Air Force Lt. Hal Downes’s B-26 bomber was on a nighttime run over North Korea when it went down in 1952. Did he die in the crash? Was he captured? His family never knew.
They hoped they might at least be able to bring his body home when the fighting was over. But the war never formally ended.
This week, the Downeses and the families of thousands of other Americans still missing from the Korean conflict received a jolt of hope when President Trump and Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, signed a joint statement in Singapore that included a promise to recover and repatriate all American war dead in the North.
The two sides agreed to the same thing after the 1953 armistice but have made only sporadic progress to accomplish it since then, and almost none in the last 13 years of mounting tensions over the North’s nuclear program. Now, the Singapore statement holds the prospect that the work might soon resume.
“It is a triumph, and I have to credit Mr. Trump,” the lieutenant’s son, Richard Downes, said. “But then you realize this is just the beginning. Now that we’ve done it, how do we actually do it? What happens next? We could get everything, and we could get nothing.”
Mr. Downes, who was 3 years old when his father’s plane crashed, is now 69 and the head of the Coalition of Families of Korean and Cold War POW/MIAs. He has spent years negotiating with both governments to try to bring a measure of certainty to families like his own.
“My whole life, it has remained an open wound — we never knew what happened to him,” he said of his father. “I half expected him to walk through the door at any moment.”
The Korean conflict is often called the forgotten war, overshadowed by the global victory of World War II and the caustic defeat of Vietnam. But it left an outsize number of troops missing in action: Some 7,800 Americans are unaccounted for — with 5,300 of them believed to be in North Korea, far more than are still missing from the much longer and more deadly Vietnam War.
Veterans groups welcomed the Singapore statement, which included a promise that some remains already recovered by the North Korean authorities would be repatriated immediately.
“We must have hope that this agreement will finally bring peace to the peninsula and help bring closure to thousands of families,” Keith E. Harman, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said in a statement, adding, “Now the hard work to bring the initiative to fruition begins.”
The large number of unrecovered troops stems in part from burial practices that American forces had adopted in World War II as they advanced steadily toward victory. Expecting the same in Korea, American forces buried their dead in temporary battlefield cemeteries as they drove north, intending to consolidate them after the war was won.
By the fall of 1950, they had taken control of nearly all of the Korean Peninsula. But then China joined the war, pouring in troops and driving the Americans and their United Nations allies southward. As the communist forces advanced, a number of American battlefield cemeteries wound up behind their lines.
The swift communist offensive also encircled and overran outnumbered American positions, leaving heaps of dead in places like the Chosin Reservoir that American burial details never had a chance to record and inter. More than 1,200 Marines remain missing from the Battle of Chosin alone; researchers say many were probably left in the foxholes where they fought and died.
The advancing communists also captured thousands of prisoners, who were marched north to camps near the Chinese border and kept in conditions that a report by the RAND Corporation later called “fiendishly squalid.”
In the first year of the fighting, more than a third of the captured Americans died from starvation, exposure or disease, according to the RAND Report. Prisoners tried to bury their fallen comrades and record their names and locations, but often had no tools or paper to write on, an Army report said later. About 1,500 dead Americans are thought to lie in feeble graves scratched in more than a dozen camps.
With the armistice, each side agreed to let the other recover its dead, but brewing mistrust kept recovery teams from crossing the Demilitarized Zone. Instead, each side gathered remains from its territory and handed them over at the demarcation line.
North Korea turned over the remains of 4,167 Americans in 1954, and others a few at a time since then, but has never come close to allowing the full accounting that the families of the missing yearned for. Even in periods when North-South relations seemed to thaw, the remains returned were meager and often decidedly suspicious.
In the early 1990s, North Korea handed over a few dozen remains that it said had been recently exhumed. Defense Department researchers later noted that the skeletons showed signs of having spent years on a storage shelf, and in many cases the bones were mismatched and did not fit the physical descriptions of the men whose dog tags the North Koreans said had been found with them.
From 1996 to 2005, an agreement allowed American research teams to work with the North Korean military at 33 sites in the North, with the United States paying Koreans to do the digging. Some 229 sets of American remains were recovered before the Bush administration shut the program down, citing security concerns at a time of rising nuclear tensions.
A Defense Department report later concluded that the North Koreans had salted the search areas with bones pulled from storage and planted in fighting positions.
Since 2005, the hunt for remains has been limited to a paper chase. Researchers at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency have conducted interviews, pored over old maps and scrutinized battle reports to narrow down the places where ground teams would need to dig if joint recovery work resumes.
“Some of these battles, we know what happened, we know where they are, we just haven’t been able to get in there,” an agency historian, James Rose, said.
North Korea has been offering for years to return roughly 200 sets of remains that it has in storage as a good-will gesture, but Mr. Downes, the head of the families’ group, said the United States refused to take them.
"President Obama wouldn’t do it — the nuclear negotiations were too tense,” said Mr. Downes, who visited Pyongyang in 2016 as part of a delegation led by Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico.
After the summit meeting in Singapore, Mr. Trump said in a news conference, “The remains will be coming back — they’re going to start that process immediately.” But officials say few details have been worked out yet.
Mr. Downes was cautiously hopeful. “We are holding our breath,” he said.
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