Remains of 55 Korean War Fallen, And One Dog Tag, Begin Journey Home

United Nations Command Chaplain U.S. Army Col. Sam Lee performs a blessing of sacrifice and remembrance on the 55 cases of remains believed to be U.S. servicemen killed during the Korean War and returned by North Korea at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, Friday, July 27, 2018. (Staff Sgt. Quince Lanford/U.S. Army via AP)
United Nations Command Chaplain U.S. Army Col. Sam Lee performs a blessing of sacrifice and remembrance on the 55 cases of remains believed to be U.S. servicemen killed during the Korean War and returned by North Korea at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, Friday, July 27, 2018. (Staff Sgt. Quince Lanford/U.S. Army via AP)

In a solemn ceremony steeped in military tradition, remains believed to be those of 55 American service members who fell in the Korean War -- and one dog tag -- began the trip home Wednesday.

At Osan Air Base south of Seoul, Dr. John Byrd, laboratory director of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), confirmed that a single dog tag had been found among the remains. He declined to disclose the name on the tag but said the service member's family had been notified.

"The remains are what the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] officials said they were," Byrd, who conducted a preliminary two-day forensic review at Osan, told reporters, according to USA Today. "They appear to be remains from the Korean War. They are likely to be American remains."

He spoke before the honors ceremony at Osan at which the remains were put aboard two Air Force C-17 Globemasters for the flight to Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii.

Korea has often been called the "Forgotten War," but Army Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, said that was never the case for the military.

The remains of the fallen are going back "to their countrymen and their families who never forgot them or the war that claimed them," Brooks said at the Osan repatriation ceremony.

In honoring the caskets containing the remains, the timeless duty of all who serve was partially fulfilled -- to leave no one behind, he said. "For the warrior, this is a cherished duty, a commitment made to one another before going into battle and passed on from one generation of warriors to the next."

The ceremony was also a "solemn reminder that our work is not complete until all have been accounted for, no matter how long it takes to do so," Brooks added.

According to the DPAA, about 7,700 U.S. service members are still listed as missing from the Korean War. About 5,300 of that total are believed to have died on battlefields and in prison camps in what is now North Korea.

At Hickam, Vice President Mike Pence and Adm. Phil Davidson, commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, will preside at what is called an "honorable carry" ceremony before the remains go to the DPAA's forensic labs in Hawaii to begin the painstaking work of identification.

The DPAA has a DNA database from about 90 percent of the families of the missing, but officials have said the identifications could take years.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis last week also cautioned that the remains might not all be those of U.S. service members. "We don't know who's in those boxes," he told Pentagon reporters Friday.

At the Osan ceremony, Rear Adm. Jon Kreitz, deputy director of the DPAA, said, "This is a great first step" in the enormous task of accounting for those missing from the Korean War.

"We look forward to potentially pursuing [recovery] operations in North Korea in the future and we're very hopeful," he said. "Again, this is just a great first step in building some confidence and building a relationship."

Joint recovery operations have been off the table amid growing tensions on the peninsula and North Korea's pursuit of a nuclear arsenal and ballistic missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.

Last week, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Kelly McKeague, director of the DPAA, said in a statement to the National League of POW/MIA Families that he expects joint recovery operations could begin in the spring.

At Osan, the caskets were draped in the flag of the United Nations Command, which oversees the armistice that ended the Korean War.

Officials from the 16 nations that fought under the U.N. banner during the 1950-1953 conflict laid wreaths to honor the fallen soldiers as a 21-gun salute was fired by U.S. service members.

Military bands played "Taps" and the U.S. National Anthem before the cases were taken by van to the waiting C-17s. U.S. F-16 Fighting Falcon fighters flew the missing man formation overhead before the Globemasters began moving down the runway for takeoff.

The return of the remains is the first major achievement for the Trump administration since the June 12 Singapore summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which was aimed at the "denuclearization" of North Korea's arsenals.

Since then, the U.S. has halted major joint military exercises that the North has deemed "provocative," but there have been no signs that North Korea is dismantling weapons.

Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the North is continuing to produce fissile material and declined to say publicly whether it is continuing to produce submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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