Leah Gernetzke
Missing-in-action soldier memorialized in Rhinelander

Published in The Lakeland Times

In the days that Minocqua and Woodruff were sleepy, idyllic towns carved out of the forest, children spent their days inventing games under the tree-filtered sunlight, only returning indoors when street lights flickered and their mothers called.

These are the halcyon days Leila Streich, Janet Bailey and Billy Rudolph still remember. Streich and Bailey’s uncle and Rudolph’s best friend, Bill Buck, who was memorialized Wednesday, Nov. 11 at the Rhinelander court house, is an integral part of their nostalgia.

“I just remember he and Billy were always running around together, always in trouble,” Streich said. “In those days it was normal … they did all kinds of things.”

Streich and Bailey lived next door to their uncle in Woodruff until his parents passed away when he was 16. After their passing, he lived with a variety of relatives, none of whom could handle an energetic 16-year-old. So Buck turned instead to Uncle Sam, who was having unexpected trouble handling his formidable military enemy, North Korea.

“He enlisted at the age of 17,” Streich said. “At the time, it was the exciting thing to do.”

During the early summer of 1950 when Buck was deployed, the Korean war was in its gruesome beginning and the North Korean People’s Army (KPA), steeled by their recent three-year civil war with China, quickly overturned the comparatively inexperienced South Korean army.

With these actions, America’s political landscape transformed as quickly as Buck’s childhood faded. American troops sent to Japan as peacekeepers were hastily redeployed to the Korean combat zone. Underprepared, the regiments had two, instead of the usual three, battalions, and were quickly defeated by the KPA.

The American and South Korean troops focused instead on slowing the KPA’s advance until more American troops arrived. Their efforts came at a steep price; the month of July saw 6,000 casualties.

Buck, who was a Private First Class in the Mortar company, 34th infantry regiment, 24th infantry division, continued fighting into August. According to the loss incident summary report compiled by the defense prisoner of war/missing personnel office, at this time the army was pushed back to a 100-mile front surrounding the Pusan Harbor.

Buck and the rest of the 34th infantry regime’s defensive perimeter was along the Naktong river.

In the early dawn of August 6, 1950, 800 KPA soldiers crossed the Naktong and slipped unchallenged to the village Yongsan.

Buck and his company, who were located 6 km west of Yongsan according to the report, were infiltrated and surrounded by the North Koreans.

While some of the company was able to break free of the encirclement in subsequent days, the rest of the company remained cut off. Buck was presumed to be among the latter. Officially reported missing in action August 6, 1950, a presumptive finding of his death was issued December 31, 1953.

Many years later, Rudolph realized Buck was never included on the veteran’s monument outside the Rhinelander courthouse.

“It’s irritated me for years,” he said.

So together with Tammy Walters, a veterans service officer in Rhinelander, as well as Ray Zastrow, a veteran and member of the veterans service commission, he compiled the necessary information to memorialize Buck.

Now an engraving with his name, which was unveiled by his nieces Streich and Bailey during Wednesday’s memorial service, resides on the Rhinelander veteran’s plaque.

“It’s pretty spectacular, after all this time,” Streich said. “It’s something he deserved.”

Though his name is etched in concrete as a long-standing testament to the horrors of war, Buck’s story still remains alive, with pieces left to compile. Streich said the army has about 220 unidentified remains of soldiers who lost their lives in the Korean war. Currently, they are trying to find a relative on Buck’s maternal side who could match the DNA with the correct remains.

It’s an exhaustive search, Streich said, but one that won’t be put to rest quite yet.