Arcata Korean War hero returns home for good

Sgt. Elden C. Justus arrives at Paul's Chapel Monday night. KLH | Union

Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union

ARCATA – A heady week for the children of Sgt. Elden Charles Justus was only the prelude for this week, when the formerly Missing In Action Korean War soldier returned home to Arcata.

Lois Justus Hyman and Jack Justis were small children when their father went off to war, never to return – until now.

Lost in the historic 1950 Battle of Chosin Reservoir in North Korea, the Arcata patriot was Missing In Action until located and gathered by a U.S. forensic team in 2004.

An image from the briefing book depicting the foxhole grave in which Elden Justus's remains were located.

Justus's remains were found commingled with those of four other U.S. soldiers and one Republic of Korea soldier in a mass grave.

Using advanced DNA identification and other forensic techniques, Sgt. Justus’s remains were conclusively identified, with his now-elderly children notified in April.

Tragically, according to the DoD report, the grave site appeared to have been looted not long before the American recovery team arrived.

Sgt. Justus is carried from the plane at Sacramento International Airport on Monday, July 8, 2019. Photo courtesy Lois Justus Hyman

Monday, his body arrived at Sacramento International Airport. There, he was to be greeted by a military honor guard, various Dept. of Defense officials along with Lois and Jack.

From there, a motorcade including American Legion Freedom Riders and AmVets escorted Justus west up Interstate 5, then west on State Route 20 so as to pass Elk’s Lodges, members of which wished to greet the cortège. 

It then followed U.S. Highway 101, arriving at Paul’s Chapel in Arcata Monday night.

Photo by KLH | Union

As Justus lie in honor at the mortuary, days of solemn gatherings were planned. 

A ceremony is planned for the Eureka Elks Lodge at 11 a.m. on Thursday, July 11. 

Justis will then be interred at Greenwood Cemetery with a full honor guard and a representative from the South Korean Consulate in San Francisco. 

Following the burial, a reception will be held at the Arcata Veterans Memorial Building.

American Legion Post 274 Commander Jeff Sterling with Jack Justus and Lois Justus Hyman addressing the monthly Legion meeting last Friday night. KLH | Union

Honored guests 

The Justus siblings were honored guests at the Vets Hall Friday evening, where they attended the Monthly Dinner and Membership meeting for American Legion Post 274. 

Also in attendance was Humboldt State University President Tom Jackson, a Coast Guard Reserve veteran and American Legionnaire. 

Jack and Lois meet Humboldt State president Tom Jackson. KLH | Union

Following the sumptuous spaghetti dinner, Lois addressed attendees and related the tale of her father’s life, his recovery, and of her very changed life since that fateful April day.

She said that on first hearing her husband’s voicemail relating news of the recovery, she thought it was a big mistake. But it wasn’t.

Sgt. Justus's portrait at Paul's Chapel. KLH | Union

An Arcata patriot's end

Her father, a 1945 Arcata High School graduate, enlisted in the military in October of that year. 

He was trained in Fort Sill, Okla. as an artillery officer, then sent to Germany. There, he met his wife and Jack and Lois’s mother, Ruth Boensel.

In 1949, Sgt. First Class Elden Justus re-enlisted in the Army. In January, 1950, the family came home to the U.S., and he was stationed in Camp Carson, near Colorado Springs, Colorado.   

Sgt. Justus. Photos courtesy Lois Hyman Justus

Sgt. Justus. Photos courtesy Lois Hyman Justus

In September, Elden left for Japan, and then his Korean posting. 

There, according to a report given Lois and Jack by the Department of Defense’s POW/MIA Accounting Agency, he was one of 2,500 American and 700 Republica of Korea soldiers assigned to the 31st Regimental Combat Team.

The 31st RCT was deployed to the east side of Chosin Reservoir on Nov. 27 to secure a supply route before attacking north toward the Manchurian border. Gen. Douglas MacArthur had planned to drive the North Korean army north of the Yalu River, which separates North Korea and China.

But China flooded the zone with troops, surrounding allied forces and inflicting heavy casualties. Conditions were harrowing and hero-making as the American and ROK forces, enduring sub-freezing temperatures, were forced to regroup, consolidate with surviving troops, and carry on.

On Dec. 1, the 31st RCT was ordered to retreat. According to the DoD report, trucks loaded with dead and wounded and the surviving soldiers began to retreat southward. 

After bypassing a blown-out bridge, says the report, the convoy was halted at Hill 1221 by a wooden road block and machine gun fire. 

A Defense Dept. map showing the area of the battle in which Elden Justus was killed.

Under siege by Chinese forces, the 31st RCT mounted repeated, “costly” attacks and were able to proceed south. 

But low ammunition, equipment losses, the brutal cold and compounding casualties eventually shattered the unit. 

it was during this period, on Dec. 6, that Sgt. Elden Justus was killed, likely by mortar or artillery shell.

After remaining troops had been evacuated, it was impossible to return to the area and recover any fallen soldiers. 

Fewer than half of the 31st RCT survived the ordeal.

Survivors were unable to relate any details of Justus’s death, and in July 1953, the MIA soldier was declared presumed dead.

His family back home knew of the general circumstances in which their husband and father died, but no details. 

Meanwhile, their mother remarried but always wished for Elden to be found, Lois told her, “Mom, that’s not going to happen. We need to forget about that.”

“Well, it did,” Lois told the Legion Friday night, “and here we are today, 70 and 72 years old, preparing to bury our third parent.”

Jack Justus and Lois Hyman Justus. KLH | Union

'It's a process'

Lois said the recovery and return of her father hasn’t provided closure, which she considered a “trite” term. But it has provided what she calls resolution. 

“It’s a process, and will remain a process for some time,” she said.

One of the most trying facts is that the remains were recovered in 2004 when her mother was still alive, but notification didn’t come until this year, and she was never able to know her husband’s fate or put him properly to rest.

“We just hope that all the others recovered in that recovery process have been or will be sent back to their families,” Lois said.

“He was raised in Arcata, he’s a home boy, and he’s coming home,” Lois said.

SFC Elden Justus will be posthumously awarded a Purple Heart, an Army Good Conduct Medal, World War II Victory Medal, a National Defense Service Medal with two Bronze Service Stars, a Presidential Unit Citation-Navy, a United Nations Service medal and a Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation.

Monday evening, Sgt. Elden Charles Justus arrived in Arcata for the first time since he left in 1950. The public may pay their respects at Paul's Chapel, 1070 H St., Tuesday and Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.