The letter that sparked a military mystery sat sealed inside a trunk, yellowing and forgotten, for more than a half-century.
When Rhonda McAuliffe discovered it, written in her father's slanted scrawl, and began to read it for the first time, she simply hoped to learn a bit more about his time in the Korean War.
Instead, this four-page letter — the last one McAuliffe's father, Ronald Bradley, wrote home before he went missing during the war — would lead her and a family she'd never met to PBS, to a show devoted to solving historical mysteries.
It led McAuliffe, a Plattsmouth-area resident, to New York City, where she learned even more about the man who once saved her father's life.
And it is pushing her to spearhead an effort to get that now-deceased soldier, a man named Kenneth Friend, the Medal of Honor — an honor her father said Friend deserved in that May 25, 1953, letter home to Nebraska.
“I read the letter and I thought, ‘Damn, this is a hero that's been totally forgotten. I have to do something,'” McAuliffe said last week.
McAuliffe never met her father, who went missing in action during an infamous battle at Outpost Harry in June 1953, just weeks before the Korean War ended.
She was born a month after he disappeared and has spent much of the past quarter-century scouring records and searching for scraps of information about the dad she never knew.
McAuliffe thought she had read every letter he sent home until her mother, who lives in California, mentioned the existence of one more note she kept in a trunk in her bedroom.
And that letter, written in pencil in Bradley's steady scrawl, describes a piece of history that McAuliffe had never learned: about a night of combat, a near-death experience and a man who saved Ronald Bradley's life.
Bradley wrote that he and 150 other soldiers were patrolling a creek bed a mile north of the front line when, in his words, “all hell broke out.”
Chinese soldiers lobbed grenades into the creek bed. One landed right at Bradley's feet. He couldn't get away.
“I kep wating for something to hit me,” Bradley wrote, “but what happen the grenade that fell right by me, the kid next to me must of set on it. He saved about five of us guys life.”
The letter mentions the heroic soldier's name: Kenneth Friend. Horribly injured by the blast, Friend keeps asking the soldiers around him, “If I close my eyes, will I die?”
Bradley says in the letter that the soldier will probably die, and he asks his mother if she'll do a favor for him. Check the newspapers, he asks, and write me if Kenneth Friend receives the Medal of Honor.
When McAuliffe finished reading the 57-year-old letter, she looked up the Korean War Medal of Honor recipients.
No Kenneth Friend had received the award.
She checked the list of those killed in action during the war.
No Kenneth Friend there, either.
After days of fruitless research, she e-mailed the producers of a PBS show called “History Detectives” and poured out her frustrations.
Why couldn't she find any mention of the battle her father wrote home about? She had the date and the approximate location and still, nothing.
And who, exactly, was Kenneth Friend? It's like he never existed.
Within a few days, one of the show's producers called McAuliffe: We're taking the case.
Which is how McAuliffe found herself checking into a New York City hotel, anxiously awaiting news from the hosts of “History Detectives,” five scholars of history, art, genealogy and several other fields.
The detectives had learned that McAuliffe couldn't find a mention of the battle because it had not taken place April 21, as her father had written.
It actually happened May 21, just four days before Bradley wrote home to his family. He had probably changed the date to make it seem like he was out of danger, McAuliffe thinks.
The detectives had also tracked down information on the mysterious Ken Friend.
He had jumped on a grenade, as Bradley described, actually throwing his helmet on top of it and then flinging himself on top of the helmet to cover the blast.
And the history detectives had discovered something else: Ken Friend survived the explosion.
The blast had torn chunks of muscle mass from both legs. Thousands of pieces of shrapnel had entered his body, damaging his digestive tract and scrotum. And he'd been accidentally shot in the arm by an American soldier who in the darkness mistook him for the enemy.
He spent 14 months in military hospitals. Doctors told him he wouldn't walk, wouldn't use his left arm and could never have children.
He regained the use of his arm. He relearned to walk.
And he eventually married and had five children before dying of cancer in 1976.
One thing he didn't do: He never told his wife or his children what had happened in Korea.
Ken Friend Jr., Friend's eldest son, has, like Rhonda McAuliffe, spent much of his adult life searching for information about his father's time in the war. He had managed to get his father's medical records and details of various battles he fought.
But he was missing what he called “those five minutes in time”: the description of how, exactly, his father had been injured.
“No one knew the story,” said Friend. “No one.”
He didn't know until the producers of “History Detectives” led him into a room and sat him down with a woman named Rhonda McAuliffe. She handed him the letter. He read it silently.
He can't talk about the moment without crying.
“She gave me those five minutes,” Friend said by phone from his house near Orlando, Fla.
“And it made sense. My father was a protector as long as I can remember. ... When that letter said he jumped on that grenade, that's my father. That's who he was.”
McAuliffe and Friend both believe there's one remaining loose end that needs to be tied.
She has contacted military officials, searching for the proper route to get the late Kenneth Friend the Medal of Honor he never received.
She hopes the episode of “History Detectives” will help her get the man who saved her father's life the recognition he deserved.
“What's funny is I've been waiting 57 years to find out something about my dad, but now it's just as important to me to find out” about Ken Friend, she said.
“He's adamant in his letter. He wanted to make sure Ken got the Medal of Honor. So I'm doing this for my dad.”
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