After 62 years, Marine's fate remains unknown
For years, Ron Fields had heard stories about his great-uncle, Billy Fields. But unlike most stories, there was never a clear ending.
Marine Pfc. Billy Gene Fields simply disappeared in the frozen hills of North Korea on Dec. 11, 1950, while his convoy scrambled to get its deuce-and-ahalf trucks away from the bloody battlefields around the Chosin Reservoir to the relative safety of the port of Hungnam.
He disappeared 15 days before his 20th birthday.
What happened to Billy beyond that day has perplexed four generations of the Fields family. Ron Fields, his wife, Liz, and their daughter, Laura, hope to solve at least part of that mystery today.
The Fields — along with about 200 other families of missing POWs and MIAs — are meeting with representatives of the Defense Department’s Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, which is responsible for recovering and identifying the remains of missing servicemen from all U.S. military operations.
Today’s event starts at 9 a.m. at the Crowne Plaza, 1901 University NE.
“Our goal in these all-day presentations and one-onone case review meetings is to keep all interested family members up-to-date on the worldwide effort ... to locate, repatriate and identify the remains of their loved ones,” said Jessica Pierno, public affairs officer for the program, known by its acronym DPMO.
There will be a remembrance ceremony and, for some hopeful families, answers to long-lingering questions.
“Everything about Billy has been a question mark,” Ron Fields said in an interview Thursday. “Nobody really knew what happened to him. It’s always been up in the air.’’
Ron, an archaeologist at Petroglyph National Monument, has puzzled about the fate of his great-uncle for decades.
Several years ago, he posted a notice on a website asking anyone who might have known Billy to contact him.
Not long afterward, he was on the phone with Wyly Pafford, a veteran from Tennessee who said he served alongside Billy in the war, though they were from different companies within the 7th Motor Transportation Battalion of the 1st Marine Division.
Pafford said the battalion had been ordered to convoy to Hungnam as quickly as possible. The truck drivers had to negotiate narrow, icy roads hacked through the mountains as supply routes while Chinese soldiers sent to assist the North Korean Army attacked the convoys relentlessly.
Pafford told Ron he drove past Billy’s demolished truck on a pass near the village of Sudong, and that he felt certain the body hanging on the truck’s tailgate was Billy’s. Pafford, who has since died, sent Ron a photo of Billy, himself and another Marine, W.J. Coffia, taken in Korea just months before Billy disappeared.
But Ron says there’s another family story — supposedly confirmed by three former POWs — saying that Billy was captured by the Chinese, contracted dysentery and died in captivity.
He has not been able to get official military documentation, because that is usually provided only to the immediate next of kin, Ron said.
A regular kid
Billy Gene Fields was born the day after Christmas 1930, to Euel and Lula Fields in Loyall, Ky., a wide spot in the road in southeastern Kentucky’s Harlan County. Billy was the couple’s sixth child. He had two brothers and four sisters.
Relatives who knew Billy say he was a regular smalltown boy who was known as a jokester and all-around cutup. He liked playing Army and was a decent student.
Zora Lee Arredondo, 87, is the oldest of Billy’s two surviving sisters. Though she’s Billy’s closest living relative, she said she’s heard precious little from the military over the years, and she hopes “Ronnie” can shed some light on her little brother’s disappearance more than 62 years ago. She has never received any definitive documentation from the military regarding her brother’s death.
“Our parents died not ever knowing what happened to Billy,” Zora Lee said by phone Friday from her home in Crows Landing, Calif. “That must have been awful for them.”
Zora Lee was succinct when asked what it would mean to finally know what happened to her little brother: “Closure,” she said. She and her sister, Geneva Hall of Kingsport, Tenn., have given DNA samples for comparison should Billy’s remains ever be found.
“This was a living, breathing human being who is related to me,” Ron Fields said. “I keep wondering, ‘Whatever happened to that young man?’ ”
All the letters, phone calls, emails and Internet searches he’s conducted over the years serve a simple purpose, he said.
“Billy’s story needs to be told,” Ron said. “I just don’t want him to be forgotten.”
America’s Missing Troops
Of the 1,654 service members still missing from the Vietnam war, 12 are from New Mexico.
Of the more than 7,930 service members missing from the Korean War, 46 are from New Mexico.
There is no state breakdown for the more than 73,000 service members missing from World War II.
Since 2005, the POW/MIA Office has accounted for 189 service members missing from World War II. Its work is ongoing. For more information about the U.S. government’s efforts to account for missing POWs and MIAs, visit www.dtic.mil/dpmo.
Source: Defense Dept. Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office