Hi-tech offers families of Korea vets closure

The return last week of the remains of three American soldiers killed during the Korean War at the battle of Chongchon River in 1950 highlighted how advanced software and computer processing power is shortening the time it takes to identify remains and match them with the records of missing soldiers.

Because of advances during the past few years in software and microprocessors, we may know as early as next summer the identities of the 867 remains of Korean War veterans buried in the Punchbowl cemetery in Hawaii.

While the high-tech effort to crunch through the mountains of dental and skeletal records under way at the Army's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii has helped cut the time it will take to make the identifications, fellow veterans and families of those still missing do not view the project as a testament to computers and software.

It's about the promise of finding closure.

Bringing closure to 50 years of not knowing and, in some cases, not believing, that their fathers, brothers and sons were killed—that's what families and veterans of the Korean War say they want and need from the project. Not knowing is torture, according to some family members of those that are missing. Knowing you left many behind, say some veterans, is like wearing a crown of thorns for the rest of your life.

"A critical part of the grieving process is closure," said Hugh Eaton, a former air traffic control tower operator in Korea during the war. "Being deprived of this ceremony is an emotional block for those parents, siblings and friends whose loved ones' remains are not recovered or their fate is never accurately determined or verified. Those efforts must be supported with the funds and the expertise required to do a first rate job."

It's About Promises

Aug. 8, 1950, Marine squad leader Douglas Bell promised the men of 1st Squad, D Company of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade that if they were killed in action along the Pusan Perimeter they would not be left behind.

During the squad's first encounter with the enemy, Bell lost several Marines to enemy fire and was wounded himself. While he lay wounded in a hospital, he managed to write to the families of those who were killed. A year later, he was assigned to be a war-dead escort in San Francisco, where Bell said he was able to follow through on the promise he made on that battlefield in Korea.

Today, almost 50 years later, "that promise still stands," Bell said. "Anything that can be done to bring them all home should be done."

"The issue of the more than 8,000 MIAs from the Korean War has twisted my gut for years," said Ralph Crowley, who served in Korea with the 501st Combat Reconnaissance Group. "Like the war itself, just forgotten. Any effort, high-tech or otherwise, honors their memory."

Experiencing combat in Korea taught Dan Carson, a first lieutenant with the 3rd Signal Company, that the fear of being left behind is greater than the fear of dying. "For me, every missing Korea vet is a part of me that is missing," he said. "Each one that is found and returned is part of me that has come home."

It's About Families

"If you wish to know what impact the joint recovery efforts have made, ask the families," said Gerri Montgomery Prescott, whose father, Air Force Lt. Col. Gerald Montgomery, was shot down March 3, 1952, while flying a combat mission over North Korea. "They are the ones who stand to benefit the most from these efforts. Ask the mother or the sister who finally gets their son [or] brother back after nearly 50 years."

Vincent Krepps, who won a Silver Star for gallantry in action in Korea, lost his twin brother after he went missing in 1950 during what Krepps calls the hellish opening months of the war. "The last time my family saw him, he was staring mournfully from a blurry newspaper photograph of a group of American [prisoners of war] being held in a North Korean prison camp, somewhere near the Yalu River," Krepps said. "I still don't have complete closure, and I will not until his remains or he comes home. My brain logically tells me there's no way he could have survived this long, but my heart wanted to believe he would come home alive."

Deb Cassanta's uncle, Nicholas DeSimone Jr., was presumed dead July 14, 1954, after the Chinese army overran his unit, Company C of the 461st Infantry Battalion. In the 45 years since his disappearance, her family has received none of her uncle's personal effects. "I feel that with every identity made, another family receives a certain peace of mind and closure," Cassanta said. "If we had proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Nicholas is indeed deceased, years of wondering 'Is he still alive?' could be put to rest."

It's About Using IT

Rather than just sitting back and waiting for the government to tell them what they need to know about their missing loved ones, families and veterans are playing an active role in uncovering the fate of those missing in action. And the Internet has made that possible.

Through a series of World Wide Web sites and replicas of official databases that list information on known MIAs, veterans groups such as the Korean War Project and the Vietnam Veterans Home Page, are actively sharing and searching for information on those that are missing. The Web also helps them remember.

The Korean War Project is run by Hal and Ted Barker out of their Dallas apartments with no funding help from the government. The project, which includes thousands of veterans from across the country, runs on a six-workstation local-area network between the Barker's apartments.

"Technology is allowing us to remember Korean vets in ways virtually impossible before the Internet," Hal Barker said. "On Veterans Day, we maxed out several times with over 100 visitors online simultaneously. We average 15,000 distinct visitors per month and well over 1 million file transfers."

Jan Curran, whose father, Navy Lt. Charles Garrison remains missing in Korea, is trying to enhance the use of the DNA database used by the Central Identification Laboratory through her own Web site that is dedicated to the effort. "I began asking about Punchbowl exhumations years ago and am gratified that it is now taking place," Curran said. "The [lab's] DNA database is an important advance. Many families may be able to finally find peace of mind because of this relatively new...technology."

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