Harry Smith, of Lancaster, turned 19 the day before he went missing in action in North Korea and was never seen again.
Three years later, in December 1953, the Sergeant First Class in the U.S. Army was officially presumed dead. Now, seven decades later, the Lancaster Veterans Foreign Wars Post and his niece, enlisting modern technology, are hoping to bring him home.
“He was all fun-loving and loved sports,” Harry’s niece, Melanie Colby, of Lancaster, recalled from the stories handed down to her about her uncle. “All the girls used to write to him and some of the guys and they always sent him baseball and basketball scores.”
Her effort to bring her uncle home was given a boost last year.
“We had a VFW booth at the fairgrounds last fall,” said Leon Rideout, commander of the John W. Weeks VFW Post 3041. “That was around the time when they repatriated remains from the Korean War.”
The identities of those Americans whose remains were discovered in Korea were confirmed through DNA matches.
Colby, along with her cousin, Donna Smith, of Lancaster, wondering if the same could happen for Harry, inquired at the VFW booth.
“After my mother [Betty Smith Colby] died, I started going through things, and one of my other cousins, Coleman Kenison Jr., started doing a family history,” she said.
For the VFW in Lancaster, it was the first time the post had been contacted by a family inquiring what can be done to bring a loved one home.
And for Rideout, the story of Harry, a young man who had attended Lancaster schools and played catcher for the town baseball team and was on the basketball team, was new.
“I’ve lived in town all my life and never heard anyone mention anyone missing in action from Korea,” he said. “We had kind of forgotten about him, and this guy has never been returned.”
Providing DNA for a future match was Harry’s sister, Hazella Collins, 94, who lives at the North Country Village nursing home in Lancaster, as did his brother, Merlin Pete Smith, the next to youngest, before he died.
The next step was getting information about Harry himself.
Rideout, about to commence an online search through the U.S. Department of Defense and military personnel missing in action (MIA) in Korea, braced himself for what he thought would be a long process.
Harry Smith was a common name, after all.
Fortunately, his middle name, Sparrow, is not.
“He was very easy to find,” said Rideout.
At Rideout’s suggestion, Colby contacted the office of U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, and was given a phone number and directed to a database in Washington, D.C.
The mitochondrial DNA that comes from the female side of a family provides a stronger match, and Hazella Collins provided a DNA sample from her hair when she had gotten it cut.
Both Hazella’s and Merlin’s DNA samples were put in the database, and if remains of American soldiers are found in Korea, they will match them up to see if Harry is among them.
Harry, the son of Leon Smith and Hazel Brown Smith and the youngest of 13 children, was declared MIA on Nov. 2, 1950.
He was officially presumed dead on Dec. 31, 1953, six months after the armistice that suspended the war and formally divided Korea into two halves, South Korea and North Korea, at the 38th Parallel.
At the time Harry went missing, in the Unsan battle zone in North Korea, just south of the Chinese border, those he served with already suspected he was killed on that day, when enemy soldiers overran his position, said Rideout.
“His mother got four letters back after he went missing,” said Rideout.
His last letter was dated Oct. 28.
“He said they were killing thousands of North Koreans a day and it was getting cold,” said Rideout. “When winter first hit, they didn’t have the winter gear.”
In Their Own Words
Harry was 17 when he joined the Army in Montpelier, in January 1948.
“There weren’t too many jobs around then,” said Colby. “My grandmother and mother worked at Gilman paper and he worked down there a little bit.”
Attached to Company B, 2nd Chemical Mortar Battalion, Harry arrived in Korea on Oct. 7, less than a month before he went missing. In one of his last letters, he said he was 50 miles from the Manchurian border.
He wrote that he had been sleeping in trenches and had been hit in the leg by shrapnel, but would be returning to the front lines on Oct. 29, 1950.
Less than three weeks later, Nov. 16, Hazel Smith received a Western Union telegram from Army Major Gen. Edward Witsell addressed to her home at 21 Mechanic St. — “The secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret that your son, Sgt. Smith Harry S., has been missing in action in Korea since 2 Nov 50. Upon receipt of further information in this office, you will be advised immediately.”
On Sept. 14, 1953, Manuel Silva, of Rhode Island, father of Manuel Silva, who served with Harry, responded to a letter from Hazel Smith inquiring about her son, who was not yet officially presumed dead.
“I asked [Manuel] about your Harry and the story he told me was heartbreaking,” wrote Silva. “He said that Harry was with him in the 3rd platoon when it was overrun by the great Chinese offensive. In his platoon, there were 50 men and out of the 50 only four survived … Harry was not captured with him and he believes that all of the boys of the platoon were killed … I hate to tell you this — it’s terrible. I am so nervous. Please don’t give up hope.”
The news of her youngest son missing, and eventually presumed killed three months after Silva sent Hazel his letter, was tough on Hazel.
“One of my cousins was living with my other uncles and his family and said they were cooking supper that night when the men from the service appeared to tell her that he was missing in action,” said Colby.
Harry’s mother had written to several of her son’s friends in the service, some of whom were POWs, and one told her that he was pretty sure he had been killed in action, said Colby.
“There were groups of guys going out on patrol and the last time he saw Harry he was driving the commander in a Jeep,” she said.
Before Harry was sent to Korea, he assumed he would be sent elsewhere to train new recruits, said Colby.
Suddenly, he was sent to the war zone, into the thick of the fighting.
“My grandmother kept all of his letters,” said Colby. He didn’t write about anything major. He would write, ‘Send fudge.’ At the end of it, he wrote that he couldn’t say too much.”
Colby was born on Oct. 20. 1950, less than two weeks before her uncle was declared missing.
“When I was 4 or 5 I used to look at his picture,” she said. “I can remember my mother telling me about him. I remember looking at his picture and saying, ‘You’re alive somewhere.’ At that age, you don’t realize what war is.”
Had Harry lived, she said she doesn’t think he would have made a career of the military after the war.
“I think he eventually planned to come home and do something around here,” said Colby.
After his death, the U.S. Army presented Hazel Smith with a posthumous Purple Heart for making the ultimate sacrifice, a Gold Star for mothers of military men and women killed in service, and a citation from Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower.
“He stands in the unbroken line of patriots who have dared to die so that freedom might live, and grow, and increase its blessings,” wrote the president.
Today, Harry is listed on the Korean War Project Remembrance.
Locally, the name of Harry Smith is reflected on a stone in the Summer Street Cemetery.
While his name is not unknown, his story largely has been.
“We put a flag by his stone every year, but just never realized he was never there,” said Rideout. “We hope that the family can get a resolution and bring him home.”
There are still servicemen and women killed in action who haven’t been brought back, and such cases highlight not only the sacrifices made by those in the military, but also by their families, said Rideout.
As for her uncle, Colby said there might some day be closure.
“We all hope that,” she said. “We all want to get them where they need to be.”