Leave No One Behind, Even After Fifty Years

Wednesday, November 14th, 2012


You have probably never heard of W.T. Akins, Clem Boody, John H. White, or Patrick Glennon. They are not remembered in history books as war heroes. They were four soldiers from different corners of the United States who in 1950 found themselves defending a small patch of earth in Asia known as “Camel’s Head Bend.” All were members of the 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division of the United States Army. One was a medic, another a sergeant, and the other two were on their first tour—fresh out of basic training. It was November, only days before the Chinese would decide to intervene in the Korean War. These young men had no forewarning of that inevitability and found themselves on the morning of 1 November overrun by two divisions of Chinese troops. They fought until their ammunition ran out and then engaged in hand-to-hand combat. The four men were among 350 American soldiers classified as POW/MIA (Prisoner of War/Missing in Action) after going missing that day. The battle on 1 November represented one of the worst battle defeats of the United States in the Korean War.

For the tens of thousands of soldiers who came home from the war, whether dead or alive, the war experience ended definitively. However, for these four Americans, and the 8,000 other service members classified as POW/MIA in the Korean War, their experiences ended with a question mark. That changed in 2007, when Akins, Boody, White, and Glennon finally came home. As part of a Joint Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command (JPAC) operation, the remains of the four soldiers were positively identified among six sets of remains retrieved from North Korea. Operating in the largest forensic laboratory in the world, scientists at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii used DNA sampling to determine the identity of the service members from bone fragments, remnants of dog tags, and personal effects—all of which are over a half-century old.

There are currently over 1,000 active cases from the Korean War and an estimated 27,000 recoverable remains from all wars. JPAC teams travel all over the world to scour old battlefields, POW camps, and military base locations. Many of these locations are now unassuming villages, farmlands, and jungles. Archaeologists section off the sites in 4 x 4 meter sections and sift through every grain of dirt for evidence of remains. Sometimes they excavate and identify the remains of animals or non-American soldiers buried with American soldiers. Despite the arduous work, JPAC continues in its mission. In interviews, scientists at JPAC recall how officials from other countries often express amazement that the U.S. government would spend so much time and energy on such a project. However, the U.S. military lives by the credo "leave no man behind." JPAC’s operations remain unique in the world.

Retrieving the remains is an apolitical act. Other countries, even those with which the United States does not have good relations, respect the operations and generally cooperate with JPAC. The one exception is North Korea. JPAC reached an agreement with North Korea in 1993 and has since recovered 220 sets of remains. In 2006, however, the Bush administration permanently suspended JPAC operations in North Korea—temporarily suspended in May 2005—because of a growing crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program as well as concerns about the safety of excavation. Since then, there has been only one set of remains returned by the DPRK. This occurred in 2007 during a visit to North Korea by New Mexico governor Bill Richardson and former Secretary of Veteran Affairs Anthony Principi. The Obama administration maintained the suspension of JPAC operations until reaching an initial nuclear freeze agreement with North Korea in February 2012. The United States suspended operations again after the agreement fell apart following North Korea’s missile launch in April 2012.

The Obama administration must reconsider the suspension of recovery operations. There are strong political arguments against continuing JPAC activities in the DPRK: the United States should not engage with such a heinous and renegade regime; JPAC teams are potentially in harm’s way should a crisis escalate; and the United States should not pay money to an adversarial regime to recover the remains of our soldiers.

But these political arguments mean little to the families who have waited for over a half-century to welcome their heroes home. JPAC team members have stated that they have only received the most courteous treatment when on excavation missions in North Korea. Working together to bring home these soldiers can act as a confidence building measure between the U.S. and North Korean militaries. This will begin a process of reconciliation between two governments that technically remain at war—an armistice, not peace treaty, ceased hostilities in 1953. With regard to the payments that JPAC teams must disburse—for lodging, fuel, labor, etc.—for their operations in a host country, this money pales in comparison to the ultimate sacrifice that brave soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines paid for defending their country. You cannot measure honor in financial terms. Closure should be afforded to relatives with long-missing family members.

Akins, White, Glennon, and Boody were eventually buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery or in their hometowns with their mothers, wives, siblings, and children all present. When Akins’ wife Mary was told that her husband was finally coming home, the now elderly woman, who never remarried, asked if he had suffered in a prison camp. She was told that, to the best of the investigator’s knowledge, he had died instantly. Sitting in a nursing home in McLean, Virginia, Mary Akins finally felt a sense of closure after over fifty years. Her hero was finally home.

A longer version of the author’s article appears in the new book, You are not Forgotten: Stories of Korean War Veterans. He is an independent researcher affiliated with Pacific Forum in Honolulu, Hawaii.