At long last, Korean vet's journey nears home
LYNCHBURG, Va. -- The day the telegram arrived, Frances Dresser pulled her daughter out of school early. Patricia Goff was later told that her mother was driving so fast to the school that a policeman pulled her over.
Dresser explained to the officer that her son, Corporal Charles Scott, a soldier in the Korean War, had just been declared missing in action. The officer let her go.
Six decades later, an extraordinary chain of events finally is bringing closure to the family and giving a name to a set of bones that for decades was known only as X-15890.
An American flag flutters outside the Boonsboro home of Patricia Goff and her mother, who now is 98. It heralds the long-awaited return of their brother and son, who soon will be laid to rest among the rest of his family.
Goff calls the reunion nothing short of miraculous.
In her mind’s eye, Goff recalls Charles Scott’s likeness as that captured in photographs: a young man with dark wavy hair, smiling into the camera, dressed in military garb.
The gap between their ages — 10 years — makes it difficult for Goff to recall her brother, but there are a few memories.
There was the blue, three-wheeled motor scooter that Scott used to deliver the afternoon newspaper. A neighborhood boy, James Rice, occasionally rode in the basket and tossed out the paper along the way.
Goff remembers how her big brother, frustrated with his prying little sister snooping through his possessions, would yell to their mother for intercession.
He was quiet, she said — a memory disputed by his 1948 senior yearbook, where Scott is described as the “noisiest.” The yearbook also proclaims him a “heartbreaker.”
“Luck always,” wrote Shirley Coleman in his yearbook. “When you drive that bus, I want a free ride.”
Goff believes her brother intended to drive a Greyhound bus after he graduated from Boonsboro High School.
That was before the military changed his plans forever.
During high school, Scott joined the Virginia National Guard, and he enlisted in the Army the summer of graduation.
On one side of a torn-out page of a scrapbook, Scott placed a sepia-toned photograph of the army transport ship, the USS General E. T. Collins. On the other side, in neat cursive handwriting, he lists a history of his military excursions.
Perhaps it was a great adventure for the Virginia boy when he landed in Yokohama, Japan, in December of 1948. He would regularly send letters home. Scott took to the military lifestyle and considered entering officer candidate school, his sister said.
In September 1950, he was sent to Korea.
One of the last pieces of correspondence the family received was a letter Scott wrote saying how extremely cold it was.
One only could speculate as to how Scott spent his last days. What is known is that his unit was assigned to the east side of the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea, where they were met with heavy resistance by Communist forces and sustained heavy casualties.
The winter was bitter cold and road conditions hazardous. Sometime between Nov. 27 and Dec. 2, 1950, Scott went missing.
The little boy who would fling copies of The Daily Advance from the front of Scott’s motor scooter, James Rice, is now a 77-year-old retired real estate agent who continues to live in the Boonsboro area of Lynchburg.
[It] was the talk of the neighborhood when he went missing,” Rice said.
After Scott joined the Army, the Dresser family moved to northern Virginia. The proximity to Walter Reed Army Medical Center allowed easy access for a frantic mother to seek information. Goff would accompany her mother during those trips to the military hospital, a list of names in hand of all the soldiers in Scott’s company. She tried to find someone, anyone, who may have known of her son; who might have been able to tell her what happened to him.
“Just any little tidbit,” Goff said. “Because we had nothing. Nothing.”
During this time, the Army gave the family updates in its search for Scott’s whereabouts. The family continued to receive his normal monthly salary, which Dresser would deposit into a bank account. Correspondence dated Jan. 5, 1951 offered the thin assurance that the term “missing in action” only implies that the location or status of a person is not immediately known.
“It is not intended to convey the impression that the case is closed,” the letter stated.
Dated Dec. 31, 1953 — more than two years after Scott’s disappearance — the Dressers received a letter from Major General William E.Bergin. In the letter, Scott’s rank has been upgraded to sergeant; it also is accompanied by a form titled, “Finding of Death of Missing Person.”
“I trust that you may find sustaining comfort in the realization that your loved one made the supreme sacrifice while serving honorably in our country’s cause,” Bergin wrote.
