Iowa soldiers fought, died in first integrated units in Korea 70 years ago; many still missing.

Posted by Pat Kinney on Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Many Iowa soldiers served at the confluence of some historic events this month. Some laid down their lives for their comrades in the process. Many are still missing.

This month marks the 70th anniversary of the signing of the armistice ending the fighting in the Korean War. It is also the 75thanniversary of President Harry Truman signing Executive Order 9981, desegregating the U.S. military. 

Iowa soldiers were part of that history – including Black soldiers who were the first to serve, fight and die in integrated combat units. Many troops, regardless of color, are still in Korea where they fell.

President Truman’s executive order was signed July 26, 1948. The Korean armistice was signed July 27, 1953.

The fighting ended, but many didn’t come home. Not even their remains. Some are only now being returned, like those of Pfc. Delbert White of Ottumwa. (pictured below)

U.S. Army Pfc. Delbert White of Ottumwa was laid to rest in his hometown June 13, more than 70 years after he was killed in Korea. (U.S. Dept. of Defense POW-MIA Accounting Agency)

Others, like George Earnshaw Bolden (below) of Des Moines, have not.

This is a possible photo of George Earnshaw Bolden of Des Moines, taken in a Chinese prison camp in North Korea in early 1951. (Associated Press wirephoto)

More than 7,600 Americans are still unaccounted for from the 1950-53 war. More than 2,000 of them died in captivity as prisoners of war due to untreated wounds, malnutrition, torture or execution on death marches to prison camps. 

A total of 8,000 Iowans served, more than 500 were killed and 70 are still missing in action; more than 30 of them died as prisoners of war.

White was among the POWs. Earnshaw may have been.

White was a corporal in D Company, 2nd Engineer (Combat) Battalion of the U.S. Army’s 2nd Infantry Division in late 1950. Following a successful amphibious landing at Inchon, U.S. and other United Nations troops advanced into North Korea, only to be overrun by hundreds of thousands of Chinese Communist troops entering the war across the Yalu River dividing North Korea and China.

White and many other 2nd Infantry Division soldiers were captured by the Chinese People’s Volunteer Forces as they attempted to block and hold off the enemy and allow the rest of the division and a large portion of the U.S.Eighth Army to escape south. They held off the enemy forces as they attempted to withdraw through a gauntlet of enemy fire near the North Korean village of Kunu-ri until they were overrun. White was captured Dec. 1, 1950.

The Chinese identified White as a POW in 1953 but according to returning prisoner accounts he was last seen alive March 18, 1951. He reportedly died of malnutrition. He was 20. 

Following the armistice, as part of the “Operation Glory” exchange of remains between the combatants in 1954, the U.S. received more than 500 sets of remains of soldiers and Marines. They were interred at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at the Punchbowl crater near Honolulu, Hawaii.

With the advent of modern DNA technology, remains were disinterred for identification in 2019 at Joint Base Hickam at Pearl Harbor. White’s remains were identified last Sept. 27. His remains were laid to rest in Ottumwa on June 16. He was one of a family of eight. Of those he was survived by only a brother and a sister, toddlers when he died.

Less than 10 miles from Kunu-ri where White was captured, and just two days earlier George Earnshaw Bolden was fighting for his life and those of his comrades.

Bolden and a company of 100-150 of his comrades were thrown into battle in a similar blocking action. only about a third of the Americans would survive. 

Bolden served in E Company, 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army’s 25th "Tropic Lightning" Infantry Division at Yongbyon, near Ipsok along the Kuryong River, a northern tributary of the Chongchon River.  

With the main line of the 35th Regiment collapsing, Bolden’s E Company, previously resting in the rear, was thrown into the front line. They held off the advancing Chinese, but E Company was reduced to a platoon of a few dozen men by the end of the battle. And, surrounded and roadblocked to the rear, the remnants of the 35th had to fight their way out. By the time they re-connected with the 25 infantry Division on Nov. 28. Pfc. Bolden was reported missing in action.

In December 1953, after the armistice in July of that year, he was declared dead. However, his mother told the Des Moines Register she was “positive” her son appeared in a photo released by the Chinese of about 50 American prisoners that appeared in the Jan. 31, 1951 Register. Despite that, his name never appeared on any POW lists.

Bolden, like White, was one of eight children. He’d entered the Army in 1949 at age 18. His mother told The Des Moines Register in a January 8, 1954 article she’d last heard from him in Nov. 19, 1950 letter in which he wrote, “They’ve started shooting again --- I’ll finish this when I get a chance.”

His name, like White’s, was listed at the Courts of the Missing at the Cemetery of the Pacific at the Punchbowl.

A few months after George Bolden was declared missing, his parents received a letter from his brother, Martell W. Bolden, that he had been wounded by a hand grenade in April 1951, serving with the Army’s 24th Division, which had also been decimated in the Chinese offensive. He survived the war. It was just as just as U.S. forces, under Gen. Matthew Ridgway, following President Truman's relief of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, were able to finally blunt the over-extended Chinese troops' advance, after which the fighting settled into a bloody stalemate along the 38th parallel until the armistice. But not before another trailblazing Black soldier from Iowa gave his life. 

U.S. Army Pfc. Claude R. Smith of Des Moines was among the first African-American soldiers in the 179th (Tomahawks) Infantry Regiment of the 45th Infantry Division. In 1950 it was a racially segregated, all-white Oklahoma National Guard unit. By 1952 it was fully integrated with many regular-Army enlistees and draftees, including Pfc. Smith. 

Claude R. Smith of Des Moines helped integrate an all-white Oklahoma National Guard unit and was killed in Korea in late 1952. (Obituary photo, Jan 22, 1953 Des Moines Register)

The unit, the first National Guard unit deployed to the Far East since World War II, was sent to Korea to relieve the 1st Cavalry, which had sustained heavy casualties. The 45th defended roads around Chorwon into Seoul and fought Chinese troops all along the battle line near the 38th parallel in 1952, intercepting enemy patrols, raiding outposts and withstanding Chinese attacks. 
The unit was engaged in a battle on Old Baldy Hill at about the time of Smith’s was killed in action Nov. 20, 1952. His body was returned in January 1953 and he was buried at Glendale Cemetery in Des Moines. 

The Grout Museum District's Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum is gathering biographies and photos of all Iowans killed in the Korean War for its "Faces of the Fallen" exhibit in the permanent Korean War section of the museum. Contact Pat Kinney at (319) 234-6357 or Pat.Kinney@gmdistrict.org to submit or obtain more information.

Blog cover image: Soldiers with the U.S. Army's 2nd Infantry Division take up positions against Chinese Communist forces north of the ChongChon River in North Korea on Nov. 20, 1950. (Public domain photo by U.S. Army Pfc. James Cox, from National Archives and Records Administration.)

About The Author

Pat is the Oral Historian for the Grout Museum District.