Family of Sgt. Bernie Britton receives his service medals 52 years after his death

By Rozella Hardin
STAR Staff
rhardin@starhq.com

   Jane Britton Rockel was only 15 years old -- a freshman in high school -- when her father, Sgt. Bernie Bell Britton, left one October day in 1950 to serve his country in the Korean conflict.
   "He shouldn't have had to go," said Rockel from her present home in Sarasota, Florida. "My father had served during World War II and was recalled for active duty for Korea. In six months he was dead. But, we never knew it until three years later," she explained.
   Just a few weeks ago Rockel received her father's prisoner-of-war medal as well as the combat infantryman's badge, the Korean service medal, the United Nations service medal, the national defense service medal and the Korean War service medal from the U.S. Department of Defense. "My mother had received his purple heart medal, not long after the war was over," Rockel said.
   The Brittons were living in Elizabethton when Bernie was re-called to active duty. A Johnson City native, he was married to Wilmetta Patton, who grew up on Powder Branch and was a descendant of Mary Patton of Revolutionary War fame.
   Britton was a partner with his brother-in-law, Roy Meredith, in the grocery business when he was re-called to active duty.
   He was 40 years old when he said goodbye to his quiet, brunette wife -- whose friends called her "Bill" -- and to his daughters, Jodie, then 11 years old, and Jane, 15.
   Britton was what the military fraternity calls a "retread", a soldier who serves in one war then gets reassigned to another. Britton had been a soldier in World War II and was recalled to active duty in the Korean conflict. He had listened to the military's appeal for veterans to bolster the national defense structure by remaining on reserve status.
   Britton joined the Reserve and was placed on the inactive list more than a year before he received his call to report for a physical examination after the start of the Korean conflict.
   Sgt. Britton was a skilled technical man during World War II. He was a tank man, a maintenance expert and not a combat man. Britton served for more than two years during World War II -- a comparatively old man as soldiers go -- and was in charge of a maintenance repair shop at Fort Knox, Kentucky at the time of his discharge. His skill and training were not lost after he left active service because his Reserve status kept them alive.
   It was skill and training still of great use to a nation at war that caused Britton's recall to active duty. Or, so they told him.
   So suddenly did it all occur -- the order to report, the physical exam, the call to active service -- that Britton could hardly believe what was happening. He asked for a 30-day deferment to place his affairs in order at home. Only 30 days. "Impossible," he was told. "The Army needs men with your qualifications, needs you now. Our armored units are in battle. Your technical knowledge will help keep them there. Deferment denied," the notice read.
   Britton was shipped to Fort Hood, Texas, an armored force training center, but was never given the opportunity to do the job the Army had trained him to do or to use the skill the Army told him was needed so badly. Instead, he was shoved into the infantry, handed a rifle, given 18 days training altogether and shipped to the Far East. He arrived in Japan on Dec. 13, 1950, two months to the day after he left for active duty. Two months later on Feb. 13, 1951, Britton was reported missing in action. Two months after that he was dead in a filthy Korean prison called the Bean Camp.
   According to Elizabethton resident Phil Ellis, who is a volunteer with the Repatriation and Family Affairs Division of the Korean Casualty Office at the Department of Defense in Washington, D.C., Britton was wounded and captured at the Battle of Wonju. The battle was one of the bloodiest of the war. Captured soldiers were taken to the Suan Bean Camp, one of the worst prison camps in North Korea.
   A report secured by Ellis from the Defense Department reads: "We have two reports of his capture, on 13 or 14 February, perhaps during the night between. Wounded, SFC Britton was not able to keep up with the main flow of prisoners as they worked their way first to the west to cross the Imjin River, then northward to reach Suan Bean Camp in mid-March. Yet, he did arrive there, probably in one of several follow-up groups that marched along slowly or were carried, at least part way, in oxcarts. By this time SFC Britton was gravely ill, as shock and pneumonia compounded the effects of his injuries. Having served honorably and well, he expired among his companions at the Suan Bean Camp, and was buried among others on a low hillside overlooking the village."
