In this July photo, Fred DeSimone of New Britain, Conn., and his daughter Lana Ogrodnik of Waterbury, Conn., look through a photo album of photos of Fred's brother Nicholas DeSimone Jr., who went missing while serving in Korea in July 1953. While helping her father organize his New Britain home, Ogrodnik found a stack of letters from Nicholas. (Jim Shannon / Republican-American via AP)
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In this July photo, Lana Ogrodnik of Waterbury, Conn., looks at a photo of her uncle Nicholas DeSimone Jr., who went missing while serving in Korea July 13, 1953. While helping her father organize his New Britain home, Ogrodnik found a stack of old letters from Nicholas. (Jim Shannon / Republican-American via AP)
WATERBURY, Conn. — The letters, written in pencil in the uncertain half-cursive of a 25-year-old soldier, sat on a bookshelf in a New Britain home for 59 years.
After Nicholas DeSimone Jr. was declared missing following a July 13, 1953, battle in the Korean War, someone tucked the two dozen letters he wrote to his family in a safe spot. Later, the letters would be joined by posthumously awarded medals and updates from the military on recovery efforts for the remains of those presumed killed in action.
Lana Ogrodnik of Waterbury, DeSimone's niece, stumbled upon the letters while cleaning the home where Nicky grew up and where her parents now live. Outside, next to the American flag, waves a black POW/MIA flag.
Ogrodnik's mother was pregnant with her when Nicky went missing. (Ogrodnik's father, Fred DeSimone, is Nicky's older brother.)
"So Mary is going to have a baby, it about time she has a boy," Nicky wrote in a letter dated July 12, 1953, a day before the battle in which many think he died. "I think I will be home by the time she has the baby."
The simplicity of his missives, with misspellings and poor grammar, touched Ogrodnik. She grew up hearing about her uncle's easygoing nature, but the letters, mostly written to his mother — who had a nervous breakdown when her fourth child was declared missing — brought him to life. Nicky was a corporal in Company C, 461st Infantry Battalion (Heavy Mortar).
His letters mention training in California — and a wish to have stayed and "made a love picture with Marilyn Monroe" — and a rough ride on a ship to Japan, followed by a nondescript train ride to Korea. The letters, and a black-bound photo album of snapshots, are all Nicky's family has of him. They still hope some piece of him will be found in North Korea, something they can bury beneath his military plaque in a New Britain cemetery.
They are not alone. More than 7,500 Americans remain unaccounted for from the Korean War, according to the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office, or DPMO. By comparison, there are 73,000 missing from World War II.
Ogrodnik and her sister, Linda Beder of Ohio, do what they can to find information about their uncle. Beder trolls websites run by veterans and sends letters to those who might have known Nicky. She found one man who remembered him but offered scant details.
"He was always talked about and always there ... and I think when someone is missing like that, they loom larger than if they had lived," said Beder, who was a toddler when her uncle went missing. "I grew up with him as part of my life, even though I never had a relationship with him."
The sisters especially want to find answers for the sake of their father, Fred DeSimone, now 85. DeSimone described Nicky as a "good brother." Shortly before Nicky was drafted into the service, he built a cottage in East Hampton.
"He'd buy new furniture for the place and give it to us, and take the old stuff for himself," DeSimone said of Nicky, who stopped school after 8th grade. "He was a go-getter. He had a brand-new car and worked in construction."
Thinking of the day he drove Nicky to the train station en route to basic training, DeSimone said, "I knew I'd never see him again. ... I just got that feeling, and I had tears in my eyes. But Nicky wasn't scared to go. He was a good-luck guy, and that's one of the reasons he got killed. He volunteered for extra duty so he could get extra points."
DeSimone is referring to the few details available about what were likely Nicky's final moments in the Battle of Kumsong Salient. Chinese Communist forces launched their largest offensive in the final two years of the war, which had evolved into trench warfare similar to World War I. The North Koreans and Chinese outnumbered the American, South Korean and United Nations forces. Nicky's company was providing fire support to South Korean units. He and two others were dispatched to the front lines to find enemy targets and call in the coordinates.
On the evening of July 13, Defense Department documents state, "An overwhelming number of Communist Chinese attacked the South Korean positions, including the post where Cpl. DeSimone was stationed. ... The wave couldn't be stopped, and ... with complete disregard for his own safety and rather than surrender, Cpl. DeSimone radioed in his own coordinates and called the artillery and mortar fire down on his own post and all the Chinese troops surrounding it."
A letter to Nicky's parents from a soldier who was with him offered more details:
"We were all in the bunker when the Chinese overran our position. The last I know of Nick when he told me he was hit. I don't know because it was dark. An hour later the Chinese came ... Nick was laying there. I don't know for sure if he was dead, but if he wasn't dead, they would have been taken prisoner with me. After I was repatriated, I inquired about Nick and Lt. Cox and all they told me that they were still missing. I honestly believe both Lt. Cox and Nick are dead, but I hope and pray for a miracle."
The offensive lasted one week. Communist forces drove the Allied line south six miles, but that gain came with a heavy price with 28,000 Communist soldiers killed. The large loss, historians say, helped spur the acceptance of peace accords one week later.
A year after the battle, DPMO sent the DeSimone family a letter that said because "none of the 4,400 repatriated American POWs — including one of Cpl. DeSimone's comrades who had been captured in the same combat where Cpl. DeSimone was lost — had ever seen him in enemy hands, a legal presumptive finding of death was filed on 14 July 1954."
Nicky was posthumously awarded a Bronze Star with a "V," for valor, and a Purple Heart.
Despite evidence to the contrary, some members of his family chose to believe he had gotten away somehow, that he met a nice girl and started a family in Korea or China.
"For years, I think they held out hope that he would walk through the door," Ogrodnik said of her family.
Instead, Nicky, wearing his military uniform, smiles from a sepia-toned portrait that hangs in the DeSimone living room.
"I think about how young he was and how he had his whole life ahead of him," Ogrodnik said.
Especially poignant is a letter to Nicky from Ogrodnik's mother. It was dated July 26, 1953, and returned to sender: "Dearest Nicky! Just a few lines to let you know we just heard the wonderful news about the Korean Peace treaty. It came over a special news broadcast. I cried like a baby and am so glad for your sake. I hope you get home a lot sooner now."
Fred DeSimone doesn't remember how his family learned Nicky was missing — if it was via telegram or if someone came to the house. But he knows his mother, who regularly sent her son packages of Italian cookies and dried sausage, "went berserk ... Nicky was her baby, and they were very close," he said.
Nicky's letters almost always downplayed hardships and expressed concern for his family. In one, dated June 2, 1953, he talked about winning $800 playing cards. He sent half of the money home and gave the other half to a sergeant traveling to Japan to buy Nicky's mother nice china.
"If you need any money, take all you want and buy dad something for his birthday," Nicky scribbled. "The only thing you do for me to make things more pleasant for me is to not worry about me ok mom and tell dad to."
Nearly six decades later, the special china from Japan is stashed away, but memories and hopes about the son who sent it linger.
"Intellectually, you know that even if we found a bone fragment, we'd be lucky. Emotionally, there is never that closure," Beder said. "For my father, I would like to see remains found. No one is at peace because he's not really home."