More than 60 years after his death, Army Sgt. Joseph A. Bowen is coming home.
Bowen was killed in action Nov. 30, 1950, but his body remained hidden in the frozen turf around North Korea’s Chosin Reservoir until the end of last year. Last month, his sister Margie Smoak-Gosnell received a phone call she never expected.
“We like to have fainted,” Smoak-Gosnell said when an Army casualty assistance officer told her Bowen had been uncovered in a ditch with about nine other bodies. A DNA sample given 11 years ago proved the match.
The past month has been dedicated to preparing the funeral Bowen never received. It’s a bittersweet time, said Bowen’s sister Ann Ford, the only other surviving family member.
“It just kind of came out of the blue,” she said.
Bowen, who went by “Hank” with friends and “Angus” with family, grew up with his three sisters in the working-class village around King Mill. He filled his time after school swimming in the placid waters of the canal, bowling and picking guitar with his friends. He was the second child and only son, but sibling rivalry was limited.
“Like all kids, we fought amongst ourselves, but he wasn’t much of a fighter,” Ford said. “If he’d lived long enough, he’d a been a lover.”
His sisters aren’t sure what compelled him to enlist in 1947, but by that time World War II was over and there weren’t any other fights on the horizon. Bowen trained as a medic at what was then called Camp Gordon, but it was an easy 9-to-5 job that allowed him to commute from home.
In the summer of 1950, hostilities broke out on the Korean peninsula. Bowen, by then a 19-year-old sergeant, was among the first American troops to be shipped overseas. By November, soldiers and Marines stationed along the Chosin Reservoir were beating a retreat in sub-zero temperatures with Chinese troops in pursuit.
Ford later read officers’ accounts of that retreat, which were typical of the situation that ultimately killed her brother. It seemed every Chinese soldier killed was replaced by two or three more. U.S. ammunition and supplies were running low.
“All they could do was withdraw,” said Ford, but the retreat was impeded by rough, mountainous terrain and cold weather that frequently turned lethal.
Back in Augusta, the flow of letters from Bowen had stopped. His parents suspected the worst but held out hope until they received a telegram in January 1951 that confirmed his death.
“It’s your worst nightmare. … My mother later said she cried all her tears when her son died,” said Ford, who was living with her parents when they were notified.
Smoak-Gosnell was married and living in Bamberg, S.C. She remembers it was a cold day, so she was surprised when a young relative pulled up on a motorcycle. She didn’t have a telephone in the house, so she guessed it was urgent news.
“I just looked at him and said, ‘Angus is dead, isn’t he?’ ” Smoak-Gosnell said.
The death was tragic, but not having a body to bury was almost worse. It robbed the family of the closure they needed and gave Bowen’s parents a seed of hope they would cling to until their deaths. H.T. Bowen would sometimes comment that his son could walk onto the porch at any time, Ford said.
A tombstone beside his parents’ graves, some grainy photos and a box of letters were all they had to remember their brother by. Years passed. In 2000, the sisters gave blood for a DNA test, but they didn’t hear results until the phone call in December. The body was among several recovered in cooperation with North Korean officials.
Bowen’s remains will arrive today in Columbia from Hawaii. Visitation is scheduled for 6 p.m. Friday at Poteet Funeral Home, 3465 Peach Orchard Road, with a service at 11 a.m. Saturday at Hephzibah Baptist Church, 2527 Georgia Highway 88.
For his sisters, who still get teary-eyed talking about the brother they lost more than 60 years ago, it’s a joy to know he will be at peace in his native soil.
“For what time he had, he really enjoyed his life,” Ford said.