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Countries team up to find fallen soldiers in South Korea

By JON RABIROFF | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 21, 2009

HWACHEON COUNTY, South Korea — U.S. military excavators are hoping the discovery of human remains and a pen in this remote farming village can help them write the final chapter in the lives of as many as five American soldiers lost during the Korean War.

After only a few days of digging into a "burial mound" found along a route believed to be used for prisoner-of-war marches during the conflict, the team from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command has turned up finger bone fragments, bullets and casings, buttons, a boot eyelet and a Parker pen.

"Of course, in the ’40s and ’50s, a lot of soldiers carried fountain pens with them … and that was their main means of communicating with their family," said Jay Silverstein, a JPAC anthropologist overseeing the dig about eight miles from the border with North Korea. "So, it is very common to find a fountain pen with American soldiers from World War II and the Korean War."

Since it was formed in 2005, JPAC — which is based at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii — has found and identified the remains of more than 90 servicemembers originally listed as missing or unaccounted for after the Korean War, which ran from 1950 to 1953.

JPAC’s 12-member excavation team came to Hwacheon this month because a preliminary investigation a year ago determined there was a strong likelihood that American soldiers might have been buried here.

Lt. Col. Wayne Perry, a JPAC spokesman, said the discovery of the "traditional Korean burial mound," the role the area played during the war and the recollections of local residents convinced the agency to send in an excavation team.

Officials on site stressed Monday that it was still early in the dig, and anything exhumed will first have to be carefully examined to determine how many — if any — remains of U.S. soldiers are ultimately found on the site.

That said, Perry said the mound is "related to what we believe to be a burial site of four or five individuals who were on what we call a POW march trail."

During the war, the Hwacheon region was occupied by North Korean forces, Perry said.

"When they captured [South] Korean and U.S. forces, they would march them back north to the prison camps in the area that is now North Korea," he said.

"In some cases, there would be several days of walking, up to a couple of weeks, and that’s why some of [the POWs] died along the way, from disease or their injuries."

Perry said officials suspect that after a march, or after the war was over, local residents "gathered up" the bodies and gave them a formal burial.

"Korean culture is very respectful of death, and I think they wanted to give them the right burial," he said. "That’s why this is a typical Korean burial mound versus a hole in the ground, if you will. They were buried traditionally. In their culture, that would be the proper thing to do."

Kim Chu-yul, who lives near the site, said through an interpreter that local residents have long suspected soldiers of some kind were buried in the mound due to the discovery of "military items" in the vicinity. He said he was "very impressed" by the work done a year ago on site by JPAC investigators.

The Hwacheon dig is being hailed by U.S. and South Korean military officials as an example of teamwork and cooperation, as a team of Korean soldiers has been brought in to assist JPAC in excavating the site. More than 30 Korean journalists were brought to the site on Monday to see Americans and Koreans working elbow-to-elbow digging up the site, filling buckets and handing them up to a team of sifters, who meticulously inspected each load for anything of interest as they forced the dirt through screens.

More than 8,000 U.S. servicemembers remain missing in action or unaccounted for from the Korean War, with about 2,000 of those believed to be buried in South Korea. The United States has been barred since 2005 from looking for remains in North Korea, a source of frustration for Silverstein, who was involved in a dig north of the border before they were no longer allowed.

"I am always disappointed when politics interfere with human rights and bringing closure to families whose relatives died in Korea so long ago," he said, adding that he hopes to someday return to North Korea in search of the remains of U.S. servicemembers.

"I found the North Koreans very pleasant to work with," Silverstein said. "My experience was very positive. It gave me a lot of hope for the future … that relations between the North and the South and the West and the rest of Asia will someday be improved.

"I found [the North Koreans] to be very reasonable people. Very friendly. We could sit down and have a beer, or smoke a cigar, and talk. It was quite pleasant."

Perry said despite all the years that have passed since the Korean War, the finding of remains continues to be important, and for more than just the promise the U.S. military makes to those in its ranks that, "If you’re lost, we’re going to bring you home."

To the families of the dead, there is nothing more important than to know about the final chapter of their loved ones’ lives, he said.

"It’s hard to explain — it’s so important," Perry said. "Hopefully we can capture the circumstances of the loss and people can see what [the deceased] did and how they were lost, and it brings closure to them. It’s important to people."


Korean soldiers pass a bucket of soil dug up in Hwacheon County in Gangwon Province, South Korea, to a group that sifts through the soil in search of remains.
JON RABIROFF / S&S

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