Last week, I promised the usual Bend Business Roundup format would return this week but I am here to tell you that I lied. I’ve been semi-obsessed this week with the story of an 18-year-old Powell Butte resident who died in the Korean War. With Veterans Day coming Monday, I wanted to spend more than a couple paragraphs on the remarkable story of Corporal Norvin Brockett.
Norvin Brockett was born February 7, 1932 to C.W. and Zortha Brockett of Powell Butte, Oregon, about 25 miles northeast of Bend. The population of all of Crook County in the census year of 1930 was only 3,336 (compared to around 23,000 now). He attended Crook County High School in Prineville before enlisting in the Army in 1949 or 1950 at the age of 17. Because he was a minor, C.W. and Zortha had to sign his enlistment paperwork. Corporal Brockett was assigned to Battery A, 57th Field Artillery, 7th Infantry Division.
On June 25, 1950, the Korean War began when North Korean troops, supported by the Soviet Union and China, surged into South Korea. South Korean forces and their recently arrived American allies barely fended off the surprise attack, retreating to a small area at the very southern tip of the Korean peninsula. General Douglas MacArthur, with heavy American reinforcements, launched his own surprise amphibious counterattack at Inchon, and the tides turned. By November 1950, American troops were near the Yalu river, which separates North Korea from China, and American and South Korean forces were executing a series of attacks designed to end the war by Christmas.
For Norvin and most of the rest of the 7th Infantry Division, the war would in fact be over by Christmas, but not due to American victory.
At the outbreak of the war, the 7th Infantry Division was mustered near Mt. Fuji in Japan, which was still under American occupation following World War II. Assuming Brockett was already with the unit, the snow-covered volcanic Mt. Fuji might have reminded him of the sweeping western views from his home town on the high desert of Central Oregon.
With war underway, the 7th Infantry Division was dispatched to the Korean peninsula. The unit took part in the Inchon landing, and in late November 1950 was located near the eastern banks of the Chosin Reservoir, in North Korea, near the Chinese border. The Chosin Reservoir is at an elevation of 4,265 feet, and is far enough north to be quite cold, and it was very cold in November 1950, with low temperatures below zero degrees.
By then, Brockett was definitely with his unit with their 105 mm howitzer cannons. Despite the freezing temperatures, morale should have been high, as troops looked forward to ending the war and being home for Christmas.
Then, on the night of November 27, Chinese troops surprised the American forces with a massive attack. Around 30,000 American and allied troops (nicknamed “the Chosin Few”), including Brockett’s unit, were encircled by 120,000 Chinese. The fighting on the eastern side of the reservoir was especially intense as the battle extended for 17 days, with American units suffering such high casualties that they were essentially erased.
Brockett’s Battery A was one of the units taken by surprise the night of November 27. This photo shows the location of the unit the next day, with the bodies of American soldiers still in their sleeping bags where they had been killed by the Chinese the night before.
Brockett survived the initial surprise attack but was killed on or around December 2, still near the Chosin reservoir. Sitting in my comfortable office writing this, it is difficult to imagine the sheer terror that Brockett must have endured between the night of November 27 and his death likely a week later. The official records state December 6, 1950 as the date of loss, but that was really just the date that his unit was finally able to assess who was still around and who wasn’t: “due to the internal chaos within the unit due to high losses, it is impossible without eyewitness confirmation to have a specific date of actual loss.” Brockett, 18 years old, died in the freezing cold near a reservoir in North Korea, and anyone who might have witnessed his death was dead too.
A shocking 88% of Brockett’s and other units around Chosin were killed, wounded or captured.
Brockett’s remains were not recovered, at least not by the Americans, and the U.S. government declared him presumed dead on December 31, 1953. Brockett’s family was surely left with grief tinged with the uncertainty of the word “presumed,” for 65 years. Then, on July 27, 2018, following a summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the North Korean government gave the U.S. government 55 boxes with remains of American soldiers from the Korean War. The remains of one such box were those of Corporal Norvin Brockett. Either the Chinese or North Koreans had been in possession of the remains since December 1950.
Now, nearly 70 years after his death, Brockett’s remains have been returned to American soil. He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Brockett’s story is a reminder of the unimaginable things our country has asked 18-year-olds to do in the most impossible conditions in the most inhospitable locations around the planet. Brockett’s sacrifice came at the midpoint of a century in which human beings around the world faced conflict after conflict which pitted civilizations and ideologies against each other in global death matches. Many of the participants of those wars were practically (or sometimes literally) children.
Each one of us reading this today is blessed to live in a time of unprecedented relative peace. That peace was won via the efforts of Norvin Brockett and many others like him who have stood up to those whose goal it is to enslave people. It is not an accident that the flame of liberty burns brightly in South Korea but not North Korea. For Americans, it is so easy to forget that self-governance and freedom are the exception to the rule of brutal authoritarianism in human history. History tells us that earlier experiments in liberty all succumbed to the inertia of authoritarianism, often embodied by external threats.
Even in this time of relative peace, eighteen-year-old Americans are still today fighting and dying for us in places like Afghanistan. There will be new threats and periods of relative peace by definition do not last. To know what must sometime again be done to preserve our unique heritage of freedom from those who would enslave us, we must remember and honor those who have fought for us before. Rest in peace, Norvin Brockett.
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