Chasing a legacy

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class David Bernal Del Agua
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
The silhouette of a man standing at the door saying goodbye is the last memory she had as a 5-year-old girl watching her father leave for war. He never returned home. The story of his heroism was lost after the war; that is, until that little girl's son started digging for the memories of the long forgotten man he never had the privilege of calling grandpa.

That grandson enlisted in the Air Force after he learned that his grandfather had died in the Korean War and is still listed as Missing in Action. He made it his mission to restart a tradition of excellence which had been repressed.

"I felt like I owed it to him to bring back his legacy," said Maj. Robert Magee, 22nd Logistics Readiness Squadron commander.

What Magee didn't realize at the time, was that he had started on a path that would inspire him for the rest of his Air Force career.

Magee spent many long hours excavating painful memories until he reached something meaningful. They had been buried by his grandmother after the death of her husband.

"I got through to a family in Michigan, and it ended up being my grandfather's brother," said Magee. "I asked him "Do you know Private 1st Class James Edward Meyer?" and he said "Yes, that was my only brother who died in the Korean War."

The families, which had lost contact for more than 60 years, were reunited again. Now, for the first time since the death of Meyer, the families had another military service member to support.

"My son's relentless determination to find information about my father has given me the opportunity to connect with the family I never knew," said Nancy Magee Hiett, mother of Maj. Robert Magee. "Our family is proud of Robert and his service in the United States Air Force."

The quest to gather what had truly happened to his paratrooper grandfather had not concluded for Magee. Throughout his years in the military, he kept piecing together the puzzle. Then one day, fate stepped in.

"I used to go to Andrews Air Force Base when I worked at the Pentagon, and I met an old veteran with a Silver Star hat," said Magee. "He told me the story of how he earned the medal, and I'll be damned, that guy served with my grandfather."

The two became great friends after that one chance encounter. Magee had something tangible to bring him closer to the truth.

"I would go out of my way to make sure I was at the gym every day that war veteran, that hero, was there," said Magee. "That was the only opportunity I had to get close to the stories of what happened on Hill 191."

His grandfather earned two Purple Hearts in the war. In June 1952, Meyer died in an ambush on Hill 191 in North Korea. His body was never recovered.

Magee now had a blueprint of his grandfather's career from what the veteran told him. He strived to intertwine his career with his grandfather's.

"I went through Army Airborne School," said Magee. "And I pinned on the same wings he did. That was one of the greatest moments in my career, because I was able to link my Air Force career to my grandfather's."

Magee is now on the cusp of fully recovering the heritage overlooked for more than half a century.

"This gives me closure and will allow our family to honor his legacy," said Nancy. "My son, a third generation military member, has made this all possible."

The name of his grandfather will be added among the headstones of other Korean War veterans at Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia.

"This is the capstone in my career," said Magee. "This is the one thing I wanted to achieve, and we are right on the edge of accomplishing it. When they unveil his stone at Arlington National Cemetery, it will be the greatest day of my Air Force career, and it'll be the greatest day for my mom since she was 5 years old."

The 5-year-old girl, who never saw her dad again after that fateful day standing by the door, will see him honored for the sacrifice he made all those years ago. Standing right next to her will be her son, the man who brought the legacy and the memories of his grandfather back to the light.