   Britton's daughter, Jane, who graduated from Elizabethton High School in 1952, said her family found out three years later that her father was dead. "I was attending nursing school at the Baptist Hospital in Memphis when we learned that he had died in a prison camp," she said.
   "When the war was over and North Korea and the United States were exchanging prisoners, we would wait by the radio and listen for the names to be called, hoping that my father's name would be among them. It was never called," said Rockel.
   After the war, a prison buddy, a boy from Kansas, wrote Britton's family that he had buried Bernie on the day after his death, April 7, 1951. "My father and his prison buddy had made a pact that if one of them should survive the war and prison camp, they would contact the other's family," Rockel said.
   In October 1953, Britton's widow received a letter from an organization called American Ex-Prisoners of War, Inc., with headquarters in Bellvue, Washington. Enclosed was the letter from Cpl. Edwin Werth of Selina, Kansas, telling of Bernie's capture and subsequent death. "He was one of my best POW buddies," Werth wrote. A year later, in 1954, official announcement of his death was received from the U.S. government.
   Britton's remains have never been recovered. Ellis, also a Korean veteran, said 75 prisoners of war are buried in the same area Britton is. "We cannot get access to the area to get the remains; that is, if they are still there," he said.
   Although Britton's widow, who will be 90 years old in December, received his purple heart, the family had never received his other medals. With the help of Ellis, the medals were recently mailed to his daughter, Jane.
   According to Ellis, many of the records of Korean War MIAs and POWs had never been updated. "When Jane began trying to get information about her father and how to go about getting his medals, she was told there was no record of his serving. That's when I began working on the matter, and this fall, she received the medals 52 years after the fact. It's sad that they were sent to her via mail. But, Congressman Bill Jenkins did write a letter to her," Ellis explained.
   "I know that my father was really a good Christian man. He was a good father, and was strict on me and my sister. At least, it seemed that we had an earlier curfew than anyone else," said Rockel, who moved to Sarasota to be near her mother after living 28 years in New Jersey. Her sister, Jodie, lives in Alabama.
   Rockel's mother moved to Raleigh, North Carolina in 1954 and remarried, then later moved to Sarasota. "My mother married Russell Buffaloe, a Presbyterian minister. My family had become acquainted him when he pastored a church in Kingsport. My father had served as an elder in his church," she said.
   In the meantime, Buffaloe, whose wife had died, had moved to North Carolina. "When he heard about my father's death, he contacted my mother, and from there the relationship grew," Rockel shared.
   Britton was among an estimated 6,000 Americans who died in captivity in a war that was never declared. He served with the 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division.
   Bernie Britton evidently believed that his country needed him, and needed his experience and know-how. Instead, he was given a gun and marched off to war as an infantryman with little training. Wonder if Bernie Britton ever thought he had been betrayed by his country?
   "I'm sure my father loved his country. Although I think he could have served his country better in maintenance than in combat, war is war. He didn't have a choice once they said, 'go,'" his daughter said.
   Rockel occasionally visits Elizabethton and old friends. "I was there last year for my high school reunion. I used to come every year to see my aunt, Jo Meredith, but since her death, I usually make it back about every five years," she said, noting that she has fond memories of Elizabethton.
   "We were raised in church. My father was always active in church, and that is one of the best memories I have of him," she said.
   A testament to his faith is the pulpit Bible at Memorial Presbyterian Church, which was given by his widow and daughters in his memory. Britton was a charter member and one of the first elders at the church, where some members still fondly remember him and his service. A memorial to him by the church was placed inside the fly leaves of the Bible.
   The memorial in part reads: "He was elected an elder in Memorial Church the same day he was received as a charter member, and he served this church faithfully and well ... He was a man of strong Christian character ... and his influence for good was felt by all who knew him."