For Loved Ones of MIA Troops, New Hope After Decades of Disappointment

Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii: An honor guard carries transfer cases from a C-17 aircraft at an Aug. 1 ceremony, marking the arrival of remains believed to be those of U.S. service members who fell in the Korean War. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii: An honor guard carries transfer cases from a C-17 aircraft at an Aug. 1 ceremony, marking the arrival of remains believed to be those of U.S. service members who fell in the Korean War. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

In recent years, attendance at the annual Pentagon event where officials report progress on finding remains of missing-in-action troops has dwindled. At this year’s event, held Thursday at a hotel near the Pentagon, members of more than 700 families showed up, overflowing the reserved space.

For the first time in years, the families of service members missing from the Korean War brought hope to the latest Defense Department progress report on the status of remains recoveries.

Attendance at the event more than doubled from the meeting last year, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA). A total of 771 family members of the missing were registered, compared to 375 in 2017, DPAA said.

Most relatives of those listed as missing in action came clinging to the belief that a breakthrough had been achieved with the repatriation of 55 sets of remains last week. Many of them clutched photographs and insignia of their loved ones, and some had the long-ago letter from an adjutant general on the "presumptive finding of death."

    The families hope the remains return is the first of many repatriations. The reality remains to be seen.

    "I guess you could say I'm kinda' hopeful," said Robert Johnston Moore, 67, of Kingsport, Tennessee, an Air Force veteran whose father, Army Sgt. James F. Johnston, fell in battle in what is now North Korea in 1950. "I'm also kinda' hopeful for the rest of the 700 people here," he said.

    Some at the meeting came with a still lingering sense of guilt for not demanding more answers, or for once harboring a child's resentment of a father for going off to war and leaving them behind.

    Shirley Minor, the daughter of Air Force Staff Sgt. Asa Lawrence "Tex" Law, recalled that her mother had been angry with him. He had fought in World War II but did not immediately tell her when he decided to return to uniform for the fight in Korea.

    "My mother did not talk about this," she said.

    Minor, 71, of Lancaster, South Carolina, recalled that as a five-year-old she wrote to her father -- why did he have to go away, why couldn't he come back to be with her? She wept at the memory.

    Law, of Rosebud, Texas, was a tailgunner on a B-29A bomber nicknamed the "Double Whammy" from the 93rd Bomber Squadron, 19th Bomber Group, on a mission over Korea on Jan. 22, 1952. Three of the four engines on the Superfortress quit. The aircraft caught fire and was going down.

    There was a problem with a hatch at the rear of the aircraft. Tex Law held it open for four crew members to parachute to safety. Law didn't make it out.

    They were later captured, and one of them lived to tell of Law's heroics. Law went down with the plane that crashed in an area of North Korea known as the Chinnampo mud flats.

    George A. Wedsworth, one of the crew members who made it out of the B-29, later told the Korean War Project that "We were forced to bail out at about 2:00 a.m., January 22nd 1952. I say 'we' -- some got out, some didn't."

    "Those who did, made it because of [Law]. Without his help in that burning B-29, I certainly would not be here today. I'm not alone in that respect, for he helped others make it too," Wedsworth said.

    DoD Pushes To Send Recovery Teams Back to Korea

    At the meeting Thursday, director of the Defense Pow/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) Kelly McKeague, a retired Air Force major general, told the families that the Defense Department was "guardedly optimistic" that North Korea would cooperate with more remains recoveries.

    However, the North's Korean Central News Agency propaganda outlet on the same day criticized the U.S. for failing to ease sanctions under agreements made at the June 12 Singapore summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

    McKeague told the families "there's no way we can fathom the depths of your loss," but DoD "remains steadfastly committed to this mission" to provide a full accounting.

    There have been no joint recovery operations with U.S. teams on the ground in North Korea since 2005, but McKeague has said previously that recoveries might resume in the spring if negotiations on North Korea's "denuclearization" make progress.

    McKeague said that DPAA had a current budget of $146 million and the House was considering adding $20 million more for Korea recoveries.

    DPAA estimates that about 7,700 are still missing in action from the Korean War -- 5,868 from the Army; 908 from the Air Force; 647 from the Marines; and 276 from the Navy. About 5,300 from the total of about 7,700 are believed to have been lost in what is now North Korea.

    McKeague said he has been in touch with Russian and Chinese officials to enlist their help should more recoveries be permitted.

    "Russia and China both view this as a humanitarian duty," McKeague said. But to date, he added, "they have not been as forthcoming as we would like."

    The families were encouraged by the "honorable carry" ceremony on Aug. 1 at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii, when two Air Force C-17 Globemasters brought home 55 transfer cases believed to contain the remains of U.S. troops.

    Dr. John Byrd, a forensic anthropologist and director of DPAA's labs in Hawaii, led the U.S. team that went to Wonsan in North Korea on July 27 to oversee the transfer of the cases. He said later that his preliminary review of the contents of the boxes showed that they were consistent with the remains of Americans.

    At the ceremony in Hawaii, Vice President Mike Pence said "our boys are coming home," suggesting to the families that there would be more recoveries.

    "It was odd to watch it on TV," Shirley Minor said of the Hawaii ceremony as the caskets emerged one-by-one from the belly of the aircraft, "and look at it and say --'Is that my Dad?' "

    Robert Johnston Moore wondered the same thing about his father, Army Sgt. Army Sgt. James F. Johnston, of B Co. 32nd Infantry Regiment,7th Infantry Division. He went missing in the horrific battle at the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea on Dec. 12, 1950.

