RADNOR — For nearly 70 years, local Korean War veteran Roy Plymale held onto some of the last remaining items of Sgt. Harry Gene McDonough, who was killed in a friendly minefield in December 1952 during the conflict. Now, through some research and a stroke of luck, those items have been reunited with the family of the fallen officer.
Plymale, a Radnor native, volunteered for the Korean War and was deployed as an 18-year-old, serving in the 74th Engineer Combat Battalion of the United States Army. Among his duties in what he called a “bastard unit” was clearing minefields. Following a civilian’s death after stepping on a mine in a noncombat zone, Plymale and his unit were sent back below the 38th parallel and were tasked with sweeping fields previously set by American troops.
One close call with a mine the previous day nearly took a sergeant’s life, but a disaster was averted as the sergeant was ushered out of the minefield. However, McDonough wouldn’t be so fortunate the following day.
“Finally, we got (the sergeant) out of there,” Plymale said of the events leading up to McDonough’s death. “The next day there was one section I had to burn out with the flamethrower. I told the sergeant, ‘Now, there is one more mine in here. Follow me out.’ But he didn’t follow me out. I heard an explosion and I turned around, and he’s cut completely in half.”
Plymale estimates he was just 10-12 feet away from McDonough when the mine was set off. He recalled the helicopter being called in to evacuate McDonough, and McDonough being given a cigarette, on which he took one puff before dying. Plymale isn’t sure what compelled him to do so, but as the last one out of the field that day, he scooped up McDonough’s twisted dog tags, mangled from shrapnel, what was left of the sergeant’s military identification card, and the spring out of the mine that killed him.
The items remained with Plymale as he finished his tour in Korea, and they came stateside with him when he returned home the following year in 1953. Though the items had faded from sight over the years as he returned to civilian life, Plymale’s memories of both that day and combat, in general, remained with him daily.
“The worst thing is the nightmares you bring back,” Plymale said. “For so many years, it was nightmare after nightmare. You wake up scared to death, your heart trying to jump out of your chest, wringing wet with sweat.”
Plymale’s sons saw how the remnants of combat lingered with their father through the years. For a time, Plymale turned to drinking to suppress the nightmares that terrorized him nightly, and both sons knew never to mess with their father when he slept for fear of triggering a panic.
While those memories continue to stand the test of time for Plymale, his son, Roger, has been able to play an integral role in closing at least one part of the battle his father has continued to fight since leaving Korea. While rummaging through his father’s military belongings one day, Roger Plymale came across a cigar box full of uniform patches. In talking with his father, Roger Plymale was tasked with researching his father’s outfit and, by extension, McDonough.
The eventual meeting between Roy Plymale and relatives of McDonough began with a simple phone call by Roger Plymale to the local Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter in Ellis Grove, Illinois — McDonough’s hometown — last spring, which connected him with the sergeant’s brother, Norman. As Roger Plymale would soon find out, his father wouldn’t have to travel far to reunite with the family of the sergeant whose belongings he held on to for over six decades.
Roger Plymale was astounded to find that Norman McDonough was not only living in Ohio but local to central Ohio, residing in Grove City. To find a relative at all was amazing to Roger Plymale, but that the relative was so close to home was truly astounding.
“What are the chances that more than 65 years later, you find somebody that was with your brother or with your dad when he died in a minefield?” Roger Plymale wondered aloud.
Roy Plymale met with Norman McDonough at his Grove City home last year on April 10, bringing with him the items recovered from the blast. What ensued was a cathartic conversation between Norman McDonough and one of the last men to see his brother alive.
“Oh my goodness, that was something else,” Norman McDonough said of his time with Roy Plymale. “I couldn’t believe it. It made you feel humble, and then it made you feel like he did a wonderful thing, going and protecting this country. I’m truly proud of him.
“I just couldn’t believe (Roy Plymale) hung on to those things. He was just so happy and emotional about it. He was really emotional that he was able to find someone and return the items.”
Norman McDonough said he had heard limited things regarding the circumstances of his brother’s death, but he always wondered what the real story was. To hear it as it happened, directly from Roy Plymale, offered a great deal of closure, even if after considerable time had already passed.
The closure wasn’t limited to Norman McDonough that day, either. Roger Plymale said his father’s ability to return the items and discuss the accident also put a close to a moment that’s stayed with Roy Plymale through the years, and it partially fulfilled a promise Roger Plymale and his brother, Roy, made to their mother that they’d take care of their dad “come hell or high water” shortly before she passed.
“To me, it’s putting closure to something he’s always lived with his whole life,” Roger Plymale said. “It was emotional, but it kind of took some weight off of him, I think.”
“It was definitely emotional,” Roy Plymale added. “It just brought back a lot of memories. It was (a moment of closure).”
The items have since been handed down to McDonough’s daughter, Donna Schroeder, who was just 2 years old when her father was killed. Like Norman McDonough, she said it was a special experience to hear a firsthand account of the tragedy from Roy Plymale.
“It’s something that you always wondered about,” Schroeder said as she fought back tears. “Talking to Roy was really unbelievable, to think, ‘Here is someone that knew my father and had answers to questions about what happened.’”
Despite many efforts from the family of McDonough, the sergeant was not awarded the Purple Heart for his sacrifice. According to Roger Plymale, the United States government has refused to issue the medal because McDonough’s death took place outside of a combat zone.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.