Brother hopeful that missing Korean War vet's remains are recovered

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Harland N. Wilcox of Rangeley went missing in the Battle of Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War in 1950. His remains have not been recovered.

Families and friends flock to cemeteries around Memorial  Day and Veterans Day to visit the final resting places and to honor and remember their loved ones who served their country in the armed services.

Gaylon “Jeep” Wilcox of Rangeley has no place to go to visit his brother’s grave. Korean War veteran Harland Wilcox never made it home. He remains listed as missing in action.

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Wilcox admits feeling “awkward and heartbroken” during those holidays.

“I come from a family of 12 kids,” Wilcox said. “My father and five sons were all veterans. They all have a resting place somewhere, except for Harland.”

Friday is POW/MIA Recognition Day, a chance for people to remember and honor veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice. For whatever reason, their remains were never recovered.

Since World War II, more than 77,000 American veterans are classified as POW/MIA. According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, the remains of 424 Maine veterans from World War II have not been recovered.

The Vietnam War lists nine Maine veterans as “killed in action, body not recovered” and two with a “presumptive finding of death.” Peter Vlahakos of Auburn and Carl Churchill of Bethel are in the first group, while John H.R. Brooks of Bryant Pond was seen alive after a helicopter crash, but rescuers failed to locate him or his body.

Remains have also not been found for 45 Maine veterans from the Korean War, including 10 from Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties. One of those is Harland Wilcox.

Two years younger than his brother, Gaylon Wilcox says their closeness in age among 12 children drew them together into a tight bond. When playing cowboys and Indians, Wilcox recalls, most kids wanted to play characters like Wyatt Earp or Jesse James. But not his older brother, said Wilcox. Harland always wanted to play a soldier.

He got the chance in 1950 at age 17 when he enlisted in the Army during the Korean War. 

A member of Company L of the 3rd Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division, in late November 1950 Harland was among 2,500 Americans on the east side of the Chosin Reservoir in what is now North Korea. The Americans were surprised by the arrival of more than 20,000 Chinese soldiers, who nearly surrounded them. The ensuing battle lasted several days. Both sides suffered heavy casualties before the American troops could withdraw. 

Gaylon has vivid memories of his family receiving a Western Union telegram Dec. 12, 1950, that read, “With regret, missing in action.” Three years later, after the  war ended, the Army classified Harland as “assumed dead, but unaccounted for.”

That is the last time Gaylon has heard anything from the government about his brother.

A granite war memorial sits in Rangeley with the names of all area veterans engraved on it, including Harland Wilcox. That is a place where Gaylon finds some solace, especially with no burial site to visit.

“You go (to the cemetery) and it’s kind of awkward and heartbreaking,” he said. “What are you talking to? You’re talking to a tree or an empty ground. There’s nothing for the imagination. I go to the monument dedicated to all those who have served because seeing his name engraved on this is a symbol. I can make myself believe that it is an imaginary resting place.”

Nearly 67 years later, Gaylon Wilcox has not given up hope that his brother’s remains will be recovered. He has several newspaper clippings that describe American servicemen’s bodies being discovered in the same area where his brother was.

The last one discovered in that area was identified by U.S. officials two weeks ago, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

The bodies of six Maine servicemen from Vietnam originally listed as POW/MIA have been recovered and identified, including Robert Graustein of Fryeburg in 1986 and Neil Taylor of Rangeley in 2014.

Even if his brother’s remains are never recovered, Gaylon Wilcox is considering ordering a headstone from the government to place in a Rangeley cemetery. Even if his remains are never found, it will be place for the Wilcox family and others to remember the life of Harland Wilcox.

A poem written by Gaylor “Jeep” Wilcox to honor his brother, Harland.

“The Missing One”

“Missing in action,”
the telegram said.
“With regret, we can’t say
if he is alive or dead.”

Though half a century has passed,
the roll call is the same:
“Unaccounted for,” is answered
when they call his name.

But did he die fighting
for his country that day?
Or was he taken prisoner
and carried far away?

Does he lie in a dungeon
walled by cold stone,
believing he is forgotten
by those at home.

Is he a victim of brainwash,
now a disoriented man,
living a strange life
in a foreign land?

Does the search go on
across the battle ground,
seeking his remains that
have never been found?

Yet, my heart still carries
an ache of sorrow and woe,
but the unbearable pain
is the “never to know.”

I see no medals
pinned to his chest.
I see no remains
laid to final rest.

No yellow ribbons
wrapped around my tree.
nowhere a symbol
of hope I can see.

So, aimlessly, I wander
each Memorial Day,
with no graveside to visit
or to kneel at and pray.

The only hope I carry
to ease the burden I bear,
being unaccounted for could mean
he still serves somewhere.

But until the time comes
his remains are found,
a memorial to those who served
is my hallowed ground.

By Gaylon “Jeep” Wilcox

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