PLATTSBURGH — Nine soldiers killed in a battle called the Bloody Gulch in South Korea could not be identified by the military.
One of them was Penny Clute’s uncle, Cpl. Robert Isaac Wax.
Born in February 1929 in Detroit, he was only 21 when he died in the Korean War.
A March 1951 report from the Attorney General’s Office states the cause of death as “killed in action” on Aug. 11, 1950.
But Wax’s body was never identified.
Until recently, it was known simply as X-88.
“To us, it was closed,” said Clute, retired Plattsburgh City Court judge. “It’s been instead a rediscovery of our family.”
In January 2009, Clute’s younger brother, John Downs of Raleigh, N.C., got a call from a man who said he was a volunteer working with the U.S. Army to identify missing soldiers.
Wax never married and had no children, so there were no immediate relatives to contact.
“We thought it was a scam of some kind,” Clute said.
It wasn’t until a year later that Mortuary Affairs Specialist Anthony D. Hendrieth Sr. of the Past Conflict Repatriations Branch of the Army called Downs, saying it may be possible to identify Wax’s body.
But family DNA would be needed to determine a match.
Both Downs and Clute agreed to provide samples in February 2010, which were sent to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, the largest skeletal-identification lab in the world.
The organization was founded in the 1970s, and since then more than 1,800 Americans have been identified. The agency has the capacity to investigate 1,000 cases simultaneously.
The lab has a Family Reference Sample database where DNA testing results are stored so they can be
used in future identification.
But it wasn’t DNA that led to Wax’s identification.
The embalming fluids used in Korea during the war damaged human remains, sometimes to the point where a proper DNA sample can’t be taken, Clute said.
Four of the nine unidentified men were ruled out on the basis of their biological profile, which includes factors like height and weight.
And four of the remaining five unknown soldiers were ruled out because of “irreconcilable dental discrepancies,” according to the Army’s Central Identification Lab Scientific Director Dr. Thomas D. Holland’s Jan. 17 report.
A current chest X-ray of his remains was superimposed on top of one taken in the 1950s, and the two matched, confirming Wax’s identity, Clute said.
He had finally been found.
“This just bowled us over,” she said. “Nothing had happened for so long.”
The remarkable thing, she added, was that no new information was used in the identification except for new expertise and specialty on the part of forensic anthropologists who work in the lab.
“A great amount of time and effort and care went into identifying him,” she said.
Hendrieth told Clute that the identification process is advanced enough that scientists were recently able to identify a soldier from World War I.
Even though he had been located, the question of Wax’s final resting place remained.
After being transferred to two cemeteries in South Korea, Wax had been buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, also known as the Punchbowl.
Wax’s father, Army Capt. John H. Wax, is also buried there.
John, a physician, was killed during World War II, in 1944, when the military plane on which he was traveling crashed into a mountain in an area of the Himalayan Mountains called “the Hump.”
But then retired Air Force Lt. Col. William Rowden of Plattsburgh, a friend of Clute’s, suggested that she and her family look into having her uncle buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
“As soon as he said that, it seemed perfect,” Clute said.
She checked with Hendrieth, and the Army made the funeral arrangements for June 20.
About 15 members of Clute’s extended family traveled there for the occasion.
“It was quite an experience. The formality of it, the ritual,” Clute said.
After the funeral, she was presented with a special triangle-shaped box that held the American flag that covered Wax’s casket during the ceremony, as well as his many military medals, including a Purple Heart.
Despite their joy at Wax’s identification and the honor bestowed upon him at Arlington National Cemetery, the news has been somewhat bittersweet for Clute and her family.
“Each time I talk about it, my next thought is, it’s too bad Mom didn’t know.”
Clute’s mother, Mary Ann Wax Downs, died a week before Christmas 2009 at age 88.
The reaction of Clute and her siblings to the remarkable events have been very different from those their parents or grandparents would have had, she said.
“We’re a generation removed. It’s a different kind of emotion than if it had happened soon after his death.”
Clute wasn’t yet 5 when her uncle was killed. But his life has a new meaning to her now.
“It’s made us more aware of our family and who came before us.”