It was 38 below zero at 0-dark-30 when Batesville native Elwood Montague Truslow and his four fellow cooks cranked the mess tent stove to prepare an early-morning meal for their war-weary comrades.
Just 24 hours before, Truslow’s L Company and others in the 3rd battalion, 31st regiment, 7th infantry division had fought thousands of Chinese Army soldiers at an outpost outside of Sinhung-ri near the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea.
It had been tough and deadly. It would get worse.
“They had begun to make breakfast when their houseboy told them the Chinese were coming, and they were just able to cut off the gas lines and turn off the stoves before guns were pointed in and they were mowed down,” Truslow’s niece, Lucy Howe, of Batesville, recalled.
“They were all shot up, so they hid behind some boxes until daylight when the shooting stopped,” she said. “When they looked out, it was nothing but bodies everywhere and destruction. Elwood got shot above the leg, in the hip, and couldn’t walk. His friend, John Gibbs, was shot in the head. They were all shot somewhere. John helped Elwood to the aid station and John got fixed up and went back to fighting. That was the last he saw of Elwood.”
Although wounded, Gibbs would fight and survive, finally walking across the frozen reservoir to a U.S. Marine outpost miles away. From there he joined other survivors and the Marines to fight their way back to South Korea.
Truslow was not so fortunate. Along with hundreds of other U.S. troops who were captured, killed in action or froze to death at the reservoir, he was declared missing and presumed dead on Dec. 12, 1950.
On June 10, 2021, he was declared found.
Truslow’s remains were identified in a cache turned over to the United States in 2018 after a meeting between then-President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.
For Howe, it was a shock.
“I hadn’t heard anything for years and then I got a phone call just after his last living sister died, so I thought maybe it was a scam,” Howe said. “The man was talking about coming out and talking with me about everything. I figured that he probably got information from the obituary for Elwood’s sister, Denona Carver.”
She let him talk.
“I was waiting for him to get to where he was asking for money. When I asked if it would be OK if my grandson, an Army officer, could be there when we met and he said that’d be fine, well, that’s when I realized it was real,” she said.
Sgt. Elwood M. Truslow will come back to his family in Albemarle County sometime in the next month. He will be buried in Arlington Cemetery, a small piece of land for which he gave up everything he had. The family will have a small gathering in Batesville and a stone will be placed near the graves of Truslow’s parents.
That Howe should make the arrangements is only fitting. She kept his memory alive for 70 years and never stopped seeking answers to his disappearance.
“We always thought he’d come home. Every time a photo would come out with prisoners of war, I’d look really hard at those photos to see if maybe he was one of them,” she recalled. “I contacted the military and veterans organizations and anyone who might know something about him.”
That’s how she tracked down Truslow’s buddy, Gibbs.
“He told me about what happened and what he thought may have happened,” Howe said. “It was terrible, but it was good to talk to someone who knew him and who was there.”
For Howe, Truslow was more like an older brother than an uncle. They were 10 years apart but her aunts were just a year or two away in age and she spent a lot of time at their home. She remembers him as a hard worker and a musician who sang and played harmonica, fiddle and mouth harp. She still has his fiddle, and the Army returned a harmonica after his death.
Somewhat quiet, thoughtful and mischievous, Truslow once dropped a caterpillar down the back of her blouse.
“That really got to me,” Howe laughed. “My granddaughter loves caterpillars because they turn into butterflies. I love butterflies but I still can’t stand caterpillars.”
Howe and Truslow began trading letters when he joined the military in 1948. He wrote regularly to the family from his post in Japan. Later, he wrote from aboard a ship. He was careful not to mention where he was, but one letter gave a clue.
“He said, ‘they’ve issued us wool coats. I think I know where we’re going,’” Howe recalled. “He wrote us another one and his handwriting was harder to read. He said he was writing it under a [blackout] lamp. He said he thought he was about 25 miles from the border.”
The last letter came on Nov. 19, 1950. On Dec. 12, 1950, Howe’s grandmother got the dreaded telegram: Truslow was missing and believed dead.
No one knows exactly how it happened, but according to official battle reports, historians and survivors of what has become known as the Frozen Chosin debacle, it’s a wonder anyone made it out alive.
The cold and frozen ground caused frostbite. Several soldiers froze to death in their foxholes. Morphine, to ease the pain of wounded, had to be thawed out in the mouths of medics before it could be administered.
