Nearly 70 Years MIA, A Patriot Returns
North Korea's return of American remains brings Glen Lake soldier home again.
By Al Parker | Jan. 25, 2020
Nearly 70 years ago, a young soldier from Glen Lake went missing in action in the Korean War. In July 2018, 65 years after the fighting stopped, North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un allowed the first release of American remains held since. Army Sergeant Walter “Babe” Tobin was found to be one of them. Northern Express takes a personal look at a northern Michigan soldier, the infamous battle he was a part of, and the homecoming his family never thought they’d see.
Growing up in northern Michigan in the 1930s, Walter “Babe” Tobin was a typical outdoors-loving guy who loved mechanical work and cherished his time hunting and fishing.
And following a family tradition, when Babe was old enough, he signed up for a three-year hitch in the U.S. Army. There was no military draft and no war raging when he enlisted on Sept. 14, 1948, but that didn’t matter. The Tobins were a patriotic family, and Babe felt the need to do his part for the nation.
“His dad was in the Marines, and he had brothers in the Navy,” recalled Babe's cousin, Dan Tobin. “So it was natural for him to go into the military.”
A BRIEF PEACE
Babe breezed through basic training at Fort Lewis, Washington, then was shipped to Japan on June 7, 1950.
A little over two weeks later, on June 25, North Korean troops, aided by the Soviet Union and China, invaded South Korea. Within two days, the United Nations responded to the breach of peace by authorizing the dispatch of U.N. forces to repel the invasion. Although 21 nations would eventually send troops, about 90 percent of the military personnel in support of South Korea came from the United States — among them Sgt. Babe Tobin.
He arrived in South Korea on Sept. 7. Three months later, he was reported missing in action.
For the last 69 years, the fate of Babe Tobin was unknown. Then, in July 2018, North Korea turned over the remains of what was thought to be 55 American servicemen, the first of an estimated 200+ soldiers the country has held on to since fighting ceased nearly 60 years prior. (The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) estimates that more than 7,800 Americans who served in the Korean War remain unaccounted for today.)
Using DNA testing and tissue donations from family members, the DPAA was able to identify some of those remains as belonging to Sgt. Tobin. In November, surviving members of the Tobin family gathered at Cherry Capital Airport to welcome Babe home where he belonged.
“My reaction was happiness,” Mary Jane Morehouse told a TV reporter at the time. “Just the fact that he was going to be coming home ... that's what our family wanted was for him to be back home.”
The family's happiness was dampened by the fact that three of the people who’d most yearned for this day didn’t live to see it: both of Babe's parents and his brother.
“I'm a tender-spirited person,” whispered Gene Tobin, a 73-year-old cousin of Babe. “But the news of his death never left my mind. He was the youngest and his parents nicknamed him 'Babe.' Maybe he was a little bit favored.”
Gene, who lives in Greenville northeast of Grand Rapids, recalls visiting Babe's parents, Walt Sr. and Helen, in Leelanau County several times in the years following his cousin's disappearance.
“It was really hard on his dad, Walt Sr.,” said Gene. “He was just engulfed in grief. He would weep right in front of us — tremendous grief, 24/7. Babe may be gone, but he is not forgotten.”
Cindy Wright, a former oncology nurse at Munson Medical Center, is Babe's niece. Her mother was Babe's sister.
Though Wright never personally met her uncle, she knew him through letters that he wrote home to her mother and grandmother.
Wright also lives in the Tobin family home in Leelanau County. “It's incredibly comforting” to live in the home were Babe grew up, she said.
Through Babe's letters, Wright learned about the terrible conditions he and the troops faced in Korea. “It was gruesome over there,” she said. “Things were horrendous.”
“It was really quite a journey that he went through,” she added. “Near the end, he was not the same man who had enlisted.
SO WHAT HAPPENED?
Babe was a member of the 31st Regimental Combat Team, better known as Task Force MacLean and later known as Task Force Faith. His unit was ordered to move north along the east side of the Chosin Reservoir.
Details of the infamous battle come from a 2015 article published by the Historical Army Foundation.
Task Force MacLean, under the command of Col. Allan “Mac” MacLean, had been formed in mid-November of 1950 to relieve the 1st Marine Division east of the Chosin Reservoir. A 1930 graduate of West Point, MacLean had served as a staff officer in Europe during World War II. After the war, he commanded the 32nd Infantry in Japan.
In early November 1950, MacLean eagerly took command of the 31st Infantry, a unit that numbered about 3,200 men, including Sgt. Babe Tobin and 700 Republic of Korea (ROK) soldiers.
Task Force MacLean arrived on the east shore of the Chosin Reservoir on Nov. 27, 1950. MacLean immediately met with Lt. Col. Don Faith, one of the most promising young leaders in the Army.
The son of a brigadier general, Faith had been handpicked from the Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia by Major General Matthew Ridgway to serve as his aide during World War II. Faith served with Ridgway throughout Europe and jumped with the 82nd Airborne Division on D-Day in 1944. In battle, Faith was considered a virtual clone of Ridgway — intense, fearless, aggressive and unforgiving of caution or errors.
MacLean laid out the battle plan to Faith, explaining that the task force would attack north the following day with whatever forces were on hand and that Faith's unit, including Sgt. Babe Tobin would spearhead the assault.
ISOLATED, AND BITTERLY COLD
MacLean and Faith remained confident, even though the unit faced problems. Communications within the scattered units were poor. There was no time to lay landlines and radio communications were virtually non-existent. And the entire task force was not in radio contact with its headquarters or nearby Marine units.
Task Force MacLean was dangerously isolated, not only from the rest of the 7th Infantry Division and Marine units, but also from each other.
