Casualties of War In 1950, twin brothers went off to fight in Korea. One would return a hero

the other never came home. Almost 50 years later, the survivor is still doing battle with the demons of uncertainty and loss.

March 22, 1998|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,Sun Staff

It's mid-afternoon and the sun streams brightly through the windows of the big, immaculately kept townhouse in Towson when Vincent Krepps finds himself trembling. "My nerves aren't good," he says softly, and you notice the coffee cup shakes as he raises it to his lips. "Haven't been since the war. Thinking about it now ..."

His voice trails off. For a moment, silence fills the room. Then he goes back to telling his story, the story of the war hero and his twin brother, who went off to war, too, and never came home.

Vince Krepps fought in Korea in 1950 and won the Silver Star for "gallantry in action," which is what they call it when a 19-year-old kid half-mad with fear, his unit on the verge of being wiped-out, races through withering North Korean fire to move an abandoned tank, then drives the tank miles through intense enemy fire in a desperate attempt to get help.

Richard Krepps was not as lucky, if that's the right word.

He went off to fight in Korea, too, in the hellish opening months of the war, but was soon declared missing in action. The last time his family saw him, he was staring mournfully from a blurry newspaper photograph of a group of American POWs being held in a North Korean prison camp somewhere near the Yalu River.

But when the war ended, Dickie Krepps never came back to the family's little white bungalow in Essex.

The Chinese communists, allies of the North Koreans, would say he died in a prison camp near the Manchurian border in 1951. But no proof was ever produced. Dickie's body never came home. No clothing, no personal effects, were delivered to his family. No other American POWs could positively remember seeing Dickie in the bleak, stinking camps along the Yalu.

Just what happened to Dickie Krepps is a mystery that has consumed his brother since the telegram with the horrible news of his disappearance arrived a long, long time ago. Forty-five years later, Vince Krepps is still looking for answers.

Give it a rest, Vince, is what some might say. Let it go! But how do you let something like that go? How do you forget a horrible little war in which 33,629 Americans were killed and 103,284 were wounded, a war America was sick of within months, a war the politicians didn't even have the guts to actually call a war?

And how do you forget that last photo of Dickie, shivering in captivity in front of a shack on a frozen hillside 10,000 miles from home, staring at the camera with those sad, sad eyes?

For Vince Krepps, now 66, retired after 40 years in drafting and engineering, there were nightmares for years after the war: vivid scenes of bodies being blown apart, grinning enemy soldiers screaming and beating tin cans as they came at you in wave after human wave, terrified GIs getting half their necks shot away and screaming for their mothers.

Eventually, the nightmares went away. But the trembling, and that fluttering in his gut whenever the war was brought up or whenever Dickie's face squeezed into his thoughts - that never went away.

"I still don't have closure," Vince Krepps says of his need to know for sure what happened to his brother. "My brain tells me one thing, my heart tells me another. My brain logically tells me there's no way he could have survived this long. But then I think ... "

Once again his voice trails off, and the house is quiet. Vince Krepps takes another sip of the coffee that Susan, his wife of 38 years, has placed in front of him.

As he places the cup back in the saucer, a soft click-click-click of porcelain breaks the stillness.

His hands, you notice, are still trembling.

Vince Krepps was older than Dickie Krepps by two minutes Vince was the leader; Dickie the follower.

The boys and their three sisters grew up in Lynwood, Pa., a hardscrabble town of 2,000 in the western part of the state. In 1949, the only work available in Lynwood was in the steel mills or the coal mines. In the mills, you could lose your fingers; in the mines, you could lose your lungs. So after high school, Vincent, Dickie and three childhood friends joined the Army.

After basic training, they were assigned to Fort Lewis, Wash., with the 2nd Infantry Division, 82nd AAA battalion, which provided anti-aircraft and artillery support. Pvt. Dickie Krepps was made a cannoneer; Pvt. Vince Krepps, a tank driver.

Vince took to tank-driving like a fish takes to stenography. On the day of his tank driver's test, he couldn't even get the tank out of first gear, rumbling erratically around the snowy mountain course for five minutes.

Finally a jeep pulled alongside and an instructor's voice yelled: "How'd he do?"

"Great!'" said the soldier sitting next to Krepps.

"OK, you passed!" yelled the instructor, roaring off.

In June 1950, communist North Korean troops poured over the 38th Parallel into the Republic of Korea. Two months later, the Krepps brothers landed in Pusan with the 2nd Division.

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