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WWII vet who starved to death in Korean War prison camp will be buried with wife in Nebraska

September 20, 2018

Irene Thurstonson Chinn died in 2002 and was buried in Silver Creek, Nebraska, without knowing the fate of her husband, who was taken prisoner during the Korean War and never came home.

Tuesday, nearly 68 years after his death by starvation, Army Master Sgt. Leonard Chinn will be interred with his wife in the soil of her native state. He will receive the military honors denied him decades ago.

“We always had hope. But we didn’t know when, or if, really,” said Rodney Chinn, 71, of Columbus, who was 3 when his father was captured. “Now, my mother and father will be together again.”

Leonard Chinn grew up in New Harmony, Utah, one of 12 children. He enlisted in the Army in 1940 and fought in the Pacific, earning a Silver Star for valor in the 1944 battle of Peleliu for saving the lives of six wounded soldiers. He was discharged and married Irene on March 12, 1946. They had two sons: Randy, who is now 70, and Rodney.

After doing warehouse work for a while, Chinn re-enlisted in 1948 as a combat engineer. He was an engineer with the 2nd Infantry Division, which deployed to the Korean Peninsula from the United States in July 1950 to aid South Korean forces weeks after communist North Korea launched a surprise attack.

Chinn’s battalion was overrun by Chinese troops on Dec. 1, 1950. He and other soldiers were marched from one prison camp to another through the frigid winter months. After the war, other former POWs said Chinn had died in April 1951, from malnutrition, at age 34, while being held at POW Camp 5 in North Korea.

He was believed to have been buried near the camp, but his remains weren’t returned at the end of the war in 1953.

Rodney Chinn has only vague memories of his father alive. But he does remember his family moving from Fort Lewis, Washington, where his father had been stationed before the war, to his maternal grandparents’ home in Silver Creek, about 10 miles southwest of Columbus.

In the tradition of the era, Irene didn’t bring up her husband much after he died.

“She didn’t talk much about it,” Chinn said. “She was upset they had to go to war.”

In 1993, the North Korean government turned over 33 boxes of Korean War remains to a predecessor organization of today’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in Hawaii. The agency also has a laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base, near Bellevue.

DNA technology was still in its infancy. Only in July — 25 years later — was the accounting agency able to identify Chinn through a DNA match, as well as anthropological analysis. Five weeks ago, a team visited the Chinn family to explain their findings.

Last Saturday, Chinn’s remains were flown from Hawaii to Omaha’s Eppley Airfield. Passengers on the commercial flight were asked to remain on board while his flag-draped casket was removed from the aircraft.

Chinn said a family of seven who had been onboard the plane embraced him after the brief transfer ceremony.

“They all gave everybody a hug,” Chinn said. “They had tears in their eyes.”

Veterans on motorcycles escorted the casket home to Columbus, where a crowd waited at the American Legion post.

Services are scheduled for Wednesday at 2 p.m. Besides his two sons, only one of Leonard Chinn’s 11 siblings survives — a sister, Geneva Wood, of West Covina, California. She will pay tribute to him at the service.

“It’s a closure, finally, after 68 years,” Rodney Chinn said. “And he’s home.”

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