Meanwhile Chinese Communist troops were massing to attack. One whole division, more than 20,000 fighters, prepared to attack the 3,200 troops of Task Force MacLean.
November saw a cold front blanket the Korean peninsula. On Nov. 14, temperatures plummeted to -35 Fahrenheit. The cold impacted life on the battlefield. Medics warmed frozen morphine packets in their mouth before they could be used. Frozen blood plasma became useless. Lubricants used on guns turned to gel, clogging the men’s weapons. Springs on firing pins would not strike hard enough, and soldiers risked frostbite if they dared remove any clothing to better handle their equipment for even a brief time.
Those were the conditions when, at about 10pm Nov. 27, the Chinese troops attacked out of the darkness. Soldiers blew bugles and screamed wildly as the troops swarmed toward Task Force MacLean, which repelled the assault.
The next day, unaware of the crisis at hand, Major General Edward Almond announced that Task Force MacLean would press on with the attack, claiming that the Chinese facing them were only the remnants of retreating Communist units.
“We're going all the way to the Yalu (the river that separates Korea from China),” said Almond. “Don't let a bunch of Chinese … stop you.”
MacLean reportedly remained silent, not objecting to Almond's plan to attack. Later both men would be criticized for their failure of command. Almond never fully appreciated the enemy's strength, while MacLean failed to give Almond a clear picture of the dire situation facing his own task force.
At midnight on Nov. 29, the Chinese division attacked Task Force MacLean again. The fighting was savage, often hand to hand. About 2am, MacLean ordered his battalion to withdraw south. The move was to be temporary to consolidate forces before attacking, as ordered by Almond, the next day.
About 5am, after loading wounded troops on to trucks and disabling and abandoning several vehicles, MacLean, Faith, and the task force headed south.
A FATAL MISTAKE
By dawn, the battalion encountered a Chinese roadblock at a bridge on the road. MacLean came forward in his jeep, seeing a column of troops he believed were under his command. But American troops began firing at the column, much to the dismay of MacLean, who initially thought they were under friendly fire.
The column was actually Chinese Communist battle-hardened troops. MacLean, believing they were Americans, ran toward them shouting, “Those are my boys.”
Suddenly Chinese troops fired on MacLean, hitting him several times. Task Force MacLean watched in horror as an enemy soldier grabbed their commander and dragged him into the brush. There was no time to rescue MacLean.
With MacLean gone, Faith assumed command and surveyed the carnage. Hundreds of American and Chinese dead littered the ground. Faith later sent out search parties to look for their commander, with no luck; MacLean was declared missing. Later, an American prisoner of war said MacLean died of his wounds on his fourth day of captivity and was buried by his fellow POWs. He would be the final regimental commander to die in Korea.
On Nov. 29, Faith received orders to withdraw. Still burdened with wounded, the withdrawal was difficult. And at 8pm, Chinese troops launched another attack, causing Task Force Faith another 100 casualties.
ANOTHER LEADER LOST
Faith concluded that his force could not survive another major attack and summoned his remaining officers and ordered them to move out at midnight. After destroying its artillery, mortars and other gear, it began moving south, carrying 600 wounded troops in 30 trucks.
At 1am Nov. 30, the column came under fire. Marine air support came to help, but the lead plane's napalm canister hit the front of the Army column, engulfing several soldiers and creating panic throughout the task force.
Roadblocks held up the task force while Chinese troops kept up their heavy fire. At a hairpin turn, the task force ran into another roadblock. Faith led an assault to clear the Chinese from the site, but he was struck by enemy grenade fragments and fell, mortally wounded.
“When Faith was hit, the task force ceased to exist,” one soldier later said.
Nevertheless, the Chinese again brought heavy fire onto the column, lobbing grenades and firing into the trucks killing masses of wounded.
MARINES TO THE RESCUE
During the nights of Dec. 1 and 2, the remaining survivors inched their way across the frozen reservoir toward a Marine unit. The Marines led a rescue mission across the ice by jeep, picking up over 300 survivors, most suffering from wounds, frostbite, and shock. In all, more than 1,000 survivors reached the Marine lines; only 385 were considered able-bodied.
For many years afterward, the saga of Task Force MacLean/Faith had been largely ignored. Many believed that the collapse and panic that engulfed the task force had brought shame to the Army.
Upon closer examination, the task force's role in the Chosin battle proved to be more noteworthy. Historians now agree that Task Force MacLean blocked the Chinese drive along the eastern side of Chosin for five days and allowed Marines along the west side to withdraw to safety. Furthermore, the task force destroyed the Chinese Communists 80thDivision.
Faith himself was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. And in recognition of their bravery, Task Force MacLean/Faith was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation in 1999.
As for Sgt. Tobin, although his remains have been identified and returned, many questions remain.
Babe's official date of death is Dec. 2, 1950, so it's possible he was one of the those who made it across the icy reservoir to the Marine unit.
Some in the Tobin family wonder if Babe survived but was taken prisoner. “Could he have been a POW?” asked Gene Tobin. “We don't know. There's something in the way certain bodies were identified.”
Nevertheless, understanding the impact he and his unit had on the Korean War and knowing where he now rests — back home in northern Michigan — has offered the family some sense of peace.
Shortly following the return of Tobin’s remains, the family held a public memorial service for their long-lost patriot at the Life Story Funeral Home in Garfield Township. Family, friends, and many strangers gathered for the ceremony.
Babe’s family wasn’t surprised by the turn-out. “Babe's is a story that touched hearts,” said Dan Tobin, who drove up from his home in Hudsonville, near Grand Rapids.
“A mother and her daughter sang at the service,” he added. “The song was 'I'm Coming Home.' It was really a wonderful homecoming.”