In 1932, Luther Herschel Story was born in Buena Vista, a tiny hamlet in rural Middle Georgia. His parents, Mark and Florence Story, were sharecroppers who fought hard to stay a step ahead of growling hunger and dismal poverty. Luther attended Americus High School, played a little baseball there, but never graduated. Instead, he persuaded his mother to sign the papers to allow him to enlist in the United States Army at the ripe old age of 16.
Late summer of 1950 found him in Korea, facing off against Communist forces from the north. His commanding general, Walton Walker, issued dire orders to his men - "There is no line behind us to which we can retreat." They were, he said, to stand where they were, to "fight until the end," if necessary.
The enemy came in force early on the morning of September 1. Luther and his comrades in arms met the attack, but things quickly went bad. A machine gunner was wounded; Luther took control of the fallen man's weapon and began firing. It was estimated that he inflicted approximately 100 casualties, thus helping to stem the advance.
As squad leader, Luther rallied his unit, helping them get regrouped to better meet the attack. A troop truck towing an ammunition trailer approached. Luther stood in the open - in the middle of the road, according to reports - and lobbed hand grenades at the truck. When he ran out of grenades, he scurried back to get more and returned to resume his efforts. At some point, he was wounded, yet continued the fight.
Ultimately, the position was overrun and the unit was forced to withdraw to reorganize at a better position. Luther realized that his wounds would slow the withdrawal, thus hampering them, and so he stayed behind to offer resistance and cover for his unit.
"When last seen," his citation reads, "he was firing every weapon available and fighting off another hostile assault."
Luther Herschel Story received the Purple Heart for his wounds and the Medal of Honor, our nation's highest military award, for his bravery. American forces held the line, creating the 38th Parallel, a line that today separates North and South Korea. It is a line so definite that one can clearly see it by satellite images - South Korea marked by the dazzle of electricity, of light, and North Korea shrouded in abject darkness. That line was held in no small part by the heroism, devotion, and sacrifice of a young man from Buena Vista, Georgia.
When the American forces were able to stabilize the area over the next month, they recovered human remains in the area in which Luther was last seen. Forensic techniques were not advanced in that day, and the remains were never positively identified. The fallen American soldier was buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii, commonly known as "The Punch Bowl," and Luther's family was left to always wonder what exactly happened to him.
I can't imagine being his Mama and Daddy. Sure, they had his medals, but medals are a poor substitute for the boy you love and long for. Every night when their heads hit the pillow, they had to once again be tormented by the questions that couldn't be answered. Was he really dead? If so, what were those last moments like? If not, where was he? What might he be facing? Why couldn't they have at least the peace and closure that comes from knowing where he was?
Those questions were never answered for them. They, like so many other parents and loved ones of the Missing In Action, could only wonder.
Currently, there are over 81,000 American soldiers considered Missing In Action. 81,000. Think about that.
In 2017, Luther's only surviving sibling, his sister Gwendolyn, and her daughter, Judy Wade, provided DNA samples to the Department of Defense. They were compared to a set of remains at the Punch Bowl. It was a "near-perfect match." Corporal Luther Herschel Story, recipient of the Purple Heart and the Medal of Honor, had been found.
This afternoon, Memorial Day 2023, my wife and I ventured over to the Andersonville National Cemetery, a tranquil spot not far from Buena Vista. We joined a crowd that included his family, which today consists only of a niece, a nephew, and a cousin, and their children, numerous military personnel - active duty and veterans - along with ordinary folks like us. The Governor and First Lady of Georgia were there, as was Major General Kyungkoo Lee, representing the Republic of Korea.
Corporal Luther Herschel Story is finally home.