Ron Broward, 73, removes a ragged black-and-white snapshot from his wallet and recalls a birthday gift given to him 55 years ago by his childhood friend and fellow U.S. Marine, Warren “Jackson” Rarick. The photograph shows the young men smiling for the camera while relaxing at a military outpost in South Korea during the Korean War.
That day—April 3, 1951—remains vivid in Broward’s memory.
“Jackson said, ‘I have something for your birthday,’” Broward recalls. “He took out a little mayonnaise jar and said ‘open your hands.’ Then he poured dirt from the jar into my hands and said, ‘This is Downey dirt.’”
The soldiers grew up together in Downey, Calif.
Broward rubbed the dirt between his fingers before carefully pouring the hometown memento back into the jar for safekeeping. The gift was typical of Rarick, a strapping 6-foot-4 soldier with a personality as big as his frame, always in a jovial mood and cheering those around him.
Three weeks later, Broward saw his friend for the last time as they fought waves of Chinese troops on Horseshoe Ridge near Chunchon, South Korea. A mortar shell landed between them as they ran down a steep slope choked with trees and vegetation. Both were wounded, but they got up and kept running. They slid about 20 feet down an embankment where a U.S. tank waited to take out the wounded.
“The last time I saw Jackson he was loading his squad leader onto a tank,” says Broward, now a businessman in Davis, Calif. (pop. 60,308).
Pfc. Rarick, 21, a machine gunner with the 1st Battalion, 1st Regiment, was never found and is among 8,100 Korean War soldiers listed officially as missing in action (MIA). Although more than half a century has passed since the close of the Korean War—often referred to as The Forgotten War—Broward has never forgotten his fallen friend or stopped searching for him.
“It never leaves your mind,” he says. “My job isn’t finished yet.”
In 1985, Broward, and his wife, Jennifer, made their first of nine trips back to Horseshoe Ridge and began an exhaustive search to find and identify not just Rarick, but the remains of other unaccounted-for Korean War soldiers.
“People ask why I do this, but take a look at all the young faces,” Broward says as he studies page after page of boyish faces of Korean War MIAs on his computer screen. “I feel privileged to have returned home. These youngsters never had a chance to live their lives.”
Broward interviewed more than a hundred survivors of the Horseshoe Ridge battle to piece together what happened on April 23-24, 1951. He reconstructed maps of battle positions and talked to Korean farmers who tried to pinpoint where they had seen skeletons and GI dog tags when they played on the hill as children in the late ’50s.
Broward’s work led to two excavations by military search teams from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) in Hawaii to try to locate Rarick and three other missing Marines.
“In this case, a veteran comes to us with an extensive research file. He had done the groundwork,” says Mark Leney, a forensic anthropologist at the U.S. Central Identification Laboratory at JPAC. In July 1999, the team excavated 91 foxholes and found remains of Chinese soldiers, along with battle debris and artifacts, including a Marine Corps emblem from the front of a cap, uniform buttons, hand grenade pins, and a bayonet from an M1 rifle.
“We probably would have left it at that, but Broward didn’t,” Leney says. “He came up with enough information to reopen the site in 2001. We combed the hill and found lots of Chinese soldiers.”
But Rarick has never been found.
“It’s like my brother fell off the face of the earth,” says Billie Jo Wallace, 74, Rarick’s sister. “Daddy never accepted it. He kept saying ’til the day he died that my brother was coming back.”
Wallace, of Palm Desert, Calif. (pop. 41,155), cries as she talks about Broward’s decades of devotion to her brother and other Korean War MIAs.
“Ron, bless his heart, has sent me many pictures of the place where he thinks my brother might have been killed,” she says. “It looks like a very peaceful area.”
Nine years ago, Broward helped arrange a memorial service. A headstone for Rarick was set beside his parents’ graves in Downey Cemetery.
“Because of my brother, Ron has gotten into the work he’s doing,” Wallace says. “This helps me more than anything.”
Retired Lt. Col. Robert Brockish of Lafayette, Colo. (pop. 23,197), marvels at Broward’s dedication to lost servicemen. “He’s put a lot of his personal fortune into this, going back and forth to Korea and Hawaii,” says Brockish, a fellow Korean War veteran who helped with the 1999 dig. “He’s just one tough Marine who won’t let go.”
Broward spends about three hours each evening poring over battle records and files of MIAs, comparing ages, heights and dental records with grid locations where remains were found. Several times a year he travels to the military’s identification lab in Hawaii to help identify the remains of soldiers.
“We don’t have anyone else quite like him,” Leney says. “He started off working on the case of his personal friend, but he’s become more aware and does all the cases.”
“All” includes 867 unidentified Korean War servicemen who were buried in 1956 at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, also known as the Punchbowl, in Honolulu.
“Essentially, you’re going through records day after day and sometimes there’s a eureka moment,” Leney says. “That was the case with Ward.”
Pfc. John L. Ward, of Utica, N.Y. (pop. 60,651), was among the unknown soldiers buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific until being identified in September 2005 after Broward met retired Marine Sgt. Joe Peters of Concord, Mass., at a veterans’ reunion.
Like Broward, Peters had carried a treasured photo in his wallet for more than 50 years. Peters showed Broward the picture of Ward, who died in the foxhole beside him on Nov. 6, 1950, while fighting in Korea. Broward questioned Peters and learned that Ward had been buried at Hungnam No.1, a cemetery in North Korea. From his research, he knew that three unidentified Marines buried in the Punchbowl were from that cemetery. North Korea had returned the bodies to the United States after the war.
Forensic experts at JPAC identified Ward, in part with dental records and fingerprints that had been taken of soldiers at enlistment and post-mortem.
Ward’s sister, Elenita Ashley, 73, of Titusville, Pa. (pop. 6,146), had long given up hope of bringing her brother’s body home to bury. “When I got the call, to tell you the truth, I thought it was a crank. After 55 years, it was unreal,” she says. “Ron is an amazing man. He has put so much time and effort into helping families like ours.”
Her grandson, Senior Airman Josh Ashley, 21, now serves in Iraq and escorted his great-uncle’s casket home for burial last April at Arlington National Cemetery. Ron and Jennifer Broward attended the service.
“Identifying even one is a success,” says Broward, who remains optimistic that he will find his own Marine buddy and bring him back home to rest in the dirt of Downey, Calif. More research has convinced him that Rarick’s remains lie beneath a paved road.
“My plan is to go back and pay to dig up a section of road,” Broward says. “I still think I know where my friend is.”
Family members of Korean War MIAs and POWs can help in the identification process by providing a DNA sample from the maternal side of the family. For information, contact the Marine Corps, (800) 847-1597; Navy, (800) 443-9298; Air Force, (800) 531-5501; Army, (800) 892-2490, or log on to www.jpac.pacom.mil.