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Remains of Durham soldier missing since Korean War come home

Photos of Leon Clevenger, a 21-year-old corporal from Durham, N.C. who was among the first US soldiers to die in the Korean War.
Courtesy Cathy Royal, niece of Leon Clevenger
Leon Clevenger, a 21-year-old corporal from Durham, N.C., was one of the first US soldiers to die in the Korean War. His body was recently identified by the Department of Defence as part of an effort to name more than 650 Korean War casualties buried as unknowns.

Just after dawn in November 2018, I stood in a garden-like military burial ground inside the crater of an extinct volcano in Hawaii watching crews dig in eight gravesites. It was the start of a new initiative, the biggest of its kind the Department of Defense had ever attempted, to disinter and identify more than 650 Korean War casualties buried there as unknowns.

DNA technology advanced so that nearly all remains could be identified, though it would take military labs years to do so.

Just weeks after I left, they brought up a few more. Among them, as it turned out, were the remains of a 21-year-old corporal from Durham named Leon Clevenger.

His niece Cathy Royal of Wake Forest reflected on his legacy within the family.

“My dad would often talk about how any time someone would walk up on their wooden front porch and grandmother would hear footsteps, she thought it was Leon coming home,” Royal said.

Clevenger was one of nine children in a close-knit family. Their father was in construction and their mother ran a small store in Durham. Royal said she got a sense of what her uncle was like by listening to her father, and, more recently, reading his letters home.

“He was always concerned about his siblings,” she said. "And he loved music. He played all stringed instruments except for the banjo. He was in a military band, and they called themselves The Troubadours."

In the letters, he wrote about music often and mailed much of his pay home to help support the family.

“He was always telling his mom, 'I want you to have that ice box, you know, I'm sending you money, I want you to get that.’ And, and he would say ‘Mom, I really want to get dad a fiddle or banjo because my granddaddy played instruments,'" Royal said. “And he would ask about his other siblings and he was very concerned about his mother because she had developed diabetes and some heart issues or high blood pressure. It seemed like he almost like carried the weight of the family at times.”

Photos of Leon Clevenger, a 21-year-old corporal from Durham, N.C. who was among the first US soldiers to die in the Korean War.
Courtesy Cathy Royal, niece of Leon Clevenger
A family photo of the young Cpl. Leon Clevenger who was killed during the Korean War. He will be buried with military honors in Durham, N.C. on Sat. Dec. 11, '21.

Clevenger had joined the Army in peacetime, and in June of 1950 was stationed in Japan when tens of thousands of North Korean troops invaded South Korea.

His small unit was hastily sent in to try and slow their advance until more US troops could arrive.

“They were short on personnel, they didn't have radios, they didn’t have clothing, they didn't have boots you know, the modern equipment,” Royal said.

Clevenger's unit did manage to delay the invaders’ advance, but at a terrible cost. Less than three weeks into the war, on July 11, they were attacked by a much larger North Korean force and lost more than half their troops. Clevenger was reported missing.

“We always hoped that he somehow survived and was okay,” Royal said. “But you knew that probably wasn't the case.”

Department of Defense scientists — using historical records, bone and dental record analysis, and mitochondrial DNA — identified him in less than a year.

Leon Clevenger’s brothers and sisters are all gone, but his remaining family know how much this would have meant to them.

“When I first found out that they had identified his remains, I was in disbelief,” Royal said. “I mean, it was after 70 years, almost, and I just assumed that we would never know what happened to him. And so it was very emotional. I cried quite a bit, you know, the first few times I talked about it, because it was so shocking, and yet, a really wonderful thing to finally at least know what happened, and to know that he was coming home.”

It took a while for the family to make arrangements, but Tuesday his remains were flown into RDU International Airport.

And so one of the first US soldiers to die in the Korean War has become one of the last to come home.

Cpl. Leon Clevenger will be buried with military honors. The graveside service at Oak Grove Memorial Gardens in Durham on Sat. Dec. 11 begins at 11:30 a.m.

Jay Price has specialized in covering the military for nearly a decade.
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