70 years ago, Eldora brothers sent final letters from Korea
by Pat Kinney
on Thursday, June 17, 2021
I've ran across many heartbreaking stories in our Korean War research at the museum. This one is doubly so.
One Iowa family made the ultimate sacrifice twice in the Korean War -- two brothers, lost four months apart. The family's second loss was 70 years ago this month.
U.S. Army Sgt. Robert Lee “Bob” May, of Eldora in Hardin County, served with C Company, 1st Battalion, of the U.S. Army’s 19th Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division. He was captured in the Chong'chon River battle area northeast of Anju, North Korea Nov. 4, 1950. He died as a prisoner of war Feb. 5, 1951.
His brother, U.S. Marine Pfc. Donald Lee “Don” May, B Co., 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Division, was killed in combat in the Haean-myon valley, known as "The Punchbowl," June 12, 1951.
Two other brothers, Dale and Dean, served during World War II and Korea.
A June 1951 newspaper article on the May brothers, after Donald's death, and after Robert was reported missing but not yet confirmed dead, bore the headline “Local Family Gets Second Tragic News in Seven Months.”
The article also included an uncensored letter Donald wrote his mother, postmarked four days before his death, that she provided to the paper for publication. It reads:
“Well, at least we are in reserve. This is the first time in 71 days they (the unit) have had any rest. God only knows they really need rest and bad.
"Our company only has 91 left out of 300 men. In fact the whole seventh regiment is shot up very badly. My luck is still going strong. I guess. I’m too mean to have anything happen to me.
“I sure hope this war ends soon because in three more days we go out again. I’ll bet what’s left of us will really crack up. They have been pushing us too hard the last two weeks. The men who have been here for eight or nine months said that these past two weeks were equal to all the stuff they have been through so far. I guess I got here at the wrong time. I must be feeling sorry for myself again but I hope I never see another two weeks like that in my life.
“Well, that’s enough of that stuff except don’t worry about me. If I could last through what I already have, I can go through anything without even a scratch…
“Well, I might as well tell you now that the worst is over, but we were trapped for two days and that is the main reason we lost so many men. You can give the army credit for that. They drew back without telling us a darn thing.
“I don’t see how we can ever win this war with the army so fouled up as they are and the Marine Corps so beat up and worn out as it is. They use us every place it gets rough. Every time it gets rough on some front the army calls us.
“Well Mom, now don’t worry about me. I will be alright. Take care of yourself and make the girls work for you.”
Donald May is laid to rest in Eldora Cemetery. Town businesses closed for his funeral. He was a star athlete in high school and college at Wiliam Penn in Oskaloosa, had been engaged to be married and was active in church organizations.
His brother Robert’s remains were never returned from Korea. Their parents had received a letter from Robert a month before he went missing, in October 1950. Robert said he was to head for a furlough in Japan where he had previously served.
That leave did not happen. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops crossed the Yalu River Oct. 25, entered the war and attacked.
Robert May was captured nine days later.
He was awarded the Bronze Star for his service.
U.S. Marines take a break from fighting at the Punchbowl area in Korea, June 1951
Chinese forcese attack a United Nations position in the Battle of Chong'chon River, North Korea, November 1950.