BEECH GROVE, Ind. - It was a long time coming, but 63 years after Pfc. James L. Constant gave his life, the Korean War veteran was laid to rest near Indianapolis.
“Every service member’s service means something; every one of them,” said Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Hepfer, an observer coach/trainer with 1-335th Infantry Regiment, 205th Infantry Brigade, First Army Division East. “Somebody had to explain to the family how much we appreciate not only his sacrifice but his family’s sacrifice.”
Hepfer had a unique connection to Constant, the men served in the same U.S. Army company, regiment, and division - “A” Company, 1-23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division - 50 years apart.
However, being a part of the 2nd Infantry Division is like being part of a family, Hepfer explained. He had studied the battle of Naktong Bulge, near Changnyong, he had read the reports, and talked to the men who served with Constant.
When he found out Constant’s remains had been identified he wanted to stand with the family and tell them what he had learned.
Constant, just 19, faced overwhelming odds, 10 to 1, as the 2nd Infantry Division attempted to defend a 12 mile front on the Pusan perimeter in late August 1950.
“James and the rest of Able Company were assigned the western flank of the regimental position. On the night of Aug. 31, heavy shelling began to fall on the 23rd’s battle position and the entire 2nd North Korean Infantry Division began to lay siege upon the 23rd,” said Hepfer, from Pendleton, Ind. “The regimental commander gave the order for the battalion to withdraw, yet Able Company stayed to hold the western flank. They knew, that if they too, were to begin their withdraw, the battalion would quickly become enveloped.”
The 1st Battalion attempted to move south to reconnect with the 2nd Battalion in reserve; however the North Koreans held positions along their route. With the nearest friendly position more than three miles away, the 1st Battalion found itself surrounded and isolated.
“They spent the next three days sustaining themselves through air drops and continued to disrupt North Korean movements,” Hepfer continued. “By Sept. 4, the 1st Battalion had finally reconnected with the rest of the regiment, but the once 1,100 man strong Battalion was now down to a mere 600 men.”
On Sept. 8, in an attempt to move eastward, the North Korea 2nd ID attacked the 23rd perimeter again. Supported by heavy artillery, covered by darkness, and hidden by the roar of heavy rain, the North Korean division was gaining ground.
“It became immediately obvious that if Fox Company’s line did not hold the entire perimeter would collapse,” Hepfer said.
First Lt. Ralph Robinson, the adjutant of 2nd Battalion, took Pfc. James Constant and the rest of his reserve platoon from Able Company and moved them nearly 1,000 meters through the dark and heavy rain and expertly guided them into the gaps in Fox Company’s line.”
The attack continued for four days – tapering off each day and resuming again each night – at one point the regimental reserve was down to six men.
“But the 23rd held,” Hepfer said with force. “The 2nd Infantry Division lost 1,300 men and had 2,500 wounded in the fighting west of Changnyong.”
The North Korean 2nd ID started with 6,000 men, the 9th with 9,350 – only a couple hundred from each of the divisions returned home.
“Rare is the soldier who is comfortable hearing himself called a hero. Even fewer still are those who will never hear it … Pfc. Constant became one such hero on that night, Sept. 8, 1950,” Hapfer said. “His sacrifice allowed the 23rd to survive and allowed the eventual destruction of his foes, but more importantly, the survival of his friends.”
The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) faces a herculean task. Nearly 90,000 Americans are unaccounted for, and some six MIAs are identified each month by the command. On average, the organization’s 500 soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Navy civilians have 1,000 active cases on their hands. In 2012, analysts from JPAC determined that using new technology would help identify remains recovered from the area near Changnyong, South Korea.
Constant was laid to rest next to his brother Leroy and near his parents, William and Jessie Constant. His surviving sisters, Better Kelley, Margaret Rigdon, and a nephew, R.C. Rigdon, were present at the ceremony.
Several Korean War veterans also paid their respects.
“We are a living representation of the guys who died, to keep their memory alive, we stay active,” said John M. Quinn, who secured radar and power sites as an airman during the war.
Quinn said he watched as the last of the United Nations troops evacuated Pyongyang in 1950, just a month after Constant’s fateful battle. Quinn returned home to Central Indiana in 1952.
For the other veterans it was more than remembering, it was honoring the service and sacrifice made by so many young men and women.
“Whether you died there or today, you are still a veteran,” said Donald Hall, who was a petroleum oil and lubricants specialist in the Army during the Korean War.
Andy Shirley, the assistant state captain for the Patriot Guard Riders, agreed.
“It’s about honor and respect for all of our military, those from the past and those who are still serving. A lot of our members are Vietnam vets and we remember how we were treated back then and we vowed not to let that happen again,” said Shirley, a culinary specialist who served in the Indiana National Guard during the Vietnam War. “No matter what your politics are, you have to support the service members and their families.”
R.C. Rigdon, Constant’s great-great-grandnephew and an Iraq War veteran himself, said his family was amazed by the support they received from the community, veteran’s organizations, but mostly to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii.
“Today my family’s prayers were answered, but there are still families out there waiting,” said Rigdon. “Everyone deserves to come home.”
Rigdon said he was grateful for everyone’s support but particularly to the the JPAC in Hawaii.
“They deserve a lot of the credit. If they weren’t as diligent as they are, this wouldn’t have been possible,” he said.