With tears, relatives see names of the dead on Korean War memorial

Washington Post photo by Matt McClain
Family members of those killed in the Korean War visit the newly added Memorial Wall of Remembrance that lists the names of the war’s casualties.

Marine Corps Pfc. Walter P. Cribben was frantic. His identical twin, Pvt. James J. Cribben, was with an outfit that had just been overrun by thousands of Chinese soldiers.

It was March 1953, at a place called Outpost Vegas in the middle of the Korean Peninsula. The Cribbens were tough Irish American kids from Chicago. They were 18.

But the fight at the outpost had been a bad one for the Marines. Walter had crawled out toward the front lines to search for his brother but had been wounded and was sent back.

Later, as a truck filled with dead Marines was being brought in, Walter stopped it at gunpoint. He said he wanted to look for his brother. He began unzipping body bags.

Walter Cribben never found James, who remains missing in action, and was tormented by the Korean War almost to the day he died.

On Tuesday, the name of James J. Cribben was officially unveiled on the new Memorial Wall of Remembrance at the Korean War Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington.

It was etched in stone along with the names of 36,000 other Americans and 7,100 of the Korean Augmentation to the U.S. Army (KATUSA).

“It’s just incredible to know how long that’s going to be there,” James Cribben’s nephew, Jeff Cribben, said tearfully as he stood before his uncle’s name. “It’s good. It’s good stuff.”

Robin Piacine, of Crossville, Tenn., carried a framed photo of her uncle, Sgt. William C. Bradley, an Army medic who had been captured in the war and died of pneumonia in captivity. He, too, is still missing.

“This wall is so important because I don’t want anyone to ever forget the sacrifices all these men made,” she said. “And what it means to the families, as we have maybe the only place in the world to come to, to honor and love a lost loved one.

“I don’t have a marker for him,” she said. “His body isn’t home. So to me, it’s such a hallowed place. And he’s among his comrades.”

The unveiling followed a 3 p.m. ceremony for several hundred relatives and friends of the fallen at the memorial. As a quintet from the U.S. Marine Band played the hymn, “Abide in Me,” family members filed past the wall of names.

The formal dedication of the wall was held Wednesday morning. Funding for the $22 million project came from donations from the people of the United States and South Korea, according to the Park Service and the memorial’s foundation.

As part of the ceremony, second gentleman Doug Emhoff and national security adviser Jake Sullivan placed a wreath at the memorial, and a Marine trumpeter played taps. Other speakers referred to the Korean War dead as “fallen flowers” and “guardians of freedom.”

In the Korean War (1950-1953), forces of the United States, South Korea and their allies fought forces of communist North Korea and China, aided by the Soviet Union.

It was a bitter struggle that killed people on the ground and in the air. It claimed 36,000 Americans in three years, whereas the Vietnam War claimed 58,000 over a decade.

Seven thousand Americans are still missing in action.

Tuesday’s events took place on a humid afternoon, under gray skies with a sprinkling of rain. Dragonflies flitted over the seated crowd as dignitaries from the United States and South Korea spoke. Later, people placed white roses near relatives’ names on the gray granite of the monument.

Some wore T-shirts and buttons emblazoned with images of youthful soldiers.

The story of the Cribben twins was related by Jeff Cribben, 62, who is Walter’s son and James’s nephew. He lives in San Diego.

“They went over together, and they were fighting in the same battles,” he said. “They would never let my dad and uncle go out on patrol together.”

So when one was ordered on patrol, the twins would flip a coin to see which brother went, he said.

“Who’s gonna know?” Jeff Cribben said. “My uncle had lost the coin flip, so out to the outpost he went.”

James Cribben was among about 40 Marines manning Outpost Vegas, in what was called the Nevada complex. It consisted of outposts Reno, Carson and Vegas. They were so named because “it was a real gamble to be there,” Jeff Cribben said.

About 7 p.m. on March 26, 1953, the Chinese assault came. The fighting went back and forth, and the outpost was pulverized by artillery.

Walter Cribben crawled out to see if he could find his brother, but a piece of shrapnel from a mortar blast hit his hand and he had to retreat.

“They sent him back to the aid station,” Jeff Cribben said. “And when he got there, a transport vehicle [was] coming through loaded with dead Marines. My dad stopped them, with his weapon, and told them he would be looking for his brother.”

“So he spent the next amount of time unzipping body bags, looking for his brother,” he said. “That’s the horrific part.”

After the war, Jeff Cribben said, his father came home and tried to live a normal life. “He was very smart and successful. And then he would sabotage himself with alcohol and ruin everything. Almost on purpose.”

He had a nervous breakdown in 1969. He was committed to a hospital in San Diego, where he was treated with electroshock therapy.

“It didn’t work,” his son said. “He came out of there addicted to Librium and 10 other medications. They called him cured.”

His life did not improve. In 1992, he was living in a halfway house in Arizona and not doing well.

One day a person from the Department of Veterans Affairs came to visit him, and said, “Don’t you know what’s wrong with you? . . . You’re classic post-traumatic stress.”

The veterans administration placed him in a program for post-traumatic stress disorder. He was judged 100% disabled, his son said.

“So he got injured twice: Once in the hand and once in the head,” Jeff Cribben said. “I don’t know who suffered more – the one who got lost, my uncle, or my dad.”

His father died of lung cancer in 1999 – “never knowing what happened to his brother,” his son said. “And we still don’t.”