It has been almost seven decades since one Klamath Falls soldier went missing, but finally his tour of duty has come to an end.
The remains of Freddie Lee Henson, a corporal in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, have been identified.
Henson enlisted in the U.S. Army on Jan. 19, 1949, at 18 years old, joining Battery A of the 57th Field Artillery Battalion of the 7th Infantry Division.
Deployed to South Korea in 1950 as part of a United Nations military force tasked with unifying the Korean peninsula following an invasion of South Korea by North Korea, the largely U.S.-comprised military force had routed the North Koreans all the way back to the Chinese border when everything changed.
More than 1 million Chinese soldiers crossed the border in November 1950 just as it appeared that the U.N. forces led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur had completely routed the Communist forces. The U.N. troops were totally overwhelmed, retreating south and suffering heavy casualties. It was amid this chaos that Henson would meet his fate, losing his life near Hagaru-ri at Twikkae Village, North Korea along the Chosin Reservoir.
Henson was declared missing in action from his unit on Dec. 6, 1950, a small blurb about his disappearance appearing in the Jan. 22, 1951, edition of the Herald and News with no further news ever to follow of his whereabouts. He was 19 years old.
Henson was declared presumed dead on Dec. 31, 1953, though his remains were not recovered. He was survived by his mother, Thelma Henson, who had moved away from Klamath Falls.
For his actions in the Korean conflict, Henson’s name was inscribed on the Courts of the Missing at a Honolulu Memorial. He was awarded the Purple Heart, Korean Service Medal, United Nations Service Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, Korean Presidential Unit Citation and the Republic of Korea War Service Medal.
Chosin battle was a rout
While little is known today of Henson’s life or how he met his demise, his unit and fellow Army soldiers as a whole suffered horribly during what became known as the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.
Severely outnumbered with dwindling supplies and enduring sub-zero temperatures, the members of Taskforce MacLean/Faith suffered heavy casualties while bravely holding the encircled Army and Marines lines. Despite nearly all supply and escape routes being cut off, somehow the survivors managed to break their way out to eventual evacuation.
Henson’s unit was part of an artillery battery manning 105-mm Howitzers, part of a group of approximately 2,500 U.S. and 700 South Korean soldiers assembled into the 31st Regimental Combat Team deployed east of Chosin Reservoir. By Dec. 5, 1950, a day before Henson was officially declared missing, that fighting force had been reduced to only 385 soldiers deemed fit for duty following intense combat against overwhelming forces. Henson, like many others, was left behind amid a hasty evacuation.
A divided country
The Chosin Reservoir battle was a turning point in the Korean War, a rallying site of U.N. troops regrouping after Chinese forces flooded into South Korea.
Eventually a stalemate ensued along the 38th parallel between the two sides. That same stalemate line exists today as the border between North and South Korea, one of the areas of highest tension in the world for the past 60 years.
An armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, bringing active combat to an end and establishing the Korean Demilitarized Zone. No peace treaty was ever formally signed, technically still leaving the two sides in an ongoing state of war, and to this day periodic small clashes of North and South Korean forces continue.
Both militaries have remained on high alert, with tensions escalating over the past decade in the time since North Korea first successfully tested nuclear weapons in 2006.
A crucial military standoff
While Chosin Reservoir was considered a terrible defeat at the time, historians now view the battle differently. The herculean efforts of Taskforce MacLean blocked the Chinese military drive along the eastern side of Chosin for five days despite great odds, allowing Marines along the west side of the reservoir to withdraw. The Army forces left still fighting completely destroyed the Chinese 80th Division and severely slowed the Communist drive to completely recapture the Korean Peninsula.
This delay allowed crucial time for American forces to resupply and regroup. Had the lines at Chosin not held, the entire U.N. force may have been destroyed and all of South Korea fallen under Communist control. In recognition of their actions, in 1999 Taskforce MacLean/Faith was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation.
