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The Long Goodbye

by Nina Smith

The crackling fire had dwindled, leaving a bed of glowing embers and a few wispy trails of smoke snaking up the chimney on that cold November night in 1950. Sleepy sentence fragments and occasional chuckles had replaced the boisterous laughter and animated conversation of earlier in the evening.

“We’d better head for home,” said Jo Bolding, our neighbor. “It’s getting late.”

As she yawned, stretching her arms high into the air, her husband Floyd rose from his chair and began putting on his coat. The Boldings, our closest neighbors, lived within walking distance of our house and often spent cold winter evenings with our family sitting in front of the fireplace, eating popcorn and telling stories.

Before the door closed behind them, Mama grabbed a broom and started sweeping.

“You girls, pick up these newspapers,” she said as she tipped a cane-bottomed chair backward to retrieve wayward popcorn flakes from underneath. “And then you need to get ready for bed.”

“Don’t put those in the fireplace,” Dad said, watching me pick up the newspapers we’d folded into cone-shaped containers to hold our individual servings of popcorn. “They might catch the chimney on fire.” Wadding up the butter-stained papers, I headed toward the wastebasket in the kitchen. Heaven knew I didn’t want to catch the chimney on fire. I’d only seen it happen a couple of times and it terrified me. The accumulation of creosote in the flue ignited, sending a column of flames up and out the chimney with a deafening roar. Mama extinguished it by pouring a pan of water on the burning logs in the firebox, creating a cloud of steam.

It was past our usual bedtime—10:30 or later—and we’d made our final preparations for the night. We washed, dried, and put away supper dishes. Mama made sure the cat was outside. Dad banked the fire for the night and we three girls had donned our nightclothes and settled into bed when the phone rang three long rings—the coded signal indicating that this particular call on our party line was meant for the Lowery household. Again, three longs rings.

“Who could be calling this time of night?” Jerry said, rushing through our bedroom buttoning his jeans. Barefooted and with his shirt slung over his shoulder, he hurried toward the dining room, a look of concern on his face.

“Hello,” Dad said into the mouthpiece of the wooden wall-mounted telephone. “Yes. What? What did you say?” A long, long pause. “Nan!” he roared.

Mama rushed from the kitchen into the dining room where she met Dad stumbling toward the kitchen. “War Department…about Ted,” he said, choking on the words. “He’s…he’s missing.” Dad rushed out the kitchen door into the backyard and our mother, sobbing, ran toward their bedroom. Frightened and confused, my siblings and I just stood there, waiting.

“I’m gonna go talk to Dad,” Jerry said, going out the kitchen door. After what seemed a long time, Jerry came back in and said Dad was lying on the ground, hugging himself and crying.

“Mama?” I said through the closed bedroom door. “Mama, are you okay?”

She didn’t answer. It was as if their grief was too consuming to include us. I stood outside their pain not knowing what to do or say—frightened envisioning my dad, whom I’d never seen cry, lay on the ground in the backyard wailing in misery as my mother, behind her closed bedroom door, was crying without pause. Having never lost a close family member, I didn’t know how to act or feel. I’d been to numerous funerals for acquaintances in the community, but death had never taken someone I loved. And now, judging by my parents’ reactions, I feared our oldest brother Ted might be dead. After awhile, not knowing anything else to do, the four of us went to bed, leaving our parents to their grief.

Early the next morning, Mama’s voice, heavy with sorrow, penetrated the wall separating their sleeping porch from our bedroom.

“Nina, go take Ted’s picture off the piano,” she said. The awfulness of what had happened the night before washed over me as I came awake.

“No, leave it there,” Dad said. “We have to learn to live with it.”

A heavy cloud of anguish hung over our family in the days and weeks that followed. Every time the phone rang, my heart pounded praying it might be good news, yet fearful it might be a message that would end our hopes for a happy ending.

In school, I often fantasized that Ted was going to walk through our classroom door, tall and handsome in his uniform, with a big grin on his face. He’d wrap me in his arms and tell me that the army had made a big mistake and everything was going to be just fine. Then Mama and Dad wouldn’t be sad anymore.

