An American soldier went missing in the Korean War. How his late mother’s faith he’d come home has finally been realized

Sub-zero temperatures. Frigid winds. Snow falling across a “tundra-like” plain.

These were the conditions soldiers faced in the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir.

For some 17 days in late 1950, they fought through blistering cold in the North Korean mountains. With limited logistics and no hope of reinforcement, 30,000 UN soldiers faced over 120,000 Chinese troops in a battle considered one of the most brutal of the Korean War.

There among the Americans was 19-year-old Cpl. John Albert Spruell, a son and brother from Cortez, Colorado. His unit – Battery B, 57th Field Artillery Battalion, 7th Infantry Division – went into combat near the village of Hagaru-ri at the reservoir’s edge.

The fighting and the cold killed hundreds.

Many others – as after US military clashes across the world for centuries – were deemed unaccounted for.

When the horrors at the Chosin Reservoir had waned, the teenage warrior from Colorado was not recorded among the fallen. But nor was there evidence Spruell been taken prisoner, the Army said.

So, on December 6, 1950, the branch issued its finding: “Missing In Action.”

Back home in Cortez, Spruell’s family was left to wonder what had happened to their soldier. His mother, Pauline Sleeper, probably didn’t want to admit what her relatives decades later would say she almost certainly knew even then:

Her child was dead.

Still, though, she and her family had nothing to bury.

A lack of proof and a mother’s faith

Soon after the war, the opposing nations embarked on Operation Glory, a 1954 exchange of thousands of sets of remains of Korean War dead. Among those recovered was one reportedly found near where the 57th Field Artillery had fought at the Chosin Reservoir.

A “tentative association” was made between the set and Spruell, the US Defense Department’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency said.

But there was no definitive proof.

So, like all the others, the set of remains was given a code – Unknown X-15754 – sent to Honolulu and buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, often called the Punchbowl because it lies in an extinct volcano, the agency said.

Spruell’s name also was recorded, it said, at the cemetery’s Courts of the Missing, where the names of 8,210 Americans lost in the Korean War were listed when it was dedicated in 1966.

In time, the lost corporal’s family moved forward. His eldest brother had a family of his own, naming one of his sons after his sibling who never came home from Korea.

But the brother rarely spoke of the young man last seen halfway around the world near the Chosin Reservoir, said another one of his children, Dennis Spruell.

“I didn’t hardly know anything about my uncle,” Dennis Spruell said. “They didn’t talk about it.”

But Sleeper never gave up on the hope her son lost in the war would return, said Dennis’ cousin, Donna Lee Bailey, who was born after John Spruell last was seen on the battlefield.

“His mother,” she told CNN, “always said he would come home.”

A DNA specimen and a fated phone call

The Army, all the while, had Spruell listed as missing. And in its ongoing effort to close such cases, it had reached out to Dennis Spruell, he told CNN, for a sample of his DNA, which thanks to developments in science had become key to unlocking all kinds of mysteries long gone cold.

Meantime, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in the summer of 2018 proposed disinterring 652 Korean War Unknowns buried at the Punchbowl to try again to identify them and return them to their families.

Cpl. John A. Spruell - Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency
Cpl. John A. Spruell - Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency

The agency since 1982 has identified over 450 Americans killed in the Korean War, along with the initial 2,000 whose remains were returned at the war’s close, it said, as over 7,500 US soldiers from the conflict remain unaccounted for.

Three years passed before the agency could unearth the remains designated X-15754 and send them to a laboratory for analysis.

Nearly 70 years after they were sent back from the Chosin Reservoir zone, scientists used dental, anthropological, chest radiographs/x-rays – and DNA – to test the Unknown X-15754 specimens.

Then last August, the agency made a positive ID.

More recently, it called Dennis Spruell with the news.

The remains known for decades only as X-15754 were what the tentative link had suggested: those of his uncle, Cpl. John A. Spruell.

And now, Bailey said, “he’s coming home.”

While most of Spruell’s closest relatives have passed away, his childhood friend, Charles Haley, is still alive. He recalls Spruell didn’t enroll for their senior year in high school.

“Everybody said, ‘Well, he joined the Army’ and that was kind of the end of it because we never heard any more,” said Haley, who later joined the Army as well and was stationed in Japan.

He remembers being silly with his friend as a kid, often playing pranks.

Haley has also always made sure there was a flag on the headstone honoring Spruell in Cortez cemetery, switching them out when one got tattered or disappeared.

“To suddenly find out that they identified the body and that they’re going to be able to have a service. I know his folks are both gone,” he said. “I think is a real great relief to know that they know what happened to him.”

The makings of a mother and child reunion

“What the Army has done is gone above and beyond anything I could have ever imagined to honor a (lost) soldier,” Dennis Spruell told CNN.

Spruell’s remains soon will be buried in Cortez, Colorado, the MIA/POW agency and his family said. A rosette will be placed next to his name at the Courts of the Missing to show he has been accounted for. And he finally will get the military decorations he’s due, including the Purple Heart, US Army Mortuary Affairs Officer James Bell told CNN.

The confirmation of John Spruell’s remains, of course, is also bittersweet: “I am sad that (his) siblings, which were my aunts and uncles and dad, did not survive long enough to know his history,” Bailey said.

Though Sleeper has died, a relative has her ashes. And with her warrior son’s remains finally headed back home, the stage is set for the reunion his mother always knew would come.

“They’re hoping,” Bailey said, “to be able to bury them together.”

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