A 66-year journey: Korean War vet finally says goodbye to his fallen friend lost 66 years ago

Korean War vet Donald Bustard reads a letter on the grave of a war buddy whose death 66 years ago has haunted Bustard all these years.

Donald Bustard carefully lowers himself onto a tombstone next to the grave of his friend Joe. He opens a folded note of things he has wanted to tell him for 66 years, and begins to read.

“First of all, I must talk about your horrendous death. At least it was swift and you didn’t suffer,” says Bustard, 87, who served in the Korean War with Joe, who was accidentally killed by a fellow soldier while deployed.

“But the cause was so stupid and never should have happened. That incredibly stupid GI who entered the guardhouse, emptying his rifle. … The lone bullet in the chamber fired, ricocheted off the floor, killing you as you were taking a nap after your shift on guard duty.”

The tears start. His feelings are all over the place.

Korean War vet Donald Bustard leaving Holy Cross Cemetery, where he finally bade farewell to his deceased war buddy. (RONNIE POLANECZKY)

There’s grief for Joe, who died 10 days shy of his 21st birthday. Anger at how the death was handled by military brass. Relief to finally speak his piece to Joe, with whom he served as a private in the U.S. Army’s 1092nd Engineer Battalion, Combat.

There’s a well-known saying about returning military veterans — “All gave some; some gave all.” Bustard gave some; Joe gave all. Bustard has been haunted by the difference for more than six decades.

He met Joe in January 1951 as their battalion sailed to South Korea, where they would be stationed in Pusan. They were gawky young men, thousands of miles from everything familiar, scared witless. They bonded quickly over their shared roots — Bustard was from Germantown, Joe from South Philly — and spoke about their homes and families as Joe taught Bustard how to play chess.

“He was the sweetest, most cheerful guy,” Bustard said. “Having him there made me feel less alone.”

Their brief, important friendship ended when Joe was accidentally shot in that guardhouse. Bustard nearly collapsed when he heard the news. He spent 24 hours in his bunk, sobbing.

“It was one of the most traumatic moments of my life,” Bustard says. “We were never told what happened to the guy who killed Joe. They got him out of there. We didn’t see what happened to Joe’ s body, either.”

After the war, Bustard was too shattered to search for Joe’s family and offer condolences. But he has never stopped thinking about Joe.

Three weeks ago, Bustard contacted me to ask a favor. Would I help him find Joe’s family? Perhaps they could lead him to Joe’s grave, where Bustard could say the goodbye he had been denied 66 years ago.

The request seemed impossible: Bustard couldn’t recall Joe’s last name, except that it was Italian. Nor did he know Joe’s birth or death dates.

But a few hours digging through military records yielded promise: A Philly soldier with the Italian surname of Ferzetti who had suffered a non-military fatality in Pusan, South Korea, on March 14, 1951. He was a member of Bustard’s battalion and died within the precise time frame Bustard described.

I tracked down one of Ferzetti’s siblings. He is 83, kind and gracious. He was too modest to allow me to use his own first name in this column, and he was skeptical of a family connection to Bustard: His brother’s first name had been Nick, not Joe. And he didn’t recall Nick ever playing chess.

Hmmm. Maybe Bustard had confused his war buddy’s first name for another soldier — maybe not. Maybe the buddy had learned to play chess while deployed — or maybe not.

More clear-cut, though, would be details of the death

“Can you tell me how Nick died?” I asked Ferzetti’s brother.

“They told us that he was killed in a guardhouse when another soldier’s gun went off,” he answered.

“That’s exactly how Mr. Bustard says Joe died,” I told him.

He let out a breath.

“Oh, my,” he said quietly. “That certainly sounds like it was Nick.”

And then he started talking about his brother.

He had been one of nine children — two sisters and seven brothers (six of whom served in the military). With his siblings, he had helped to support the family after their father died young. He was witty, smart, and quick.

“I was closest to him, even though he was seven years older than me,” says the man of Ferzetti, who is buried alongside family at Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon. “I was devastated when he got killed. I still carry his photo in my wallet. And I still have the last letter he wrote to me. He said ‘I’m scared as s— and I might not be coming back.’”

Fifteen years ago, members of Ferzetti’s family — there are five surviving siblings and scads of nieces and nephews — were upset when his name was not among those to be etched into the Philadelphia Korean War Memorial. Somber and beautiful, it’s located on Penn’s Landing and includes 10 granite-clad columns and monoliths recognizing casualties of  the conflict.

“They told us you had to be killed in action to have your name on there,” says the brother. “That didn’t sit right with us.”

It didn’t sit right with Bill Kelly, either. He’s president of the memorial, located on Penn’s Landing, and says Ferzetti’s name deserves to be on the monument.

“As far as we’re concerned, if you died in theater, you should be honored,” said a puzzled Kelly, whom I called to ask about protocols for inclusion. He promised to add Ferzetti’s name to the columns as soon as possible. “I’m so sorry the family was told otherwise.”

Bustard hopes to visit the memorial once Ferzetti’s name is etched there. But first, he wants to pay respect to him at Holy Cross Cemetery.

“I don’t know why I remembered his name as Joe,” he’d told me as we walked to Ferzetti’s gravesite. “After 66 years, you lose some details, I guess.”

He was certain, though, that Ferzetti was the young man who had taught him chess, made him laugh during daily meals, and assuaged his fears so long ago. Any doubt vanished when he saw Ferzetti’s picture.

Earlier in the week, I had shown him grainy, Xeroxed news photos of several Philly soldiers, including Ferzetti, who had died in the Korean War. I wanted to see if Bustard would pick out the man he had known as Joe.

Donald Bustard displays the Korean War Service Medal he received upon discharge from the U.S. Army in 1951. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)

“That’s him!” he said, pointing to Ferzetti, excitedly. “I remember that smile!”

And now here he is, on a brilliant, breezy Friday afternoon, his gnarled hands gently placing a floral arrangement of red and white carnations — designed to resemble a chessboard — atop Ferzetti’s grave marker. In a bag, he has brought the Korean War Service Medal he received upon discharge from the Army in December 1951.

“Nick,” he says, using Ferzetti’s real name at last, “I’ve been praying all the time for the protection of my family. And for quite a spell I have felt that you have been my guardian angel.”

He asks Ferzetti to remain close, and ends with the farewell he’s held inside for 66 years.

“For now, Nick, so long and goodbye,” he says, his voice catching in his throat, “until we have that heavenly meal together again.”