After a few months my parents learned that one of the radio stations planned to announce the names of army personnel who had been taken prisoner by the North Koreans. Dad bought new batteries for the radio, and at the designated time my parents stationed themselves near the radio in the dining room. This happened on several occasions with family and friends joining them. Walter and Dessa Shoemake, Jo and Floyd Bolding, and Inez Campbell and her mother Florence sat with the family on a regular basis.

The announcer read the names in alphabetical order. As he neared the L’s, the adults shushed us children and all movement and chatter stopped as we waited to hear his name: Lowery, Theodore. But we never did.

As time passed, my hopes gradually faded and I learned to live with the never-ending hollowness in my life. After a period of three years—the length of time established by army policies and procedures—the War Department officially changed Ted’s status from MIA (Missing In Action) to KIA (Killed In Action).

My mother waited and prayed for a conclusive confirmation of what had happened to her oldest son, but she died thirteen years later in 1963 without any further information. My dad lived with the unresolved mystery forty-six years, until his death in 1996 at ninety-two years of age.

My youngest sister Jonann had always had a special bond with Ted. In 1996, with many of her family responsibilities waning, she launched a concentrated effort to learn as much as she could about Ted’s army life and subsequent death. She got in touch with the Department of the Army and after completing the required paperwork, gained access to Ted’s records. In the process, the Pentagon’s Office of Repatriation and Family Affairs assigned Linda Henry to be Jonann’s contact person. One of the missions of that department was to recover, identify and return remains of army personnel to their families. Jonann and sometimes other siblings attended meetings conducted by the Repatriation Department to keep family members informed of their progress. She attended meetings in Washington D.C., Dallas, Ft. Hood in Texas, Oklahoma City, and Tulsa.

Through chance meetings and other contacts, Jonann discovered that Ted’s Company held annual reunions and we went to two of those in Branson, Missouri. In talking with the men who had served with Ted, we learned many details of what army life had been like for him before and during his time in Korea.

We also learned the truth of what happened that day in November.

The First Sergeant of Ted’s Company took my brother Jerry aside and told him things he didn’t tell Jonann or me. He told him that in late October the Eighth Cavalry Regiment had advanced to within thirty-five miles of the Chinese border—their purpose being to relieve the ROK elements of the I Corps in the area. With much of the North Korean Army destroyed, the war seemed to be nearing a conclusion. In their march toward the north, Ted, who was the unit’s mapmaker and usually worked in Headquarters, had been assigned to drive a jeep with a major as his passenger.

On the morning of November first, the Second Battalion clashed with soldiers clearly identified as Chinese Communist Forces and when dusk fell that evening, enemy soldiers were on three sides of the Eighth Cavalry—the north, west, and south. At 11:45 p.m., the U.S. Commanders issued orders to evacuate and at that time the Headquarters portions of the First, Second, and Third Battalions began to move out.

By the next morning, Ted’s Company was running low on ammunition and rations were scarce. With pancake mix the only food they had left, the First Sergeant told the cook to cook every damned bit of it and they ate pancakes all day long. During the day, from atop two separate hills, they heard the sound of two Chinese buglers, one standing on each hill, bugling hour after hour.

With the entire area swarming with Chinese Communist Forces and with bridges destroyed and all roads blocked, retreating in vehicles became impossible. The officers in charge instructed their soldiers it was every man for himself, and that they were on their own in trying to escape. Finding themselves against impossible odds, the men with Ted decided to wait until dark and try to walk out.

With darkness came the enemy. Wearing tennis shoes to silence their movements, Chinese soldiers infiltrated Ted’s Company and engaged in hand-to-hand combat. “They absolutely slaughtered us,” Ted’s First Sergeant told Jerry. “Only a few of us got out.”

A small number of soldiers found themselves at the bottom of a deep ravine and amidst the blinding glare of intermittent flares and with gunshots coming from every direction, a soldier crawled up the bank to the top of the ravine “to assess the situation and look for a possible way out,” the First Sergeant said.

Within seconds of reaching the summit, the soldier dropped and rolled to the bottom of the ravine where fellow soldiers turned him over. “Who is it?” someone asked.

“Lowery,” another answered. My brother had been shot in the forehead.

“Thank God he was killed instantly,” the First Sergeant told Jerry. “You wouldn’t have wanted a loved one to be taken prisoner by the Chinese Communists.” He said Ted was an excellent soldier and a good man; our family should be proud of him.

