Colleyville woman buries cousin 64 years after death

Posted Tuesday, Jun. 24, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Delbert Kovalcheck was a 20-year-old sergeant when he died near the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea.

For years he was considered missing in action, but one of his cousins, Pat Gable, never gave up trying to find out what happened to Kovalcheck, who was from East Millsboro, Pa. Ultimately, the Defense Department Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office used DNA to identify his remains.

“I’ve known since the ’50s that he was missing,” said Gable, of Colleyville, who was 7 when her cousin went missing. “My dad would have us watch the TV when the names of casualties were shown to see if he came up.”

Gable’s daughter-in-law, Melanie Gable, also of Colleyville, alerted the Star-Telegram about Kovalcheck — and his family’s quest to find him — more than six decades after the Korean War started on June 25, 1950.

Unbeknownst to his family, Kovalcheck’s remains were with those of up to 400 U.S. servicemen sent by North Korea to the United States from 1991 to 1994.

Last year, at the government’s request and expense, Pat Gable sent in saliva samples from herself and her bother, Gerald Kovalcheck.

Delbert Kovalcheck was matched to Gerald Kovalcheck in October, said Sgt. Shelia Sledge, a Defense Department spokeswoman.

“We are proud to bring one of our own home to his family,” Sledge said.

‘Humbling and beautiful’

Almost two dozen of Kovalcheck’s relatives followed the caisson carrying his coffin as he was laid to rest June 11 in Arlington National Cemetery, said Melanie Gable, who attended the service.

“The funeral was the most humbling and beautiful experience of my life,” she said. “The church service was wonderful, the marching band, the horse-drawn caisson and the 21-gun salute.”

A general who attended the funeral told Melanie Gable that he admired her mother-in-law for taking that leap of faith in submitting DNA to the government.

“He said there is so much mistrust by citizens who are focused on privacy that few people are willing to do it,” she said. “Because Pat took that chance, that’s how we found Delbert.”

‘Fighting withdrawal’

History records the Battle of Chosin Reservoir as the point where U.N. forces lost the momentum that had carried them close to victory over North Korea. Communist China poured 200,000 fighters across the border on Oct. 25, 1950.

In what was called a “fighting withdrawal,” U.S. troops battled the enemy and subfreezing conditions to reach the Sea of Japan. Between Nov. 29, when the withdrawal was ordered, and Dec. 11, when the last troops (known afterward as the Frozen Chosin) were evacuated from Hungnam, North Korea, 836 Marines and about 2,000 soldiers were killed.

In their wake, the Americans left an estimated 35,000 Chinese casualties, crippling seven Chinese divisions that got in their way.

Kovalcheck was assigned to Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 31st Regimental Combat Team, deployed east of the Chosin Reservoir, Sledge said in a news release.

“On Nov. 29, 1950, the 31st RCT, known historically as Task Force Faith, began a fighting withdrawal to a more defensible position,” Sledge said. “Following the battle, Kovalcheck was reported missing in action.”

Death remains a mystery

A retired soldier at Kovalcheck’s funeral told Pat Gable that he had studied the Battle of Chosin Reservoir and that Kovalcheck was wounded before he died. Any other circumstances surrounding his death remain a mystery.

“They only knew that he had answered roll call in one position, and at the next roll call two or three days later, he was missing,” Pat Gable said.

But where Kovalcheck’s body rests is no longer a mystery. Pat Gable said she hopes that the families of the 7,883 service members who are still missing after the Korean War will get the same closure.

“It was pretty emotional to watch them fold the flag, and more emotional when they handed it to me,” Pat Gable said. “I wasn’t crying, but it was like I couldn’t believe it was happening after 64 years. If anyone knows of someone who’s related to an MIA in Korea, get them to contact the military to get DNA to them so they can identify them.”

Terry Evans, 817-390-7620 Twitter: @fwstevans

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