Army Pvt. 1st Class Robert Fletcher was captured by Chinese forces in Korea on Nov. 27, 1950, after heavy fighting.
The Buffalo Soldier endured three years in captivity, where he was subjected to starvation, freezing temperatures and physical and psychological torture. He carried these scars until his death Feb. 12.
Thanks to an act of Congress regarding prisoners of war, the native of Ann Arbor, Mich., will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery on June 4.
However, his survivors have joined a growing number of dissatisfied POW families angry that enlisted POWs who survived captivity and made it home are denied full honors — most notably, an escort and the iconic horse-drawn caisson — at the nation’s most hallowed cemetery.
Those honors are reserved for officers and those killed in action.
“It’s just disgusting,” said Fletcher’s daughter, Kanda Fletcher. “My dad fought that war and lived the POW experience until the day he died … and you’re going to sit there and tell my family that my dad can’t be buried with full honors because he wasn’t and could never be an officer? I don’t think it’s right.”
Fletcher is not alone.
“I wanted the caisson because I thought after all he had been through for this country that he deserved that,” said Charlotte Smith, whose husband, Bill, died at 86 in June 2016. He was captured in Korea on Nov. 2, 1950. Like Fletcher, he spent nearly three years in captivity, followed by 15 months recuperating at what was then Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
Before he died, Bill Smith told his wife he wanted to be buried at Arlington with his “band of brothers.”
“When we started the process to bury him in Arlington, I — in my naivety — thought that he would be honored with a full military service, and when I asked for that they said, ‘Oh no, no, he has to be an officer or be killed in action,’” Charlotte Smith said. “I said, ‘Do you mean to tell me that after he spent 2 ½ years and went through the torture that he went through, that he is not entitled to that?’ It’s not right.”
The rules regarding burial and honors at Arlington can be confusing.
Eligibility for former POWs is established by the Code of Federal Regulations, according to Renea Yates, Arlington’s deputy superintendent for cemetery administration. It says any former POW who served honorably and died on or after Nov. 30, 1993, can be buried in-ground there.
A Defense Department instruction titled “Military Funeral Support,” sets a standardized baseline of services to be provided, Yates said. This includes a two-person uniformed detail, the playing of taps, the folding of the flag and presentation to the family of the deceased.
Additional elements such as a rifle detail, color guard, pallbearers, caisson and military flyover “could be provided … if personnel and resources are available,” the Defense Department’s “Military Funeral Honors” website says.
On top of the Defense Department’s standardized guidelines, the veteran’s service branch also has discretion over which, if any, additional honors are bestowed, Yates said. Arlington follows an Army regulation titled “Salutes, Honors and Visits of Courtesy,” as administrator over the cemetery.
The minimum, per the Army regulations, for enlisted servicemembers eligible for in-ground burial provides a casket team, a firing party, the playing of taps by a bugler and a chaplain, which is what Fletcher will receive, Yates said.
Officers eligible for burial at Arlington, as well as E-9 and above, are eligible for “full honors,” which includes an additional escort, a marching element, a band and the horse-drawn caisson.
“The decedent’s branch of service provides the respective military honors for his or her service and the level of military honors rendered depends on the rank of the deceased as well as service customs, traditions and availability,” Arlington spokeswoman Kerry Meeker wrote in a statement to Stars and Stripes. “There are no stipulations that afford prisoners of war different funeral honors.”
The same policy applies to Medal of Honor recipients, Yates said.
Yates said she feels bad that some families walk away from the process unhappy, but said Arlington can barely keep up with the current number of requests.
There are only eight horse-drawn caisson slots per day, and the cemetery performs up to 30 burials, she said. There is a minimum of a four-month wait to receive standard honors at Arlington and a seven- to nine-month wait for full honors and the caisson.
There were 5,071 former POWS living in the United States as of August, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. However, this number may not be complete, as it includes only those in the VA system.
‘Shame on you’
Kanda Fletcher lamented that officers who never stood on the firing line could get full honors at Arlington, but enlisted former POWs could not.
