On Sunday, the St. Petersburg Times begins coverage marking the 50th anniversary of the end of the Korean War. Thousands of those veterans live in the Tampa Bay area, many with stories to share. Today a preview: Return to sender.
The letters kept coming - nearly 100 each day - addressed to the dead and missing.
A courier would arrive and climb atop a box, or maybe a Jeep seat, and yell, "Mail call!" And the men would come running.
The courier would shout the names, one by one: "Smith! Johnson! Jones!"
Too often, as 82-year-old James Miles remembers, no one answered back. And so the letters came to him.
Miles, then 29, had taken over as commander of K Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, a day after a Chinese attack wiped out all but 38 enlisted men. The day before, the company had at least 150.
It was October 1950, just north of the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. "Colder than a welldigger's a-- in January," Miles remembers.
His men had dug a command post into the side of a 75-foot-high hill for shelter. They covered the opening with ponchos at night.
In that cave, on a mattress of straw taken from a nearby farm, Miles spent hours with those letters. On each one he wrote the date, then "MIA" or "KIA," then he signed: "J.S. Miles."
He never opened them, tried never to think about what they said, just sent all those unread words back across the Pacific.
"The pure, sheer drudgery of having to sit there and sign off on somebody's life - you divorce yourself from it as much as humanly possible," said Miles, who lives in Largo. "But letter after letter, that begins to gnaw at you. It begins to reach in and grab you."
The letters kept coming for weeks, then finally dwindled. He signed every one. He sent them all back, with one exception.
One day a package came, wrapped in brown paper and plastered with postage stamps. Inside, he found a bushel of apples. He knew they would not survive the return trip to America.
So he took them to a platoon sergeant and told him to divide them among the living men with whom the missing soldier had served.