In writing about San Pedro’s Korean War deceased last year, I mentioned Pivo Fallorina, who remains MIA after 68 years, and Edmond “Micky” McDowell, whose background was unknown to me at the time. It turns out there is much more to their story, and it involves a third San Pedran, with their lives intertwined by friendship, fate, and tragedy.
Fallorina and McDowell were childhood friends. They attended Barton Hill Elementary, Dana Junior High School, and San Pedro High School together. They are there in the 1950 Black and Gold yearbook in the 10th grade, and within days of school ending, the Korean War broke out. Neither returned for their sophomore year – they joined the Army. Fallorina, one of eight children, was already 19, but McDowell, two years younger, needed his mother’s signature, which must have been hard for her; McDowell’s father was killed in WWII when his troopship was bombed and sank in 1943.
On February 13, 1951, Fallorina was a corporal with Battery A (105mm howitzers) of the 15th Field Artillery Battalion. They were in a valley north of Hoengsong in today’s North Korea, supporting Republic of Korea forces, when a massive Communist Chinese counteroffensive overran their positions. In what some call “The Hoengsong Massacre,” the 15th suffered 208 deaths; 106 were killed in action and another 102 who were taken prisoner, died in captivity. Fallorina died on July 31, 1951, in a prisoner of war camp, and his remains were never recovered. He was 20.
There is no way of knowing if McDowell ever learned of the fate of his childhood friend. McDowell was a corporal with the 8th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry when he was killed in action in North Korea on November 8, 1951, eight years to the day his father died.
McDowell’s niece, Julie Witthuhn, emailed me after seeing the earlier column, saying:
“I never had the honor to meet either my grandfather or uncle, as I was born in 1956 to Rita McDowell Bojorquez, his sister. My grandmother spoke frequently about both my grandpa and Micky. She never fully recovered from her grief, even up until her passing in 1994.
I heard Micky ‘begged’ my grandma to let him join the Army. She had to sign papers as he was only 17 when he joined. He was due to come home when he was killed. I have every letter he wrote from Korea, and the one from the government that came on Thanksgiving telling her [that] her son had died. The letter stated, ‘saving his comrades as he went back to get more needed ammunition.’ He was only 18 when he lost his life.
Growing up, I felt like I knew my uncle as my grandma kept him alive with her memories, but I never understood until I became a mom why she still cried every time she spoke of him. I keep him alive for her by keeping his uniform dress jacket with his toothbrush and wallet in the pocket hanging in my closet to this day, as she kept it in hers. My grandma died the day after my daughter was born…[she] was a great lady, and gave two people she loved dearly for this country.”
McDowell’s body was recovered, and he is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Los Angeles.
The story doesn’t end there. Also captured on February 13, 1951, at Hoengsong, along with Fallorina, was 1st Lt. Bert W. Justus Jr., a WWII veteran who was acting as forward observer for Battery B of the 15th artillery. He died as a POW on May 31, 1951, age 31, leaving behind a wife and three small children. Like Fallorina, his remains were never recovered.
Justus’ widow ended up in San Pedro, where she was part owner of Cook’s Kitchen Center. Her daughter Mary, now Mary Castaldi, graduated from Mary Star of the Sea High School in 1962. Haunted by her father’s death, she wrote a poem, titled “The Last Resort,” and posted it on the Korean War Project website (koreanwar.org/html/ Korean_war_databases.html) in 2004. Here’s how it ends:
‘Twas Christmas Day, and he was gone. Korea was the name.
Two months later MIA. No words can share the pain.
Fifty years have come and gone since we received the letter.
He never came back home to us, it never does get better.
I need to tell the story because old men forget.
It’s not just soldiers that we lose, their families are bereft.
They hold a family update to pacify our hurt,
And then they send more babies out to die on foreign dirt.
It’s not that I’m a pacifist; I’m not against all war,
But I’m for talk and talk and talk, and then you talk some more.
The wars may be inevitable, and we will be prepared,
But war should be the last resort so little girls are spared.
Reading that, I not only thought of the Fallorina, McDowell, and Justus families, but of Linda Zazueta, Linda (Barnes) Krammes, Rachel Kahn, Colleen Bauer, and Dick Molpus – five San Pedrans who lost their fathers in WWII. (Zazueta and Barnes were friends in elementary school, and Zazueta went to Mary Star with Mary Justus.)
Memorial Day should be meaningful to all Americans, but let’s never forget that for many, it’s personal.
Steve Marconi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.