Four decades after Korea, MIA’s daughter returns to war zone
WASHINGTON (AP) _ In the four decades since her father was shot down in an Air Force bomber over North Korea, Pat Dunton has often tried to visualize the mysterious land where he and thousands of other U.S. servicemen are still missing.
Next week, for the first time, she will see it first hand. No more imagining from a world away.
Mrs. Dunton, of Coppell, Texas, leaves Friday to observe a joint U.S.-North Korean search for human remains on a battlefield in the northwestern county of Unsan. The site is a few hours’ drive from the Yalu River bridge her father’s B-29 had targeted for destruction before the bomber was knocked from the sky on April 12, 1951.
Hers is a rare, if not unprecedented, visit to a country that for years ignored pleas from American families to help determine the fate of missing U.S. servicemen. About 8,100 servicemen are unaccounted for from the 1950-53 Korean War, among them her father, Lt. James S. Wilson Jr., of Memphis, Tenn.
``It’s been a long time coming,″ said Mrs. Dunton, who has devoted 28 years of her life trying to piece together the painful puzzle of her father’s loss.
She has no expectation that her visit will yield answers to her father’s case. But she sees it as an indication North Korea might move further toward cooperation, including opening up more of its wartime archives and talking directly with other American families of missing servicemen.
``It’s a start for the families, if we can get some cooperation,″ Mrs. Dunton said in a telephone interview. ``If not, this is just a public relations move by the North Koreans.″
Mrs. Dunton is president of the Korean War-Cold War Family Association of the Missing, whose members are relatives of almost 800 unaccounted for servicemen.
On her mission, Mrs. Dunton will carry letters from MIA families asking the North Koreans to broaden the avenues of cooperation. Going with her are representatives of the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Chosin Few, representing those who fought and died at the Chosin Reservoir in November-December 1950.
``We think this is an opportunity to gain a commitment from them to resolve this issue,″ said Ken Steadman, executive director of the VFW’s Washington office. He was referring not only to full recovery of battlefield remains but also answers to questions about possible live POWs still in North Korea.
``The answers are there if they’ll let us have them,″ Mrs. Dunton said.
A North Korean diplomat in New York told a U.S. official this year that as many as seven Americans are in the North in addition to four U.S. Army defectors from the 1960s. Later, the North Korean Foreign Ministry denied there were any besides the four.
Whatever the case, Mrs. Dunton and Steadman said they intend to seek permission to talk to the defectors.
Mrs. Dunton and the veterans’ group representatives are to spend one day next week, probably Wednesday, at the site in Unsan County where a team of eight U.S. specialists and others will be excavating for remains. They dug in the same area twice this year, yielding what are believed to be remains of four American soldiers in August and one set of remains in September.
The site was the scene of battles in October 1950 in which Chinese forces overran elements of the U.S. Army’s 8th Cavalry and turned the tide of the war.
Mrs. Dunton and others question why the Pentagon is digging in the Unsan battlefield, where there are no marked grave sites.
``They should go to the known burial sites and POW camps first _ that’s where they’ll find remains,″ Mrs. Dunton said. She was referring to the hundreds of battlefield grave sites in North Korea that were marked before U.N. forces were pushed back south of the 38th parallel after China entered the war.
The Pentagon has precise map coordinates for the grave sites, and it also knows locations of POW camps were thousands of Americans died in captivity.
Larry Greer, a spokesman for the Pentagon’s Defense POW-MIA Office, said a go-slow approach is preferred, even if it means recovering just a few sets of remains. The Pentagon is paying North Korea $316,500 this year as reimbursement for fuel and other supplies for the three recovery operations in Unsan.
``We had to build some type of experience, and it was best to do that with smaller numbers″ of recovered remains, Greer said.