Korean War vet in search of Army buddy’s grave

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Donald Bustard has held his tongue for 66 years.

But he’s 87, his heart isn’t good, and he can’t leave this world without finally telling the story of an Army buddy who died at the hands of a fellow soldier.

“I’ve never been able to forget what happened,” Bustard says. “It was one of the most traumatic moments of my life.”

War veterans are often tortured by the deaths they’ve seen. Bustard is tortured by one he only heard about while enlisted in the Korean War.

His buddy’s name was Joe; Bustard doesn’t remember his last name, only that it was Italian. Like Bustard, Joe was 21 and a private in the U.S. Army’s 1092nd Engineer Combat Battalion.

They met in January 1951 while their battalion was sailing the Pacific from Washington state to Japan and then South Korea, where they would be stationed in Pusan (now called Busan).

“We were working on the cafeteria line slopping ‘s- on a shingle,’ ” says Bustard. “I was seasick. I said to the guy next to me, ‘I’m gonna vomit.’ He said, ‘Go to the bathroom and do what you have do; I’m OK on my own.’ He was really nice about it.”

Later, Bustard went on the deck for air, and there was his good-natured chow-mate, setting up a chess set. He said his name was Joe and offered to teach Bustard how to play. The air was unseasonably warm, and they chatted amiably. Once they realized they both hailed from Philly – Bustard from Germantown, Joe from South Philly — their friendship was a lock. 

“We played chess every day. I got better, but he always won!” says Bustard. “He was the sweetest, most cheerful guy. We talked about home and our families. He told me he was the only support for his mother and siblings.”

They arrived in Pusan in early February and were placed into different companies but met for breakfast each morning.  Within a few weeks, Bustard pulled his first night watch.

“I’m looking out over Pusan. It was so dark,  just a few lights, and cold as hell,” Bustard recalls. “Here I am, a kid armed with a gun. They’d taught me how to shoot, but I didn’t want to. I wasn’t ready for war.”

A few nights later, it was Joe’s turn. Wear long johns, Bustard warned him. 

“He said, ‘I’ll just wear two pairs of pants!’ He was laughing,” says Bustard.

The next morning, as Bustard scanned the mess hall for Joe, a soldier yelled out, “Hey, your buddy’s dead!” 

“I almost collapsed. I ran to the sergeant’s office and he said it was true, but he didn’t have details,” Bustard says. “I was devastated. I spent 24 hours in my bunk, sobbing.”

Word leaked out that Joe had been on break in the guardhouse, napping on a cot. Another soldier accidentally pulled the trigger on his own gun while it was pointed downward. The bullet ricocheted off the floor, hitting Joe in the head.

“We were never told what happened to the guy who shot Joe. They got him out of there,” Bustard says. “We didn’t see what happened to Joe’s body, either.”  

After he was discharged, Bustard was too shattered to search for Joe’s family. As life moved on – he married, became a father and grandfather – thoughts of Joe receded from his mind.

But they never really left. So Bustard has asked me to find Joe’s grave. He wants to visit it to say the goodbye he was denied 66 years ago.

I look at Bustard, sitting in a recliner in the small apartment he shares in West Philly with Jeanne, his wife of 65 years. His eyes gleam with hope as I ponder his request: Find a long-deceased soldier from South Philly named Joe. Last name and birth date unknown, death date hazy. Played chess. Laughed at the cold.

It’s impossible, I think.

“Sure,” I say.

I dig through reams of military documents and find the names of two Army privates from Philly who died in South Korea during the time frame Bustard says Joe’s death occurred. Neither are named Joseph, but one has an Italian surname.

“Could Joseph have been your friend’s middle name?” I ask Bustard. “Maybe his family called him Joe?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe.”

The answer is out there, I tell Bustard. I just need more time to find it. Meanwhile, I’ll write his tale in case any reader of a certain age remembers Joe and can help Bustard find his grave.

Because this soldier’s story deserves a proper ending.

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1 Philadelphia

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