    "All he ever wanted to be was a soldier," the son said. James Johnston, of Coeburn, Virginia, joined the Army at age 16 in 1940. He had gotten a local pharmacist to vouch that he was older, his son said. He fought in the Aleutians and then across the Pacific in World War 11.

    Robert Johnston Moore had with him two letters the family received from the Army. The first notified them that Sgt. Johnston was missing. The second came in 1955 from Maj. Gen. William Bergin, the Army's Adjutant General.

    It was a presumptive finding of death.

    "I regret the necessity for this message but hope this is the ending of a long period of uncertainty and at least gives some small measure of comfort," the letter said.

    Shortly after the C-17s left North Korea with the remains, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told Pentagon reporters that it was a "step forward." But he also noted that the North Koreans had turned over only 55 cases, when the expectation had been that there might be as many as 200.

    Following the Singapore summit, President Trump mistakenly said that 200 had already been returned.

    "We know what [the North Koreans] said" at Singapore, Mattis said, but "for us, we simply say this is a gesture of carrying forward" a commitment to more recoveries.

    "Obviously we want to continue with this humanitarian effort," on behalf of U.S. families and those of other nations who fought with the U.S. under the United Nations flag in the Korean War.

    Mattis noted that some families were denied closure after receiving a telegram from the government informing them of a loved one's death.

    "What we're seeing here is an opportunity to get those families closure," he said. "So this is an international effort to bring closure to those families."

    At the meeting Thursday, Rick Downes, president of the Coalition of Families of Korean & Cold War POW/MIAs, noted previous broken promises by the North Koreans on recoveries. He said he believed the current state of negotiations was reaching a tipping point.

    "Maybe it will tip forward [this time] instead of tipping backward," he said.

    "Yeah, it's all connected," Downes said of the link between remains recoveries and progress on sanctions and the dismantling of North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

    He said that the return of only 55 cases of remains was "probably because they [the North Koreans] don't want to give away all their leverage."

    Downes' father, Air Force Lt. Hal Downes, Jr., went missing in the crash in North Korea of his B-26 bomber on Jan. 13, 1952.

    On Thursday, the North's KCNA news agency put out a diatribe indicating how difficult future negotiations will be.

    Kim Jong Un had been willing to implement agreements made at Singapore, KCNA said, but the U.S. had "responded to our expectations by inciting international sanctions and pressure."

    "As long as the U.S. denies even the basic decorum for its dialogue partner and clings to the outdated acting script which the previous administrations have all tried and failed, one cannot expect any progress in the implementation of the DPRK-U.S. joint statement, including the denuclearization," KCNA continued.

    Double Checks In Remains Identification Process

    With the prospect of more recoveries in the offing, the Veterans of Foreign Wars has been pushing for all family members of the missing who haven't yet done so to provide DNA samples to DPAA to speed the process of identification.

    McKeague said that DPAA currently has a DNA database for about 92 percent of the families.

    At the meeting Thursday, young technicians from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System (AFMES) were on hand to take samples. Shirley Minor was among those who lined up to have her mouth swabbed.

    "At some point, all of it comes to our labs" to begin the preliminary work of identification, Dr. Timothy McMahon, director of DNA operations for AFMES, said of the remains returned to Hawaii last week.

    Later this month, the bone fragments and other remains from the 55 cases were expected to be sent to the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL), which is part of AFMES, at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, McMahon said.

    The fragments will be cleaned, buffed and washed in 100 percent alcohol and turpentine to remove extraneous material before they can be ready for testing.

    "It is a painstaking process," McMahon said, and "everything has to be done in duplicate."

    On average, it can take as long as 55 days before a useable DNA sample can be extracted and ready for testing against the database, he said.

    Jennifer O'Rourke, who has been supervising technicians at AFDIL for 12 years, said that each remains fragment is given an individual number and gets a folder assigned to it for AFDIL analysts. A second analyst has to confirm the findings of the first analyst, she said.

    "We repeat everything," O'Rourke said, "from the start of the extraction through the whole thing."

    Once a viable DNA sample is ready, AFDIL can begin the process of matching it against the database, or the sample can be sent back to DPAA labs in Hawaii to seek a match, she said.

    McKeague and other DPAA officials have cautioned that identifications could take years. Former Air Force Capt. Ronald Lindquist has already been waiting 65 years since the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953 for word on his older brother, Marine 1st Lt. Carl E. Lindquist.

    1st Lt. Lindquist went missing on July 25, 1953, according to DPAA. He was 23 years old. The armistice ending the war was signed on July 27, 1953.

    Carl Lindquist said his brother was in a bunker that was attacked as Chinese forces maneuvered to take more ground just before the armistice.

    He believes his brother's remains could be found just a few hundred yards inside what is now the Demilitarized Zone at the 38th parallel separating the two Koreas, but he also recognizes that the DMZ is the most heavily mined place on earth.

    "It's encouraging that they're talking," Lindquist said of the U.S. and North Korean sides, but "it could take years to see results."

    Carl Lindquist said he would wait as long as it took. "He was my big brother, he took care of me," he said.

    Now it was his turn.

    -- Richard Sisk can be reached at

    Story Continues