“Shame on you,” she said, directing her anger to the Army and Arlington. “My dad deserves so much more than that.”
Robert Fletcher dropped out of high school at 17 and joined the Army in 1950. In a few short months he was in Japan as a member of the 24th Infantry Regiment, an acclaimed unit of black soldiers and white officers.
When the Korean War started, Fletcher’s regiment was the first to go to the peninsula, he would later tell journalist/filmmaker James Militzer in a 2013 documentary. They arrived at Pusan and pushed toward Seoul.
The North Koreans and Americans took turns wiping each other out. Of the 250 men Fletcher landed with, 212 were killed. The regiment received replacements and rejoined the fight. It wasn’t long before the North Korean army was decimated.
Fletcher’s regiment was sent north to the Yalu River that separates North Korea and China.
The Chinese were waiting for them.
“On Nov. 27 , we got hit with everything but the kitchen stove,” Fletcher recalled.
They lost more than 100 men, including half of Fletcher’s squad. Many, including the unit leadership, were wounded.
“We were caught on a little knoll; we were out of ammunition; I had, I think, a clip left,” Fletcher said in the film. “Some people had four or five rounds … I really don’t know how we could have fought any longer.”
As a unit, the men decided to surrender to the Chinese. Wearing summer clothes, they were marched toward prison camps as temperatures dropped well below freezing.
“A lot of guys froze to death; a lot of guys starved to death; a lot of guys died from wounds,” Fletcher recalled.
They were passed from the Chinese to the North Koreans, who exacted their revenge. Dysentery claimed many men.
“The death rate started climbing,” he said. “I was 180 pounds and I went down to about 90 pounds.”
Fletcher recalled being forced to watch fellow soldiers thrown into a pit alive and eaten by rats, or tied to a tripod and soaked with water repeatedly until they froze to death.
He remained in captivity until Aug. 8, 1953.
Out of 8,000 prisoners taken with him, Fletcher said only 3,000 came back alive.
“I don’t know why I survived,” he said. “I just said the good Lord up there was not ready for me. That’s the only thing I can say.”
Fletcher — who was dedicated to veterans’ issues and spent 22 years on the Advisory Committee on Former Prisoners of War – hadn’t even wanted to be buried at Arlington, but his family pushed him into it. Hearing that he won’t receive full honors at the nation’s most hallowed cemetery felt like a slap in the face.
It doesn’t sit well with advocates either.
“Of course, this is ridiculous!” Korean and Cold War POW/MIA Network Executive Director John Zimmerlee wrote in an email to Stars and Stripes.
National League of POW/MIA Families chairwoman and CEO Ann Mills-Griffiths doubted that denying former POWs full honors could even be happening.
“Why would this occur? It makes no sense,” she wrote to Stars and Stripes. “If that is true, then it is entirely offensive.”
Attempts to get the policy changed or to receive an exemption have failed.
Charlotte Smith said her family was offered the horse-drawn caisson from the family of an officer who was not a POW but was eligible for burial with full honors, but Arlington would not allow it.
After receiving a complaint from Fletcher’s family, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., tried to intervene and get full honors for Robert Fletcher, Kanda Fletcher said. She was not successful.
A high-ranking military officer who knew Robert Fletcher also tried. Arlington officials said any changes to policy would have to come from the Secretary of the Army Mark Esper or Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.
For the loved ones left behind, depriving these men full honors continues to pick away at them.
“I was angry; I was hurt. I was incensed for my husband because I felt like it made him less honored for what he had done for this country,” Charlotte Smith said. “It’s just not right. When he came back at 82 pounds, he suffered just as much as an officer did. They went through the same torture; they went through the same cold; they went through the same deprivation.”
Nevertheless, Charlotte Smith said it would not take away from the legacy of Bill Smith and his fellow enlisted POWs, like Fletcher. Smith was most proud that he never signed a confession in captivity and never “turned his back on a buddy.”
“He never gave in,” she said. “He always said they got to his body but they never got to his mind.”
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