Just before midnight on July 9, 1951, the body of Army Pvt. John Aaron Jr. left Jersey City on a B&O train, bound for his hometown of High Shoals, Ga., and his mother, Lillie Mae Malcolm.
He was first reported missing in action. Months later he was found wrapped in a tent, buried in a makeshift cemetery with one of his dog tags hung on the cross marking his grave.
Aaron was among the first of the 43,000 Americans and Koreans in the U.S. service to die in the Korean War. And by chance of spelling, his name will head a list of the dead to be etched in a new granite Wall of Remembrance at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, officials said.
The National Park Service and the memorial’s foundation announced Monday that the wall will include the names of 36,574 Americans and more than 7,200 Koreans, who served as advisers and interpreters in what was called the Korean Augmentation to the U.S. Army (KATUSA).
Funding for the $22 million project comes entirely from donations from the people of the United States and South Korea, the Park Service and the foundation said.
The 25-year-old memorial, just southeast of the Lincoln Memorial, will also undergo a thorough facelift, officials said. The project is expected to take 18 months. The work is to begin this week.
The 1950-1953 Korean War was fought between forces of the United States, South Korea and their allies, and forces of communist North Korea and China.
It was a bitter, often-forgotten struggle that killed more than half as many Americans in three years as the Vietnam War killed in over a decade. Seven thousand are still missing in action.
There are about 500,000 Korean War veterans still living, but about 600 die every day, said James R. Fisher, executive director of the Korean War Veterans Memorial Foundation.
“They’re in their mid, early 90s now,” he said. “So we want to get this thing done. We’ve got guys just hanging on … until we build this.”
Retired Army Col. William E. Weber, chairman emeritus of the memorial foundation, was a 25-year-old captain who had already been awarded the Silver Star for gallantry when he was grievously wounded in battle in February 1951.
He was initially hit by a blast from an enemy hand grenade that cost him a leg. Then, as he was being carried on a stretcher to safety, another grenade killed both of his stretcher bearers and resulted in the loss of one of his arms.
He is now 95.
A wall of names “gives substance to the cost of the war, in terms of lives,” he said Sunday.
“Because having a number up there … means nothing to everybody that goes by,” he said. “But adding a wall with that many names on it is an imposing thing. That’s a lot of wall to have [that many] names on it.”
“It calls attention to the fact that the Korean War was not just a two-bit exercise,” he said. “It was a full-blown war, which, sadly, is pretty much lost in American history. You don’t find much about it.”
Jan Scruggs, creator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall, which bears the names of 58,000 people, noted the power of seeing them etched in stone.
Since its dedication in 1982, the polished black granite structure has seen thousands of tributes and mementos left there by family and friends of the dead.
The Korean War Veterans Memorial was dedicated on July 27, 1995, in a ceremony attended by a huge crowd of veterans, as well as President Bill Clinton and South Korean President Kim Young-sam.
The throng included men who had been in combat, men who had been brutalized as POWs, and families seeking information about loved ones who had never returned.
The centerpiece of the memorial features 19 steel statues, standing seven feet tall, representing a patrol of haggard GIs wearing rain ponchos.
The wall will encircle the existing Pool of Remembrance, and the project will also refinish the 1,000-pound statues, repair paving and replace engravings. The memorial will remain open but some areas will be off-limits during the project.
Fisher, director of the foundation, said most of those killed in the Korean War were between the ages of 18 and 22.
Aaron had grown up on a farm in Morgan County, Ga., east of Atlanta, with four siblings and two stepsiblings. He had served in the Army from 1945 to 1947, and apparently reenlisted in 1948, according to government records.
On July 27, 1950, he was in Company K, 3rd Battalion, of the 29th Infantry Regimental Combat Team, with other unprepared American soldiers who were hurried into battle at Hadong, near the country’s southern coast.
More than 300 Americans were killed in the battle, and 100 were captured. Some wounded soldiers were reportedly executed by North Koreans, according to later congressional testimony.
On Sept. 9, 1950, the Army sent his mother a letter confirming a telegram that reported him missing in action.
That fall, as the tide of the war changed and the North Koreans were pushed back, Aaron’s body was recovered. And on Dec. 20, 1950, it was buried in a temporary United Nations cemetery in the coastal city of Masan, South Korea.
He was laid to rest in his Army clothes, including his boots and socks. He had a knife, a cigarette lighter, and a second dog tag with him, according to the records.
His body was largely intact. But his right hand and a large piece of the right side of his skull were missing.
Seven weeks later, on Feb. 5, 1951, the Army sent his mother another letter, this one confirming that her son was dead.
“I know the sorrow this message has brought you,” Maj. Gen Edward F. Witsell wrote. “It is my hope that in time the knowledge of his heroic service to his country may be of sustaining comfort to you.”
By March, his body had been exhumed and transferred to Japan.
In June, his mother was informed that it was en route to the United States.
On July 9, 1951, the Army sent a telegram stating that the body of Aaron was being placed on the night train from Jersey City at 11:59 p.m.
It arrived in Winder, Ga., at 5:10 a.m. on July 11, and was picked up by a funeral director.
Aaron was buried in the cemetery of High Shoals Holiness Church just short of a year after his death, and with two more years of killing to go in the Korean War.
Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this story.