The giant black and white photographs of smiling young men flashed on the screens. Name, rank and branch of military service are listed below their smiles.
The names kept coming. No repeats.
Just one smiling face after another that often vanished before I could even register the full name — including my uncle’s.
The fleeting images and names were a fitting metaphor for the occasion as 546 people gathered in mid-August for the 2023 Korean/Cold War Annual Government Briefings hosted by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
The two-day gathering in a giant hotel ballroom, a stone’s throw from the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, was a chance for families with missing service members to remember brothers, uncles, fathers and cousins who served and were lost in a war largely forgotten — a chance to say their names out loud.
In total, 7,491 American service members who served in the Korean War are still unaccounted for.
‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again’
Each attendee wore a nondescript name tag that included a second name, which held the common thread and linked the strangers in a shared grief.
After a short welcome, the event organizer opened the floor to remembrances as a dozen young men and women in their dressiest military uniforms scattered throughout the room with microphones.
Going into this meeting, I had never met another person who had a family member still missing in action. The only story I knew was that of my mother’s brother, Cpl. Leslie Franklin Greer, Army — the second name listed on my mother’s and my name tag. His loss, which happened more than 14 years before I was born, defined more than is logical of my own worldview.
Uncle Frank left our family’s rural Mississippi family farm on foot in the summer of 1950, singing the old hymn “Precious Memories,” as he walked away.
My mother remembers that day. She also remembers how, a few months later, when she was playing in the yard, her parents watching her from the front porch swing, when the woman who owned the store in town that received telegrams drove up in her car, with a piece of paper in hand. My mom, now 80, remembers that her parents didn’t want to open the telegram and asked the lady to read it to them.
More than three years later, another telegram arrived saying my uncle had been, on Dec. 31, 1953, presumed to be dead.
My grandparents never received any further details about his loss or disappearance. Everything was “classified.” Therefore, being the hopeful sort, they spent the rest of their lives hoping that their son would come home — spending vast amounts of time sitting in that same swing, looking toward that same road, waiting for Frank to come home.
He never did.
My grandparents’ unreconciled grief hung over them the rest of their lives — and continues to hover over the rest of us even now. I remember sitting in my grandmother’s lap, under my uncle’s smiling black and white photograph, and her rocking me back and forth and singing, “When Johnny comes marching home again, hoorah, hoorah.”
I liked the song’s minor key and could tell, even as a child, that the old tune was like something bordering on sacred to my grandmother.
After the telegrams but long before I was born, my grandmother had a complete breakdown that resulted in a stay in the state mental hospital. Even now, our family rarely speaks of that, as though there is such shame attached. She eventually came back home.
When I knew her, she was as sweet and gentle as a human could be.
‘The way the sand stuck to his back’
After the presentation of the flags and the Pledge of Allegiance to open the Korean/Cold War meeting, the DPAA organizers invited attendees to stand and tell remembrances of their loved ones.
A woman from Chicago spoke about her uncle, who was surrounded by thousands of Chinese soldiers. He was taken captive and died of starvation and dehydration a few months later, 12 miles south of the Chinese border. His body was never recovered.
An old man said he was a 10-year-old boy at his grandfather’s house when they came to tell them his uncle was missing. “I hope we can bury him before I die,” he said.
A woman stood and said she was there to honor her brother, Dan, who was on a mission to stop a train and save the POWs on board the train. “That didn’t happen. He died in October 1950,” she said. “He was 18. I was 6. ‘Danny Boy’ has always been our song. Dan was my first love and my first grief. He will not be forgotten. This war has not been forgotten.”
Another woman stood and shared what her brother’s last two days at home were like, from a little girl’s memory. “We went to the beach for a picnic. I still remember how full of fried chicken my mother’s basket was. Charles would try to sneak a piece of chicken to tease his mom. I remember that he played with me and the way the sand stuck to his back. I didn’t understand the look in the adults’ eyes when we were at the beach. They had already lived through two sons going to World War II. The next day he was in full uniform and left.”
Like every other man remembered that morning, her brother was never to be seen by his family again.
“We share your tears and we also share your frustrations,” said Kelly McKeague, director of the DPAA, after family members told of their loved ones still missing. “This is called the annual government briefing. I’m not here to brief you. I’m here to have a conversation.”
I went into the meeting happy to be with my mother but still frustrated at the military for not doing anything to offer a modicum of respect toward my grandparents on the loss of their son.
Now we know that he went missing in action in the Nakdong River area in Southern Korea while on a reconnaissance mission sometime during the night of Aug. 31-Sept. 1, 1950.
My mom and I met with a case worker and Sgt. 1st Class Shane Cooper who took their time to explain everything they knew about my uncle’s disappearance. They even brought in Aelwen Wetherby, Ph.D., an Oxford-educated historian specializing in military history to tell us as much as she could about that night.
“After all of our successes in World War II, we thought we would go in and China would say, “OK, we’re out,” Cooper explained to my mother and me.
Instead, the Chinese were rolling in with Soviet tanks, and young fresh-off-the-boat American GIs were outnumbered 12 to 1 and fighting with the rifles.
“This day in history was just a slaughter,” Cooper said. “They were up against a battle-hardened Chinese army, seasoned Chinese warriors. It was an unwinnable situation and unfortunately one of the biggest examples of American hubris.”
Afterward, the Chinese went in and stripped the bodies of identification. By the time the Americans got back in, the bodies were decaying, and our military covered the bodies in chemicals. Eventually, they gathered what was left and placed the remains in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, called the Punchbowl, in Hawaii.
‘The last full measure of devotion’
For decades, the recovered unidentified remains of the American military in Korea rested in the Punchbowl. Once DNA research yielded the possibility of identifying some of the remains, the DPAA began exhuming remains and testing them. The DPAA currently has a budget of $130 million a year, which will rise to $190 million a year annually for the next five years, allowing the department “to do more research, hire more historians and enable us to put shovels in the ground,” according to McTeague.
The DPAA is also working closely with their South Korean counterparts, called MAKRI (Ministry of National Defense Agency for Killed in Action Recovery Identification). In South Korea, MAKRI works to uncover remains and identify those recovered years ago, returning any to the U.S. that are found to be American.
The DPAA has no communication with North Korea. Those lost in that part of the world, at this point, have less chance to be recovered than those lost in South Korea.
At the Punchbowl, thus far, they have disinterred 852 remains to check for DNA.
McTeague said the work he and his colleagues are doing is “the most purposeful thing we’ve done in our military or civil careers” and went on to quote Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:
“…It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain…”
“This is our moral imperative. We have to do this,” McTeague said.
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