This memoir recounts a couple’s successful six-year mission to learn the fate of Donnie Matney, MIA in the Korean War.
In 1949, 16-year-old Donnie enlisted in the Army with his mother’s reluctant permission. It was peacetime, and she thought he would be safe at his post in Japan. But by the time she received his letter saying he was shipping out to fight in the Korean “police action,” the Army had already sent her a telegram saying that he was missing in action. Six decades later, the author and his wife – Donnie’s niece – decided to learn once and for all what happened, and to bring Donnie home to Missouri.
The first half of the book is set in 1950, when North Korean “bandits” attack the South and President Truman sends Americans into the fray. Very quickly, Donnie’s Howe Company suffers horrific casualties, and he’s one of the missing. American forces are nearly driven off the peninsula until they launch a brilliant counterattack at Inchon.
The author successfully paints the big picture while detailing aspects of everyday Korean life, such as the custom of giving a goose as a wedding present because geese mate for life. Later, he describes his endless correspondence with the American government and the trips he and his wife make to Korea. Ultimately, the remains of several MIA soldiers undergo close examination, and Donnie is identified and finally sent home.
With compassion and insight, this book offers a personal perspective on the “Forgotten War” that took 36,000 American lives. The (understandably) inconsistent quality of illustrations and the sometimes-awkward translation of Korean phrases can be distracting (it would be better to simply use the translation “dog soup,” instead of writing “bosintang (dog soup)” every time the word appears, sometimes twice on one page). A few other copyediting issues require attention.
Nonetheless, this book is recommended for anyone seeking to learn more about the Korean War and the sacrifices made by so many.
Also available in hardcover and ebook.
A Korean War Odyssey is both a moving tribute to a lost family member and a deft microhistory of the war that helped to preserve South Korea’s sovereignty.
Part history lesson, part family story, Tom Gormley’s memoir A Korean War Odyssey is about a quest to find out what happened to a relative during the Korean War.
Prior to Tom and Sandy Gormley’s research, the couple knew Sandy’s uncle, Donald Matley, most in terms of a photograph: a picture of a skinny, red-haired eighteen-year-old in an army uniform that sat on a shelf in Sandy’s mother’s kitchen. They knew that he had been listed as MIA, and that efforts were still underway to find and identify the missing. In 2010, the couple attended a POW/MIA briefing near Washington, DC, that detailed such efforts. Their curiosity about Donald inspired years of investigation into his role in the Korean War, the manner of his death, and the location of his remains. Their digging paid off.
The short chapters are smartly arranged; they alternate between information about the war itself, and particularly Donald’s activities as a mortarman with the Nineteenth Infantry, and the couple’s efforts to find information about him. Included in this chapter rotation is the story of Kyu, a fictional South Korean farmer and his family; Kyu takes flight, with hundreds of thousands of countrymen, as the ruthless North Korean troops advance to the south. Their journey takes place during the early months of the war in which Donald went missing; in that Kyu and his family are represented as typical South Korean refugees, their story contributes to the Gormleys’ hunger to understand the foreign war and the reasons for US intervention.
Attention to detail, and meticulous documentation and record keeping, are evident throughout. The book is preceded by a map of the war zone and a dated chapter list. At its end, a bibliography, an index, and an informative list of important characters are included. Dates mark events, documents, and correspondence; often, photographs of letters and characters are provided. Some of these details are drawn from the firsthand accounts of veterans regarding the battles which Donald fought in. Combined, these features ensure credibility and support a clear picture of the progression of the war, Donald’s movements in it, and the cost in human lives.
The book’s descriptions of the process of locating and identifying Donald’s remains is just one example of the combination of luck, attention to detail, and dogged determination that marked the couple’s research efforts. Evidence of an important clue for the identification of Donald’s remains comes in the form of a dental record dating back to 1946. A climactic, bittersweet ending provides closure—for Donald’s family, the war, and the book—as the remains of the fallen soldier are brought home to for burial amid attention from media and well-wishers.
In addition to serving as a tribute to a lost family member, A Korean War Odyssey is a microhistory of the war that helped to preserve South Korea’s sovereignty.
A Korean War Odyssey: Bringing Home Uncle Donnie - MIA in Korea Since 1950
by Tom Gormley
book review by Nicole Yurcaba
"One came home and was buried immediately, and one came home sixty-six years later. Two were buried on the same day in the same century back in their hometown. Only in America could this happen."
Gormley's book embarks on a decades-long journey to tell the story of how Corporal Donald Matney disappeared during The Forgotten War. The narrative follows the journey of a fictional refugee family fleeing the North Korean invasion, fusing this with historical facts about how the Korean War ultimately opened the gate for another of America’s controversial encounters: The Vietnam War. Readers then encounter the despair and grief of families from all across America who still search for the remains and details about the disappearances of their loved ones, while learning about the intricate process that the U.S. Government initiates to help families find those who disappeared and return them to their rightful place—home.
This book provides insight as to why finding those lost in war matters to families and the nation. It also helps readers understand the decades-long process that the U.S. Government and families engage in so that the remains of those lost in war might be returned home. With engaging facts about the forensics process involved for such reclamations, the author’s work will appeal to those who are interested in the forensics side of both history and current events. The text also strongly depicts the long-lasting consequences of war on families, which makes it a must-read for anyone interested in the social, political, and generational aspects of military conflict. Anyone interested in East Asian history as it relates to U.S. history and U.S. military history will appreciate this book. Those looking for a unique blend of fiction, biography, and autobiography will also appreciate Gormley’s work for its genre-bending conventions.
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