Over the years, magazines and newspapers published articles about American soldiers still being held captive by the Chinese government. And even though I knew the improbability of Ted being one of the prisoners, the articles had served to keep alive a faint glimmer of hope. But now, with the telling of the events of November 2, 1950, by Ted’s First Sergeant, I accepted the final truth and was left with only memories, a soft mourning and a quiet peace.

One night about three years ago, while working on a genealogy project on my computer, I Googled “Theodore Emmett Lowery” and a website established by The Korean War Project popped up. There I found two letters in the “Remembrances” section posted by a retired army man named Carlis Huggins. The letters were testimonials of his friendship with an army roommate and buddy he’d had while stationed in Japan fifty years earlier.

MY NAME IS CARLIS I. HUGGINS, I WAS ASSIGHED TO HQ CO, 2d BN, 8th CAV REGT, 1ST CAV DIV IN TOKYO JAPAN FROM NOV 1948 TO APR 1950. THEODORE LOWERY WAS MY BEST FRIEND. WE WORKED IN S-2 DIV OF THE 8TH REGT IN THE PLANS AND OPERATIONS. THEO WAS OUR DRAFTSMAN AND I WAS ASST OPN . WE WORKED WITH MAPS, OVERLAYS AND TRAINING AIDS. I THOUGHT HE WAS FROM BRIARTOWN, OKLA. I DID WRITE TO HIS MOM ABOUT 50 YRS AGO. WOULD LIKE TO HEAR FROM ANY OF HIS FAMILY. I SERVED IN THE REGULAR ARMY FOR 20 YRS AND RETIRED 31 MAY 1969. I LIVE IN MORROW, GEORGIA NOW AND MY ADDRESS IS 6116 LANDOVER CIRCLE, MORROW, GA 30260, TEL # 770-206-0516 IF ANYONE WOULD LIKE, PLEASE CONTACT ME. I ALSO WAS BORN IN 1928, WE WERE THE SAME AGE, I HAVE A COUPLE OF PIC OF THEO AND WOULD SHARE THEM WITH THE FAMILY.

HELLO DEAR FAMILY OF THEO E LOWERY, I SERVED WITY THEO FOR 18 MONTHS IN TOKYO JAPAN. WE WERE ASSIGHED TO THE SAME OFFICE AND SLEPT IN THE SAME ROOM. WE WENT OUT ON THE TOWN TOGETHER AND I CONSIDER THEO ONE OF THE BEST FRIENDS THAT I HAVE EVER HAD, BORROW NONE, HE WAS ONE OF THE NICEST PERSON THAT I HAVE EVER MET AND IT BROKE MY HEARD WHEN I HEARD THAT HE WAS KILLED IN KOREA BACK IN 1950 OR 1951L WOULD LIKE TO HEAR FROM HIS FAMILY. I DO KNOW THAT HE HAD A SWEET MOTHER AS SHE WROTE ME A LETTER ABOUT 50 YRS AGO TELLING ME OF THEO,S DEATH. HOPE I HEAR FROM SOMEONE.

Being too late at night to call an older man a time zone away, I repressed my excitement and resigned myself to wait until the next day to telephone. When morning arrived and, without any idea of what the outcome of the call might be, I braced myself and dialed Carlis’s phone number. As soon as he realized the meaning of the call and that I was one of Ted’s sisters, he became excited and emotional. I heard tears in his voice.

It was a heartwarming experience, finding someone halfway across the country that, having known my brother five decades earlier, still remembered and loved him. Jerry, Jonann and I still talk with Carlis occasionally and exchange pictures and stories about our families.

In 1999, Linda Henry (the family’s contact person in the Pentagon) notified Jonann that she and one of Ted’s nieces needed to submit blood samples to be processed for DNA matching by a laboratory in Hawaii on remains being recovered from North Korea. Jonann and my daughter Lori had blood drawn, packed it on dry ice and mailed it next day delivery to the correct address. Four months later, in April 2000, Jonann received a call from Ms. Henry saying they had results associated with Ted. She couldn’t explain any further what that meant, and said we would have to wait for more conclusive testing.

That phone call happened almost fourteen years ago.

As of today, we are still waiting.

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