Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

An unbelievable 83,451 still missing March 23, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:21 AM
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A tribute to POWs and MIAs at the veterans' memorial in Northfield.

United States suspends recovery of troop remains in North Korea

I nearly skipped over the AP article on page A5 of my local daily newspaper. But then I paused, allowed my eyes to linger on the headline before reading the heartbreaking story.

Just as efforts to find American service members missing during the Korean War were set to resume, that mission has been suspended. The action comes on the heels of North Korea’s plans to rocket-launch a satellite in apparent violation of United Nations’ sanctions.

That’s the situation in a nutshell. Hopeful families who have been waiting for the return of their loved ones for more than 60 years still wait.

I cannot imagine. The wait. The not knowing. The pain in losing a child to war. How many mothers and fathers of Korean War veterans have died without bringing their soldier boys back home for proper burial? Many.

The statistics shocked me. I had no idea that 7,960 Americans are unaccounted for from the Korean War, according to the Defense Prisoner of War-Missing Personnel Office, U.S. Department of Defense. Among the missing/unaccounted for are 146 Minnesotans. Click here to read that list.

But the numbers are even more staggering when you consider the totals for wars from World War II through the 1991 Gulf War. There are 83,451 Americans missing. That’s almost the entire population of Duluth. Most of the unaccounted for, 73,690, served during WW II.

Yet, until you begin thinking of the missing in terms of names, the totals seem merely overwhelming statistics that cannot be comprehended. So I went to the DPMO website and clicked on news releases. There I found what I was seeking—the names of soldiers gone missing in Korea and who, all these years later, have been identified through the use of modern-day forensics.

Just to explain, North Korea gave the U.S. 208 boxes of remains believed to be those of 200-400 U.S. servicemen, according to the DPMO.

Among the recently-identified remains are those of Army Cpl. William R. Sluss, 21, of Nickelsville, Va. He was captured by the Chinese and died as a result of malnutrition in the spring of 1951 while a POW in North Phyongan Province, North Korea.

The remains of Army Pfc. George A. Porter, 21, of Philadelphia, were also recently-identified. He was among more than 100 men taken prisoner by the Chinese during what became known as the “Hoengsong Massacre.”

And then there’s Sgt. Willie D. Hill, 20, of Catawba, N.C., whose infantry division was encircled by Chinese forces in November 1950 resulting in heavy losses, including that of Hill.

William. George. Willie.

They were young men lost to war, in a very literal sense.

I have never lost a loved one to death by war. But I have lost a loved one to war. My father fought as an infantryman on the front lines during the Korean War. He was wounded on Heartbreak Ridge and decades later, in May of 2000, was awarded a Purple Heart. He returned to Minnesota a changed man, unable to bury the horrific memories of buddies blown apart before his eyes, of enemies he’d killed.

Today he would have been identified as suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. But back then, upon his military discharge in 1953, my dad was simply expected to return to civilian life as if nothing had changed for him personally.

April 3 marks nine years since my dad died at the age of 72. I am convinced that he would have lived longer had any type of counseling been available to him upon his return  to the farm fields of southwestern Minnesota.

Yet, despite my wish that he could have gotten help, I am thankful that he came home. In one piece. Alive.

Thousands of other American families do not have the comfort that is mine—to visit a cemetery knowing their loved one is buried here, on American soil.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling