After 70 years, David Clevenger doubted he would ever hear again about his Uncle Leon, who disappeared long ago during combat in the Korean War.
But the seemingly impossible happened, and now the remains of Army Cpl. Leon E. Clevenger, a young man from Arkansas who moved to Durham as a teenager, then shipped out to Korea, will be home again.
“It’s heartwarming to us,” said David Clevenger, Leon’s nephew who lives in Durham. “We always had hope that something would turn up, but after 70 years or so, you start wondering if it would really still happen or not.”
His uncle was 21 years old when he went missing in the Korean War on July 11, 1950, in combat against the North Korean People’s Army. His unit was overrun near present-day Sejong City, South Korea, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA).
On Dec. 11, his remains will be buried in eastern Durham at Oak Grove Memorial Gardens, in a military section near where his younger brother, who was a Marine, is also buried, Clevenger said.
The burial will cap off a journey years in the making — from when he disappeared to when his remains were finally identified nearly 70 years later.
Army declares missing soldier dead
A chain of events made the return of Clevenger’s remains possible.
Leon Clevenger was an infantryman assigned to Company K, 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division. The DPAA said details of his death are unknown, just that he died “at some point” after he disappeared.
In 1951, the body of an unidentified American soldier was recovered in the village of Kalgo-Ri, about 3 miles from Clevenger’s last known location, according to a news release. The remains were taken to a U.S. military cemetery in Tanggok, now known as the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Korea.
The remains, referred to as Unknown X-2258, were sent to Kokura, Japan, for processing but couldn’t be identified. They were then buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, known as the Punchbowl, in Honolulu, Hawaii.
In 1953, three years after he went missing, the Army declared him deceased after he had not been found.
The Department of Defense disinterred Clevenger’s remains in December 2018 and sent them to a DPAA laboratory, where a DNA sample from the Clevenger family was sent. There, his remains were finally matched to a name and a face.
The laboratory identified Clevenger Sept. 9. 2019 using circumstantial and material evidence, including dental anthropological and mitochondrial DNA analysis, the U.S. Army said.
Now, a rosette will be placed next to Clevenger’s name at the Punchbowl, to indicate that he’s been accounted for.
On Dec. 11, a private service for Clevenger’s family will be held at Bright’s Funeral Home in Wake Forest followed by a service open to the public at 9 a.m.
Shortly after his family learned he was missing, Leon Clevenger’s younger brother — David’s father — joined the U.S. Marine Corps
“He was definitely a family man,” said David Clevenger. “He took care of his family from overseas when he was there in Korea, until the time of his capture. All of my dad’s brothers served in the military. They were very patriotic guys, that loved their country and served for the country.”
The military reports that over 7,500 U.S. service remembers from the Korean War still remain unaccounted for.
Although his brothers and parents are no longer alive to witness the return of his remains, the family is finally receiving closure.
“It’s an uplifting story,” Clevenger said. ”There’re still a lot of people out there who have family members who are missing in action, and even when it seems bleak and you don’t think it’s going to happen, it can still happen.”
The Durham Report
Calling Bull City readers! We've launched The Durham Report, a free weekly digest of some of the top stories for and about Durham published in The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. Get your newsletter delivered straight to your inbox every Thursday at 11 a.m. featuring links to stories by our local journalists. Sign up for our newsletter here. For even more Durham-focused news and conversation, join our Facebook group "The Story of my Street."