Bluefield Daily Telegraph
I didn’t ask Tony Whitlow to hold his umbrella over me and my little notepad as I jotted down the words Pastor Casper Dalton said at the graveside service for Pfc. Ronald C. Huffman. Pfc. Huffman was an 18-year-old soldier who was captured by the enemy on Feb. 12, 1951, during the Korean War, and died on July 22, 1951, in a North Korean prisoner of war camp. Tony suggested that I stand beneath the Roselawn Memorial Gardens canopy to hear better, but as I looked around and saw the rain-soaked faces of all the veterans surrounding the family, I thanked Tony for holding the umbrella and said I was fine.
I can’t imagine how cold it was in Korea on the day that Pfc. Huffman was captured, or how much pain he endured at the hands of the enemy during the 131 days that he survived from the day he was captured until July 22, 1951, when his captors told American authorities that he had died in North Korean POW Camp Changsong.
Rain poured down as mourners went to their vehicles for the short trip from the Roselawn Chapel to Pfc. Huffman’s gravesite. I used my wife’s umbrella to stay dry on the walk to my vehicle, but I watched Randy Gibson walk through the rain as though he didn’t feel a drop of it. Randy served in Korea with the U.S. Marines. He hasn’t stopped serving. I think that’s why I didn’t care if me or my notepad got wet, but Tony Whitlow cared. He wanted me to tell that story — to write that when Pfc. Ronald C. Huffman came home, Mercer County was there to meet him.
Pastor Dalton’s words were sincere and brief. His words were silently laced with emotion. He knew Pfc. Huffman as “our brother,” and said that he deserved “our thanks” for what he had done. He read the oath that soldiers take when they agree to defend “our nation” from her enemies, and said that Ronald had fulfilled the promise that he made.
As a young boy, I watched my dad and one of his American Legion comrades fold the American flag that draped the coffins of many veterans who I did not know. The U.S. Army honor guard that traveled to Princeton on Sept. 21 to conduct the ceremony honoring Pfc. Huffman folded the flag with precision. The two soldiers completed the task with the same deliberate motions that I had watched my father do scores of times before. On that day in Princeton it made me think that while perhaps our enemies thought very little of Ronald Huffman’s life, the grateful nation that he served will never forget.
I could see the dedication in the faces of all the veterans I saw in the cemetery that day. After thanking Tony for sheltering my notes, I excused myself to walk over to ask the sergeant who accompanied Pfc. Huffman from Hawaii to Princeton what his first name is. Before I reached Sgt. Nye, a tall man with gray hair reached out, touched my shoulder and said, “Make sure you honor these heroes out here today.” I started to respond, but in an outburst that was even more emotional than his first words, the tall man said, “I did not serve myself. Make sure you honor all of these heroes.”
With that said, he walked away almost as if he disappeared into the afternoon mist. I asked Sgt. Nye what his first name was. He responded, “Kenneth,” and I added, “Did you bring the remains here from Hawaii?” Sgt. Nye corrected me quickly. “I flew here with Pfc. Huffman,” he said. I understood the point he made. I thanked him and started walking away until my ear caught Russell Patrick say that Korean War veterans talk about how it was so cold in Korea that a soldier’s breath would freeze when he exhaled.
My mom told me that my dad tried to re-enlist in the Army when the American press started reporting the number of casualties in Korea. Dad served in the Army from 1942-’46, but entered the military when he was 29. He was 38 in 1951. My sister Peggy was going on 4 years old and I was 2. Dad thought his experience could help the young soldiers in Korea stay alive. It has always struck me that my dad served by example in everything he did.
As I walked back to my car, I thought about what the tall, gray-haired man had said to me. The thought occurred to me that just because I wasn’t in the military, it doesn’t mean I can’t serve my country by the things I do. I think that’s why Tony Whitlow sheltered my notepad from the rain and while so many of the veterans at the service spoke to me and called me by my name. On behalf of a grateful nation, we were all there that afternoon to thank Pfc. Ronald Huffman.
Bill Archer is senior editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.