In August, the Rt. Rev. Graham Rights and his family put his brother George to rest. George died while serving in Korea in 1951, yet it was only in 2015—64 years later—that the family received closure on the case. What follows is Bishop Rights’ story of bringing his brother home…
George Rights grew up as the eldest child of the Rev. Douglas Rights and Cecil Burton Rights. He actually was their second child, the first having lived only one day. There was great joy with his arrival on February 19, 1928. His baptism, administered by Bishop Edward Rondthaler using water from the Holy Land, took place at Trinity Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, where George’s father served as pastor.
George attended Central School at the junction of Church and Race Streets at the foot of Salem, a mile and a quarter from his home. George walked to school and back, a prelude to greater distances as he grew older. In his late teens, George would walk to such places as Pilot Mountain, High Point, Mocksville, Elkin and North Wilkesboro, setting out with some carrots wrapped in a raincoat under his arm.
George’s high school years were spent at James A. Gray High School where he learned to love Latin and played JV football. His fondness for Latin may have been the cause of his occasional injection of big words into a conversation. During these years he also developed a focus on healthy practices of eating and exercising. He enjoyed keeping pet ducks in the back yard. He took piano lessons and in his playing showed a particular fondness for the music of Chopin. He was the family wood chopper, working in the parsonage basement to produce kindling for the kitchen stove and fireplaces. During summers he worked with the crew tending God’s Acre Moravian Graveyard in Salem.
After high school, George attended Clemson College in the Army Specialized Training Program, which prepared students for military service. He then enlisted in the Army and was assigned to the Army Air Corps. George didn’t want to be a pilot or a “grease monkey,” and so he chose to serve as a weather observer at Davis-Monthan Field in Tucson, Arizona. After 18 months in uniform, he returned home with the rank of corporal. In the fall of 1947 he entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studying there for three years with particular emphasis on mathematics and business administration.
Serving in Korea
In September 1950, George re-enlisted in the Army and on the 25th of the month, exactly three months after the beginning of the Korean War, he left home for 60 days of training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, before being sent to the Far East. His outfit stopped briefly in Japan and then landed in Korea during the disastrous retreat in the fall of 1950.
After launching their invasion, the North Koreans had pushed the South Koreans down to a small area called the Pusan Perimeter. General Douglas McArthur, who had been appointed commander of the United Nations Forces that came to South Korea’s aid, then executed a bold maneuver on September 15, by invading at Inchon, on the west coast near the South Korean capital of Seoul, far back behind the front lines. Now the allies had the initiative and pushed the North Koreans back almost to the Yalu River on their border with China, whereupon, in late October and into November, Chinese forces began to storm into North Korea and drive the allies southward.
It was at this point that George arrived in Korea, landing at Inchon two months after the invasion there and went by car to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. There, in early December, he was assigned to the 15th Field Artillery Battalion attached to the Second Division.
By late December the Second Division had moved into the vicinity of Wonju, in the center of South Korea near the border with North Korea. In late January and early February he writes home about missions from his battalion to the recently retaken Wonju airfield and to areas beyond Wonju and about being on machine gun guard duty at night.
An article in the Veterans of Foreign Wars magazine by Gary Tubak has described the setting for what happened to his unit next:
In early February, with the Chinese offensive stalled, U.N. commanders prepared a counter assault across the center of the Korean peninsula. This time, however, Republic of Korea (ROK) troops were to do the bulk of the fighting—with elements of various U.S. infantry, artillery and other units supporting them. The notion of Americans supporting ROK troops was very much an experiment—one U.S. military leaders later regretted.
What U.N. commanders didn’t know was that Communist forces also were launching a major offensive and had moved four Chinese and two North Korean divisions into the area north of the village of Hoengsong [which was a short distance north of Wonju]. On Feb. 11, ROKs tangled with Communist forces, quickly disintegrating the planned South Korean offensive.
At one point, GIs of the supporting 15th Field Artillery (FA) Battalion (2nd Division) [George’s unit] encamped for the night, relying on ROK infantry for protection. When the Chinese attacked in the dark, the South Koreans fled. The enemy swarmed over the U.S. position. Some 204 artillerymen ultimately died, resulting in one of the most concentrated losses of American lives in the entire war, according to Joseph Gould in “Korea: The Untold Story.”1
One survivor reported, “at about midnight, the Red Chinese army attacked in thousands, blowing trumpets and shouting…. They came from everywhere, a seemingly endless stream, we were vastly outnumbered.”2
One writer estimates that of the total allied forces involved, Americans alone suffered nearly 1500 casualties in roughly 30 hours. Seven months later, in a letter dated September 19, the department of the Army notified my parents that “your son became missing in action 13 February 1951 while his unit was breaking an enemy roadblock in the vicinity of Hoengsung [sic], South Korea.” Actually, he was among the several hundred prisoners who were captured in the Hoengsong Massacre and then taken on a march to the north.
