William Rudolph Kunkel, known to his family as Robert Kunkel, was the son of William Thomas (Bill) Kunkel and his wife, Rosetta (Hilda) Kunkel nee Brechbuhl, and great-grandson of George Mathias and Mary Kunkel, the founding couple of the Australian Kunkel family. Bill and Hilda’s other child was Marguerite Elizabeth (Jill) Kunkel. The family moved around as Bill’s job with the Queensland Government Railway (QGR) took him around the state, ultimately settling at Howard, near Maryborough. Anyone wishing to know more about this family should contact me via comment on this post.
William Rudolph Kunkel was born in Brisbane on 14 November 1930 and as a young lad of 16 went to work with Queensland Rail in early 1947 as a nipper in the Maryborough District. Although his railway appointment was confirmed in 1948 he left the railway soon after, and on 18 December 1950 signed up with the Australian Regular Army for a six year period. His service record tells us that he only had “reasonable primary” education. He was a labourer, 5 ft 9.5 ins (176.5cms) with brown hair and brown eyes. On 7 April 1951 he married his wife Innis. The couple had no children. Robert went to Korea with the 1st Battalion, departing on the Devonshire on 3 March 1952, with a few days in Kure, Japan en route (as well as visiting on a later leave).
There is a photo on a website called Memories of Korea by George Hutchinson, the caption for which says “the other lad is Pat Kunkel (Qld)”. I had previously thought this might be Robert, misnamed, but now believe it to be his cousin, Gregory Patrick Kunkel, now listed on the Korean nominal roll. I have tried to contact the author of the website in the past without success in the hope of getting any extra insights or further information about it and to confirm it was Gregory Patrick (usually known as Greg to his family).
The Australian War Memorial website lists William Rudolph Kunkel on the Australian Roll of Honour as wounded and missing in action, presumed dead, on 16 November 1952. The roll includes his official service photograph. Robert’s service record indicates that his status was missing in action until 12 February 1953 when his status was updated to “now reported missing in action, wounded and believed prisoner of war”. His wife became his next of kin after their marriage, and her younger sister remembered the day the message came to say he was missing.
Cousin Greg Kunkel also tried to find out more about what happened to Robert while he too was serving in Korea. On Robert’s file is a statement from Greg that an RC Chaplain, Captain Shine,[i] had heard a Chinese radio announcement mentioning Robert’s name but investigation by the Army indicated this had been incorrect. Nonetheless his parents continued to be convinced that a propaganda broadcast had been heard on 18 November 1952 which mentioned their son’s name and his Rockhampton address. It appears that Bill and Hilda had managed to talk to some of Robert’s colleagues on their return from Korea. Their advice was that he had been badly wounded above both knees by a burst of machine gun fire and was last seen “surrounded by Mongolians and being well and truly tortured”. It seems hard to reconcile this with the findings of the Court of Inquiry which investigated the incident and strange that servicemen would relay this level of detail to their colleague’s parents. It’s apparent that Hilda was desperately trying to get the Army to focus on her missing son and help her to find out more about his fate.
The official War Diaries for 1 Battalion RAR are now digitised and available online and are invaluable in learning more about a battle or event. Having encountered enemy patrols on the night of 15 November 1952, two fighting patrols were sent out on the night of 16 November. The diary states that in addition there was a nightly standing patrol at the position code-named Calgary which “had a sharp clash with a strong enemy patrol” that night. Casualties from the action amounted to: Own tps (troops) 3 KIA, 1 MIA (wounded and believed PW) and 4 WIA. Enemy: 5 KIA counted.
A fighting patrol from B Company was sent out at 0130 on 17 November to Calgary and was subjected to “intense enemy arty (artillery) and mor (mortar) fire” and it was assumed that “the enemy action was designed to prevent reinforcements moving to Calgary while the enemy was making a strong bid to take that post and capture a PW (my note-Pte Kunkel)”. At first light, and under heavy mist, the bodies of the three Australian men killed in the “sharp clash” were recovered but “no sign was found of Pte Kunkel, the missing member”.[ii] Another patrol was similarly unsuccessful.
Amidst the serious military reports over the next few days, a glimpse of the person behind the reports is seen. Deep penetration bombing of a light machine gun placement missed its target but landed in a Chinese cooking fire from which the Australian troops took pleasure, thinking of the “fried rice added to the enemy’s morning menu”: a flash of Aussie humour.