Klamath Basin gave its own
Henson wasn’t alone in the call to arms from the Klamath Basin as tensions rose in Korea. Soldiers from Klamath Falls, Merrill, Dorris and other surrounding communities were also involved in the early fighting in and around Chosin Reservoir.
Seven casualties with ties to Klamath had been tallied by December 1950, while others had been wounded and evacuated to hospitals in Japan.
Among those was Gene Hankins, who was shot in the leg on Dec. 3, 1950; Corporal James Young, who was evacuated to Japan for leg wounds and then was injured again after falling under a train en route from the hospital to the rest camp; and Private First Class J.C. Smallwood of Dorris, Calif., who was wounded eight times while fighting with the Fifth Regiment of the First Marine Division at Chosin.
A search for the missing
While tensions between North and South Korea have remained high since the end of the conflict, several expeditions have been coordinated in cooperation of both governments to search for and retrieve remains of lost combatants.
One such expedition took place in 2004, a collaborative effort between the North Korean and American military comprising the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) to locate any of the estimated 8,100 American soldiers declared missing in action from the Korean War.
The JPAC 36th joint recovery operation visited Chosin Reservoir in North Korea in 2004, collecting testimony from locals and conducting closely monitored excavations along the areas where 54 years prior the First Marine Division and 7th Infantry Division had repelled the onslaught of Chinese forces.
The recovery operations yielded the remains of five American soldiers. Those remains were returned to Hickam Air Base in Hawaii, where a repatriation ceremony was held and the lengthy scientific task of positive DNA identification began.
It was one of 33 joint-recovery operations conducted from 1995 to 2005 that uncovered remains of 229 total service members. The joint recovery operations remain the only cooperative exercises ever conducted between North Korean and United States military units.
Political turmoil has placed any future expeditions on hold, while potential excavation sites are being lost to North Korean infrastructure development such as the Chongchon River Hydroelectric Power Station. The North Korean government has announced that “time is running out for the U.S. military to collect its Korean War dead,” with reportedly piles of human remains found as infrastructure projects began digging.
A positive ID on Henson
On April 3, 2017, based on laboratory analysis and circumstantial evidence collected at the site east of Chosin Reservoir, the remains of Freddie Lee Henson were positively identified.
The Armed Forces Medical Examiner System used mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA analysis that matched DNA of Henson’s brother. After 67 years on duty, Corporal Henson was declared “accounted for.”
Before the war, the Henson family had moved from Oklahoma to Arkansas and eventually settled in Klamath Falls. A 1946 city directory listed Freddie Lee Henson as a shoe shiner at D.B. Shine Parlor in the family home at 615 Oak Avenue. His father, Fred, was a truck driver and local millworker.
According to the 1940 federal census, The Henson’s had two children — Freddie, age 8 at the time, and Kenneth Henson, two years old as of 1940. A 1967 directory indicates that the Henson’s had moved to San Diego. Fred Henson died on April 20, 1980, in San Bernadino, Calif. No additional family records could be located.
Henson is the latest in multiple positive identifications of remains recovered during JPAC recovery mission:
- In June of 2016, Army Cpl. Charles Crofts was identified as one of the five remains returned from the 2004 expedition to Chosin Reservoir. His remains were buried in his hometown of Shelley, Idaho, on July 9, 2016.
- A ceremony was held in March for Army medic Jules Hauterman Jr. of Holyoke, Mass., killed at Chosin Reservoir, whose remains had rested at a military cemetery in Hawaii listed as “Unknown X-15904.”
- Cpl. Gerald Shepler, who also was unaccounted for amid the Chosin Reservoir battle, was returned to his hometown in Liberty, Ind. In March Shepler’s remains were part of several boxes of remains returned by North Korea between 1990 and 1994.
An interment ceremony is planned for Cpl. Henson, but not in Klamath Falls. Lt. Col. Ken Haftorson, the garrison chaplain at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, reported that a full honors ceremony is being planned for Henson’s remains on May 4 in Houston.