A prisoner of war
The march and time as a prisoner were very difficult. In an account written by a member of the Second Division Infantry, James Junior Volpone, who was captured the same day as George described being marched for days without food or water, and when they finally stopped to rest were given meager rations and poor sleeping conditions. POWs were getting sick from the conditions; those who dropped out of the lines were shot. The camps were bombed and machine-gunned by Allied forces. Many of those prisoners did not make it back.
George’s family, of course, was unaware of what was happening to him during this time. When the war finally ended in a stalemate and an armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, prisoners began to be released and return home. Our family stayed up nights listening to broadcasts giving the names of returning soldiers, hoping to hear George’s name. That was not to be, however, and in January 1954, the Department of the Army wrote to the family that, based on reports from returning persons who had been with George, he had died in a prison camp of malnutrition sometime in May, 1951—three months after his capture.
My father obtained information about the identities of some who had been with George and corresponded with them, traveling for personal visits with two, one in Baltimore and one in Farmville, Virginia. Roosevelt Lund, who had been with George on the march and in the same room at the camp, told my father, “Your son and I were not in the same outfit but we became close friends after we were captured…. He was very meek and friendly. George read his Bible, talked about his family and his mother’s apple pie. He didn’t eat much. The food was poor…. He was sick most of the time.”
Gray Norman, another who knew my brother, wrote, “I knew George. We met after we were captured in 1951. And the last time I saw George was in May 1951, when I was sent to another camp.”
As the years passed, members of the family looked forward to the possibility that some day George’s remains might be recovered and returned home. The Department of Defense held briefings for families of POWs and MIAs periodically and when they were in our area, we sometimes attended. We also donated DNA to help with possible identification. Hope of any return faded, particularly as relations of our Government with the North Korean Government worsened and the U.S. no longer sent teams to North Korea to recover remains.
Finding a brother
On Wednesday, July 8 of this year, however, my elder sister, Eleanor Rights Roller of Roanoke, Virginia, as George’s next of kin, received a telephone call from Karen Johnson at the U.S. Army Human Resources Command in Ft. Knox, Ky., who told her that remains of George had been identified and were to be returned to the family. Eleanor called me and, somewhat incredulous, I asked for the woman’s number and gave her a call. She confirmed the news by telling me the DNA of the remains matched on the mother’s side the DNA that Eleanor gave about 12 years ago and on the father’s side DNA that I gave at the same time and that my nephew John provided last year at a Defense Department briefing in Charlotte. She indicated that the remains were part of 208 caskets of remains dug up from prison camps, battlefields and crash sites by the North Korean Government and handed over to the US between 1991 and 1994. George’s remains were received in 1992—23 years ago. All these were taken to the military cemetery in Honolulu, called the “Punchbowl” Cemetery because it lies in a volcanic crater. There is a laboratory there that works on identification of remains.
After much coordinating of schedules to allow the family to gather for a burial, the date was finally set for Sunday, August 9, 2015. Two days earlier, my daughter, Susie, and her teenage children, Ian and Anissa; son John G. (now pastor at Kernersville Moravian Church); nephew John D. (now pastor at Konnoak Hills Moravian Church) and I went to the airport to receive the remains. We were taken into a security waiting room until the flight arrived bringing the remains from Honolulu.
After the arrival, we were taken out to the ladder where baggage is taken up and down. A color guard from Ft. Bragg stood at the foot of the ladder and two soldiers emerged from the airplane, one carrying the urn with George’s remains and the other following with the flag. We received urn and flag, and I turned to the family and said, “Let’s take him home.”
Taking George home
We first went to Trinity Moravian Church, his church home for all of his life. We entered the sanctuary and placed the urn on the communion table. We had a prayer of thanksgiving and sang, “Now Thank We All Our God.” We then took the remains into the Douglas L. Rights Chapel, placed them on a table under the portrait of George’s father painted by Winston-Salem artist, Joe King, and took photos.
Next door was the parsonage, George’s home for all of his life, now occupied by Anthony’s Plot, a Moravian intentional community engaged in outreach efforts. Arriving there, we entered and, after a brief stop in the living room, took the urn upstairs to what had been George’s room. Now, remains of George were truly back home, while George abides in his heavenly home.
At the burial service two days later, with a band numbering 121, finally, after 64 years, George’s remains were placed in God’s Acre in Salem, on the same hallowed ground that, as a member of the caretaking crew years before, he had helped to maintain. Thanks be to God! ■
The Rt. Rev. Graham Rights is a bishop of the Moravian Unity living in Winston-Salem, N.C. He cites several sources for this article: (1) VFW Magazine – February 2001; (2) Huey Harris in article by Leo Copeland in the Seminole [Texas] Sentinel, Nov. 10, 2013; Mary Helm, author of a forthcoming book on the Hoengsong Massacre; and (4) http://www.koreanwar-educator.org/memoirs/volpone_jim/index.htm.