To say Wilber Bridger wasn’t expecting a call from the U.S. military with news of his brother Kenneth might be an understatement.
The Twin Falls, Idaho, resident hadn’t seen his brother in 72 years, not since Kenneth Bridger had come home on leave as a newly minted Army private after finishing Basic Training at Fort Ord, California.
The family – their father, a mechanic; their mother, a fry cook at a Colville restaurant; and eight children – lived in a house between Colville and Chewelah.
“We were close,” Wilber Bridger recalled recently. “We were raised out in the country, so there weren’t many other people around.”
He was 12 and his brother was 16 – so young that one of his parents had to give permission when Kenneth wanted to enlist in March 1950.
At first, Kenneth tried to join the Navy with a couple of buddies. The Navy took them but not Kenneth, Wilber recalled. He tried the Army next and was accepted.
Between the time Kenneth enlisted and finished Basic Training, the United States was at war in Korea. After he returned to Fort Ord, he was sent to Korea with the 7th Infantry Division.
He never came back.
Less than a year later, after one of the most costly battles of that war, he was listed as missing in action and eventually presumed dead.
The Defense Department called recently to say that Kenneth, or at least part of him, was coming home, an offshoot of a meeting more than three years ago between then-President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jung-un.
The Chosin Few
A coalition of military forces headed by the United States had early success in stopping North Korea’s invasion of South Korea in the summer and fall of 1950. By mid-October, they had pushed the North Korean army deep into its own territory, and some thought a victory was possible by Christmas.
But as the coalition forces got closer to the Chinese border, Communist Chinese forces began crossing the border in large numbers, and by mid-November they occupied the area around the Chosin Reservoir, a large lake in north-central North Korea. Moving in ahead of the Chinese army was a massive cold front from Siberia, dropping temperatures as low as minus-35 degrees.
The Chinese forces began overwhelming Marine and Army units that had been pushing north. In late November, the 7th Infantry Division, including the 3rd Battalion of the 31st Infantry Regiment in which Kenneth Bridger served, were sent to relieve the troops on the east side of the Chosin Reservoir.
Task Force MacLean, as it was called, was still getting set up on Nov. 27 when the Chinese Army struck, according to “Nightmare at the Chosin Reservoir” a history of the battle by Matthew J. Seelinger on the National Museum of the U.S. Army website.
They struck the 3rd Battalion that night, overrunning the perimeter and killing or wounding most of the senior officers, Seelinger wrote. “The battle raged on through the night, with the (Chinese army) withdrawing at dawn for fear of American air attacks.”
The Chinese army attacked again the next night, and by the morning of Nov. 29, the task force had suffered some 300 casualties, including the loss of its commander. The remaining forces pulled back, suffering more losses the next day as they tried to evacuate with some 600 wounded in trucks.
As the retreating forces pushed down a narrow road, they came under fire from Chinese forces on a hill that rose above a destroyed bridge. “Several hundred men charged up the hill, including many of the wounded, some of whom said they preferred to die on the attack rather than waiting in the trucks,” Seelinger wrote.
The allied forces eventually drove the Chinese army off the hill, but suffered heavy casualties. Remaining members of the task force, most of them wounded or suffering frostbite, would eventually reach allied lines the night of Dec. 1.
Missing in Action
Kenneth Bridger was reported missing on the night of Nov. 30, the report from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency said: “Following the battle, his remains could not be recovered.”
A story on the front page of the Jan. 22, 1951, Spokane Chronicle said he was one of five men from the Inland Northwest listed as missing in action, who were among 384 men listed as missing in action that day.
His name would later be inscribed on the American Battle Monuments Commission’s Courts of the Missing at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, along with those of the others who are still missing from the Korean War.
Wilber Bridger said he doesn’t recall when the family got news that Kenneth was missing in action. Less than a year later, however, his mother and father separated and eventually divorced. His mother remarried, and he moved to Idaho with her and his stepfather in 1953.
About 30 years ago, Wilber Bridger and some of his siblings provided DNA samples to the military, to help identify Kenneth’s remains if they were ever found. But the prospect seemed remote.
“We weren’t expecting anything,” Wilber said. “It’s been 30 years-plus since that happened. It’s the first we’ve heard.”
In June 2018, Trump and Kim Jung-un met in Singapore and signed a joint statement, which included a call for more peaceful relations. A month later, the North Koreans released some 55 boxes, which they said contain remains of U.S. service members killed in the Korean War. The boxes were turned over to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency laboratory in Hawaii, which seeks to identify the remains of service members returned long after a battle.
In late January, they traced the remains of Kenneth Bridger based on the samples from his siblings. It’s apparently just a single bone, Wilber Bridger said, but it will be shipped to Twin Falls for a memorial service in May.
No one in Twin Falls knew Kenneth, but whatever the Army sends back will be buried in the same cemetery as his mother and a brother.
“We’re not going to have any big hoopdy-doo. No ceremony,” Wilber Bridger said. “Just family.”
On the Courts of the Missing monument in Hawaii, the Army will inscribe a rosette next to Kenneth Bridger’s name, a sign that a service member who was missing has been found.
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