Charles McDaniel Jr. was only 3 years old in 1950 when he and his brother Larry were told that their father, Army Master Sgt. Charles McDaniel had been lost in the Korean War.
Not killed in combat. Not captured by communist Chinese and North Korean forces. Just simply lost.
And McDaniel’s status would remain that way for nearly 70 years, until his dog tag made it into one of the 55 boxes of U.S. service members remains, repatriated back to the United States from North Korea late last month.
On Wednesday, the McDaniel brothers received the dog tag belonging to their late father, turned over by officials from the Defense Prisoner of War and Missing in Action Agency, ending decades of uncertainty, sorrow and doubt.
“We are just overwhelmed that of all these boxes that came back, and all these thousands of people [missing], we are the only ones who have some certitude” on what happened to their father, Charles Jr. himself a former Army chaplain and Green Beret told reporters during a press conference in Arlington, Va.
Their father was assigned to the Medical Company of the 8th Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division when he was declared missing on Nov. 2, 1950, near the North Korean city of Unsan, 60 miles north of Pyongyang. His company in the regiment’s Third Battalion were sent with the rest of 1st Cavalry to reinforce the South Korean Army’s 1st and 6th Division near the North Korean city.
Allied forces, which had been ambushed by Chinese and North Korean forces near Unsan, were engaged in a pitched battle to push the enemy back when 1st Cavalry with the 8th Regiment in the lead were called in to support the South Koreans. McDaniel was added to the roster of missing Americans from the Korean War after the battle, despite confirmation from another Army Medic assigned to Third Battalion that he was killed in action.
Agency doctors and forensic specialists are still working to determine whether McDaniel’s human remains were also included in the 55 boxes handed over by Pyongyang, the agency’s Chief Scientist John Byrd told reporters Wednesday. “It is still a little bit early for us to know,” he added during the same press conference.
Should McDaniel’s remains be identified, the brothers plan to have them buried in Arlington National Cemetery or in the soldier’s hometown of Indianapolis, Charles Jr. said.
The majority of the remains were collected near the North Korean village of Sin Hung-ri, located on the eastern side of the Chosin Reservoir where U.S. Army and Marine Corps units battled Chinese and North Korean forces in the bloody battle that bears the reservoir’s name. Over 7,500 soldiers and Marines died in the Battle of Chosin, with just over 2,800 South Korean troops killed in the fight.
But the work to identify the remains of the soldiers and Marines handed over by Pyongyang, using DNA databases, dental records and other medical documentation could take years, Mr. Byrd told reporters at the Pentagon shortly after the remains arrived on U.S. soil at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii.
“It is not a linear process,” Mr. Byrd said, noting the agency is also working to identify remains from World War II all the way up through Vietnam. “It could be done in a week or five years,” he added.
Each box came also with a brief paragraph, written in Korean, briefly explaining the contents inside. Aside from the forensic work being done to identify the remains, agency officials are also in the midst of translating the paragraphs in the hopes of gleaning any additional information.
“Like any family member, whether their loss was in the Vietnam War or World War II, the void in their life because of that loss is accentuated by the uncertainty” of knowing whether or not their loved ones can be returned home, agency Director Kelly McKeague said Wednesday.
“So you can imagine the renewed sense of hope that we finally might have some progress in North Korea,” identifying fallen U.S. service members and bringing them back to America, he added.
The 55 boxes were the most handed over by North Korea to the U.S. since repatriation efforts began in the 1990s, Mr. McKeague said, noting the handover represented a “high-water mark” in U.S. efforts to bring American casualties back home from North Korea.
The long-awaited handover of the American remains was a key tenet from the historic summit in Singapore between the Trump administration and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in June. But doubts over whether Pyongyang would follow through on the effort began to surface in the days and weeks following the Singapore summit.
Pyongyang had kept their U.S. counterparts in limbo over when the remains would begin their long trek back to America, at one point failing to appear at a prescheduled meeting to discuss the handover with an American delegation in South Korea. But North Korean officials “were very forthcoming and candid with us” once American recovery teams hit the ground inside the country, Mr. McKeague said.
While work continues to identify the rest of the fallen U.S. service members handed over last month, the long wait for the McDaniel family is now over.
When asked whether he or his brother Larry would keep the dog tag, Charles Jr. replied: “We may arm-wrestle or something.”