What Too Many People Don’t Know About The Korean War

The twenty-five-year-old Air Force Lieutenant held his pregnant wife’s hand and leaned to kiss her cheek as they rode west by train, en route to San Francisco, where the Lieutenant would report for duty. It was late summer in 1951. Months earlier, the Lieutenant had been an All-American goalie after the University of Michigan crushed Brown in the NCAA hockey championship. But that was a lifetime in the rearview mirror. Before he’d had a chance to sharpen his pencils at the new job after graduation, the Reserves had called him up and he was on his way to Korea.

From the 8th Bomb Squadron’s base in Kunsan, South Korea, the Lieutenant wrote love letters home by day and flew B-26 missions over enemy territory to the North at night. He operated SHORAN, a beacon navigation and bombing system that the U.S. had…and the Soviet Union wanted. Using a computer, the operator could guide the pilot over target with precision in the dark. Fewer casualties…for the most part.

The Lieutenant took off with three others one frigid night in January of ’52. It was to have been a short run: an hour and a half up; ten minutes over target; an hour and a half back. Things didn’t go that way. When the aircraft failed to return to base, Search and Rescue went looking for it, but found nothing. The crew had disappeared.

The Lieutenant’s wife got the call, staggered back and wet her pants. Their baby girl was born two months later, to a despondent mother and a three-year-old brother who clung to the front door screen and cried for his daddy.

Three months later came news of germ warfare confessions. The Lieutenant’s pilot and navigator had been captured and likely tortured into admitting they had dropped germ-laden bombs upon North Korea. Broadcasts of the confessions aired on Peking radio. (China had entered the war in the fall of 1950.) There they were, the two prisoners, sitting at a microphone — one of them smiling and smoking a cigarette. Just another fun day in captivity.

But there were only two of them. Still nothing about the Lieutenant or the 4th crew member. Soon articles appeared in a pro-communist Swiss publication. It quoted the two captured crew as saying the others had died when the plane went down. Or maybe when it was hit. Or something.

The Lieutenant was listed as Missing in Action. His name appeared on the ‘944 List’…men who hadn’t been accounted for but, given circumstances of loss, should have been. The enemy had two of the four crew; it had the plane. Why didn’t they report having the other two men, or at least their bodies?

The Lieutenant’s family waited in despair. He wasn’t dead; he was MIA. There is a big difference. When a loved one dies, you are devastated. You grieve. Eventually you pull yourself together and move on. When someone you love is missing you don’t say goodbye. You don’t move forward. You keep waiting for news. You keep hoping one day you’ll open the door and he’ll be standing there.

So where was the Lieutenant?

There was no further word for the next year and a half. Every time the phone rang or there was a knock at the door, the Lieutenant’s wife stiffened. Would this be it?

In September of 1953, after the Armistice ending the Korean ‘Conflict’ was signed, POWs were exchanged at Panmunjom, just north of the border between the two Koreas. The men came across a bridge as cameras captured a glimpse of them. The Lieutenant’s wife stood before a tiny television, clutching herself, searching the faces as they passed from captivity into freedom.

When the last man had come over, and her husband hadn’t, she sank to her knees. Her two children cried with her, though they likely didn’t know why.

The Lieutenant’s two crewmates did come back. They were debriefed. Their stories differed from communist reports during the war. The two men had been captured by Chinese troops shortly after hitting the ground. They were interrogated in a cave, in a farmhouse and at several other spots along the way to Camp 2, where they would be interned throughout the war. They had been shown the muddied flight jacket of the fourth crew member and told his parachute hadn’t opened.

But there had been no mention of the Lieutenant. The survivors didn’t know what had happened to him, because he’d been sitting in the aft compartment of the aircraft, separated from them by the bomb bay, and they didn’t know if he’d gotten out or not. They did know the aircraft hadn’t exploded on impact so, if the Lieutenant had gone down with the plane, his body would’ve been found. But, there was no such report.

In fact, the Air Force sent a telegram to the wife in September of 1953 stating that information available to the enemy about some missing American personnel had not been provided, and a list of those personnel had been presented to the Communists with an urgent request for them to provide more information. The Lieutenant’s name was on that list.

There was an inquiry of sorts, or at least the pretense of one, for the next few months. Gradually, interest waned, as did headlines, and the Lieutenant’s wife was left in limbo. In February of 1954, for reasons that became known only decades later, the military made a presumptive finding of death for the Lieutenant and other MIAs.

The Lieutenant’s wife said goodbye. She was a widow…at least that’s what she believed at the time.

It was the 1950s. People (especially women) didn’t challenge the government then. They didn’t demand declassification of intelligence documents. They didn’t call their president a liar. As we now have reason to believe, they should have.

It wasn’t until the early 1990’s that then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin admitted the Soviets had transferred POWs out of the Korean theater of conflict. The Soviets had been behind the war from the beginning. They flew MiGs dressed in Chinese uniforms. They sat behind false walls listening while POWs were interrogated. With the jolt from Yeltsin’s admission, families of the missing rose from their ignorance and demanded information. Then came congressional hearings, creation of a DoD missing personnel office and the birth of a movement to account for the more than 8,000 men who remained missing from the Korean War…not a conflict, it was a War.

In 1994, Lt. Col. Phillip Corso testified at a hearing chaired by then-Congressman Bob Dornan of California. During the Korean War, one of Corso’s duties had been to keep track of enemy POW camps in North Korea. He’d overseen investigation of the estimated number of U.S. POWs held at each camp. Immediately after the war, Corso was an advisor to President Eisenhower on matters of National Security.

At the Dornan hearing, Corso testified that hundreds of American POWs had been left behind after the Korean War; that Eisenhower knew this but had kept the information from families and the American People because there would be outrage and a demand for action, which he was not prepared to take. It was, at least in part, dirty warfare and dirty politics.

Over the next 20+ years, through countless Freedom of Information Act requests, too many hours of research to count and determined advocacy with every branch of government, the families gathered considerable evidence that men had, indeed, been held back. There were live sightings and reports from various sources. Internal White House memos and other once-classified Intelligence, even contemporaneous congressional hearings, all spoke of the situation and what to do about it. There was no good answer. The Government surely didn’t want to leave men behind but, for some reason, concluded that nothing short of war would get the men back. And a war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union would have had dire consequences.

So, the missing Americans were abandoned. Written off then, and for decades to come. For any who were alive, the torment they must have endured defies words. But these men have not been forgotten by their families or the veterans who fought alongside of them. The anguish, different but very real, has lived with those who loved them and were never given information with which to heal the wound.

After (how many?) presidents have parroted the words ‘America Leaves No Man Behind,’ when in fact this country has left some 80,000 American Servicemen behind and unaccounted for since World War II, the U.S. Government is now tasked with finding out what happened to these men.

The accounting effort came about only after a glimpse of the truth flickered through the maze, such that families united and demanded answers. There would be no more lying down to the disinformation. The men who fought and gave their all, then disappeared without explanation, deserve more.

The Lieutenant is my father. But he could be anyone’s dad; or husband; or son; or brother.

Inside “Perm 36” in Russia

In my next article, I write about the Soviet gulags and American Intelligence that suggests who of our men might have been sent there and why.