and the U.S. Army then drove the North Koreans almost all the way north to the Communist Chinese border.

That spooked the communist government in China, which ordered its army to invade Korea on Nov. 1, 1950. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers marched south and caught the United Nations allies by surprise. A number of U.S. Army and Marine Corps units were surrounded, driven back or badly shot up.

Minard’s unit was one of them.

The Department of Defense issued a statement this week about his fate:

“In late November 1950, Minard was a member of Company C, 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, fighting units of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Forces (CPVF) ... in North Korea, in a delaying action south to Kunu-ri,” the Army wrote.

“Enemy forces launched a large-scale attack with heavy artillery and mortar fire on Nov. 25, when the regiment was located in defense positions near the Chongchon River. By the following day, enemy fighting had isolated the unit and they were ordered to withdraw. Minard was reported missing in action as of Nov. 26, 1950.

“Minard's name did not appear on any POW list provided by the CPVF or the North Korean People’s Army,” the Army statement said. “However two repatriated American prisoners of war reported that Minard died at Hofong Camp, part of Pukchin-Tarigol Camp Cluster, on Feb. 16, 1951.

“Based on this information, a military review board amended Minard’s status to deceased in 1951.

“In April and May of 2005, a Joint Recovery Team conducted the 37th Joint Field Activity in Unsan County, South Pyongan Province, North Korea. On April 19, the team visited a site reported by a local witness to contain American remains.

“To identify Minard's remains, scientists from [the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency] and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory used mitochondrial DNA analysis, which matched two sisters, as well as dental and anthropological analysis, which matched his records and circumstantial evidence.”

Six and a half decades have not dimmed the family’s fondness for the kid who became a soldier, Stubbs said. The elder members of the family talked about him decades after he died. There are funny stories.

“He had a twin brother, Dwayne, so they were Dwayne and Wayne,” Stubbs said. “One story they told me is how Dwayne and Wayne propped a bucket of water on the top of the door into the barn. When their dad came in driving the tractor, and got off and opened that door, that bucket-full of water spilled on his head.”

Roy Wenzl: 316-268-6219, @roywenzl