Blood plasma froze, making it useless. Batteries in vehicles and radios quickly died and vehicles malfunctioned due to the cold. Oil and lubricants in guns turned to gel and misfired or jammed. Mortar tubes and gun barrels cracked.
Truslow’s unit was at the reservoir as part of an assault that American military minds thought would push through North Korea all the way to China. The Chinese, however, had other plans. They quietly prepared for their assault on all American positions around the reservoir.
In the dark of night on Nov. 27, they blew bugles, horns and whistles, shot flares and screamed to disorient the Americans and stormed the positions. Attacking at several points all at once, they fought hand-to-hand in some locations, making it to Truslow’s company before withdrawing at daybreak to avoid the American fighter planes and bombers.
Daytime was calm on Nov. 28. Leaders of the unit, called Task Force MacLean and later Task Force Faith, tried to figure out what happened and what to do next. With darkness came the punishing cold and more Chinese soldiers attacking past midnight and into the early morning on Nov. 29.
That’s when they struck the mess tent.
In what one soldier called a “scene of total devastation.” Truslow’s L Company was decimated. Hundreds of dead Americans, Koreans and Chinese lay scattered about the snowy, frozen ground.
The task force had a short break the night of Nov. 29 as the Chinese, also short on food and ammo and suffering from the cold, foraged abandoned American positions about two miles north.
On Nov. 30, the task force prepared their positions without knowing the Chinese had quietly encircled them. At the same time, other American troops a few miles behind the task force retreated, leaving the task force isolated and surrounded with no help and little hope.
At 8 p.m. on Nov. 30, with the sun down and the dark and cold falling on the reservoir, the Chinese struck hard.
“By midnight, the attacks reached an intensity beyond that of previous nights,” a historical report on Truslow, compiled by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, states. “Chinese assault teams crept in close to the perimeter outposts. The Chinese launched the largest attack on the [position] to date, hitting the perimeter from all sides at once.”
The hardest hit was the position where Truslow was located.
“Between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m., every man in the perimeter was in a defensive position operating a weapon,” the report quotes a survivor.
Even the wounded fought, other survivors said in accounts published over the years. Sitting, standing, walking or crawling, if they could hold a rifle and shoot, they did so.
At dawn on Dec. 1, the decision was made to retreat. The Americans loaded more than 600 seriously wounded into trucks and left the dead behind. The going was slow and deadly. The roads were horrendous.
The Chinese blew up bridges and occupied hilltops from which they poured gunfire and mortar shells onto the convoy. They shot at truck drivers to stall the progress and then poured more gunfire into trucks carrying the wounded.
Attempts to clear Chinese positions were successful, but costly as more Americans were killed and wounded.
By nightfall, it was over. After traveling about four hard-fought miles, the convoy ground to halt and the trucks no longer moved. The Chinese continued firing weapons into what was left of the task force and hurled phosphorus grenades inside the trucks, setting them and those inside ablaze. Those who survived left the convoy and hiked out across the frozen water.
Of 3,200 soldiers assigned to the task force on Nov. 27, only 385 could still fight by Dec. 2. Another 1,500 were evacuated to hospitals from the Marine base while 1,300 were captured, killed or injured and left behind to freeze to death.
Truslow was one of 86 men in L Company listed as missing or dead.
“Ultimately, the extreme causalities sustained by the [task force] left few survivors who had witnessed the battle at all,” the historical report states. “In the case of Sgt. Truslow, no statement exists that can account for the circumstances of his disappearance or death.”
Howe said Gibbs believed her uncle was one of the wounded carried in the trucks of the ill-fated convoy. According to the historical report, there’s a chance he never made it far from the Sinhung-ri battleground where he was first wounded.
In the 55 boxes given to the U.S. by the North Koreans in 2018, the report indicates that Truslow’s remains were found in three.
“Information accompanying these boxes reported that Korean People’s Army recovered the remains from Sinhung-ri, which is consistent with the battlefield around the Chosin Reservoir where Sgt. Truslow was reported as missing in action,” the report states. “Therefore, the possibility that [the remains] can be associated with Sgt. Elwood Truslow is a historically viable conclusion.”
Although she’d like to know more about the circumstances of her uncle’s death, Howe said she’s glad he’s finally home.
“It’s closure. I guess that’s what you’d call it,” she said. “We tried for so long to find out what we could, and went for so long without knowing, and now he’s home. I wish his brothers and sisters could have seen him come home, but I’m glad we found him. It just sort of brings everything together.”