MIA and POW must be among the hardest of war casualties for families to come to terms with – there would always be the glimmer of hope that the loved one might return, or more learned about his fate. Robert’s Army file includes many letters from his mother to the authorities and his parents plainly left no stone unturned trying to find out more about their son, including travelling to Melbourne to meet Army officials, and appealing to the Red Cross, United Nations Forces, and their parliamentary representatives. Similarly Robert’s wife wrote many letters trying to find out more of her husband’s fate. During Robert’s parents’ visit to Melbourne in September 1953 they were in a “very distressed state of mind believing their son to be alive and a prisoner of war”.[iii] They were possibly also partly frustrated that all official correspondence was sent to Robert’s wife as next of kin. The political situation at the time was difficult and letters to POWs were not being accepted by the North Korean authorities but despite reassurance from various officials the family continued to feel that their case was not being given due consideration.
My father remembered his cousin Robert going to Korea, said to be a gunner and radio operator, and that he never came back. Dad said his Uncle Bill never recovered from the loss of his son and from not knowing what happened to him. Dad also mentioned that over the years Army officers kept coming back to interview Bill & Hilda. Now my father was usually a cynic so perhaps he overstated the case, but if this is correct, you would have to ask why they harboured questions. Did they think he had defected voluntarily? Perhaps an inadvertent comment by Robert’s mother Hilda in a 1954 letter seeking help had triggered this question. She had said that “no personal belongings returned (WHY), his best friends were Chinese right from 16 months of age” and there is a question mark against this comment by the official reading it, perhaps because it seems such a non sequitur.
The Army lists his effects including a framed photograph, crucifix, wallet, smoker’s pipe, ring and a receipt for registered letter. Also among his effects was a tin containing film negatives and 87 photographs as well as 120 films and a Welmy camera – he was obviously something of a photographer and perhaps he’d bought the camera and the film while on a recent leave in Japan or in transit to Korea. In mid-1953 his belongings were still being held in Japan pending news of his fate and in 1954 had not been received by his wife. It’s unknown whether his family ever received his effects but his photographs would have been fascinating.
The Army file for William Rudolph (Robert) Kunkel is comprehensive, detailing the Court of Inquiry which commenced “in the field, Korea” on 12 January 1953 to “investigate the circumstances appertaining to the disappearance of 1/1641 Pte Kunkel W R on the night of 16 November 1952”. There were 10 points to investigate in relation to the event including why the wounded soldier was not brought back to the base, what efforts had been made to retrieve him subsequently, and whether there was any negligence involved. The results of this inquiry resulted in the revised description of his status as wounded, believed taken prisoner.
It’s likely that the terms of reference explain why some parties were interviewed and others weren’t. Certainly some were away from the area but I found it strange that some people weren’t interviewed by the court, although of course there was a war going on at the same time. The patrol leader, Corporal W Crotty was interviewed and one other member of the patrol, two others were away, one on a course (B R Mau[iv]) and one in hospital (S Brent), and three of the patrol were killed in this action (Reisener, Head, Castle). A Private M Pollard had been replaced on the patrol by Robert Kunkel because the latter wanted to stick with Crotty as they usually did patrols together and the changeover was approved by the Sgt Kavanagh – a fatal and fateful decision by Robert. Pte Kunkel was wounded in a grenade attack around 22:30 and was heard to call out “I’m hit, Mau, I’m hit….” and later moaning and “leave me alone you bastards, let me die”. Both Pte B R Mau and Cpl Crotty were close friends[v] of Kunkel’s and Crotty recognised his voice when he called out. A report by Sgt E J McNulty of 5 Platoon also heard a similar statement. Fearful this was a Chinese trick, they were not drawn out of cover, but a Pte Westcott, also in that patrol, recognised Kunkel’s voice as he knew him well. When searching Calgary they found the deceased members of the patrol but could not find Robert Kunkel although there were signs of track marks from bodies being dragged away. While the military-speak is considered and technical, there is certainly enough detail to distress any close family member or friend. We can only hope that Robert died quickly of his wounds before the enemy interrogation as assumed by the Court of Inquiry. After the cessation of the war, interviews with returned Australian POWs shed no light on the fate of Pte W R Kunkel.
In February 1955, over two years after he was wounded, the Army wrote to Robert’s wife to say officially he was missing, presumed deceased, on or after 16 November 1952. His name is inscribed on the Korean War Honour Board at the Australian War Memorial. In a quirk of fate, a William Marion Kunkel of the USA Army was also MIA, presumed dead in Korea. Meanwhile determined veterans and their relations are working tirelessly to try to identify any remains recovered from Korea and to raise the profile of MIA cases with the Australian government.
Robert’s memory, and that of 43 others Missing in Action in Korea, deserves to live on and it is for this reason that I’ve written this commorative post. Lest we forget.
[iii] Service Record Pte W R Kunkel.
[iv] Brian Ransfield Mau was from Hamilton, Waikato, New Zealand.
[v] Per Corporal Crotty during the Court of Inquiry.