Doff said her mother never really spoke about the loss of her son.
“By then, she pretty much just closed that door tight.”
“We never had any closure. There was nothing there, and I guess she thought there never would be.”
Months after he was officially declared dead — decades before modern advances in technology that would identify the body — the Chinese surrendered 25 boxes of remains that were found along the east side of the Chosin Reservoir, near Hudongni, North Korea, on Sept. 15, 1954. The repatriation was part of Operation Glory, an agreement between the United Nations and communist forces for the exchange of war dead.
The remains were sent to the Army’s Central Identification Unit in Kokura, Japan, where they were embalmed in chemicals including formaldehyde.
In one of those boxes awaited the remains of what was determined to be a white male in his early 20s, who stood around five feet, eight inches tall when he was alive. The bones were compared to the skeletal remains of other “unresolved” casualties from Scott’s unit.
The military contacted Dresser, asking for any of Scott’s previous medical or dental records.
In March 1955, Dresser wrote a response to the Office of the Quartermaster General, thanking the department for its help in trying to identify her son’s remains.
“I have tried to get his dental records but the dentist which treated him until he entered the Army has since retired from dental practice and [had] his records destroyed,” she wrote.
Scott also had never broken a bone, and therefore had never had an X-ray, Dresser wrote — she had nothing that could assist with identification.
In 1955, a military review board designated a set of remains, known as X-15890, as “unidentifiable.” The following year, X-15890 was interred as a Korean War Unknown in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.
Years later, Dresser visited a memorial at the cemetery, and saw her son’s name listed among those missing in action in the war. She had no idea that his remains actually were there.
It would be nearly 60 years before advances in technology would make a break in the case.
A combination of curiosity and technology would be the linchpin for returning Scott to his family.
Frances Dresser divorced Scott’s father when her son still was very young. During summers, Scott would go to his paternal grandparent’s farm outside of Buena Vista. A cousin, James Jenkins, 71, remembers Scott as a boy doted on by female family members. So much so, that when Scott was declared missing, their grandmother continued to speak of him as if he was still alive.
Jenkins’ interest in his cousin’s whereabouts remained.
In 2003, Jenkins was browsing the Internet when he came across a website called the Korean War Project. Four years later, he saw a request on the site for DNA from the maternal bloodlines of missing Korean War soldiers.
Believing Dresser to no longer be living, Jenkins again consulted the Internet to perhaps come across grandchildren who could provide DNA. Instead, he found Goff’s telephone number.
“It all came about through general research and the question about — ‘What happened to Charles?’ ” Jenkins said.
After he contacted the family about the government’s search for kin, Goff and Dresser submitted DNA through a mouth swab.
That was in 2007. The women received no response until July 2013.
All it took was a single tooth.
The tooth, identified as number 22, and the body’s right femur, were submitted for mitochondrial DNA analysis.
At an earlier point, the body had been placed in formaldehyde, which now is known to cause DNA strands to degrade. No reportable data was obtained from the femur sample.
The hard calcium casing of teeth, however, protected the genetic material of the inner mass of the tooth, known as dentin.
Tooth number 22 “was a perfect match, all the way across,” Goff said.
When she heard the news over her voicemail that her brother’s remains were identified: “I about fell in the floor,” Goff said “... It was just mind-blowing.”
Scott’s remains will be flown to Richmond within the coming weeks. From there, he will be transferred to Lynchburg and interred at Fort Hill Memorial Park with full military honors on Sept. 5.
He also will be in the same resting spot as other members of his family.
Recent military deaths are accompanied by raw emotions such as anger, grief and denial, said Michael Mee of the army’s Casualty and Mortuary Affairs. Decades-old cases, such as Charles Scott, have allowed people time to heal, he said.
“We’re the calls, families want to get.”
But many families with war dead in Korea will not be receiving those calls.
More than 7,900 Korean War service members continue to be classified as missing in action. For those soldiers who are deceased, the repatriation of their remains is unlikely.
American casualties were often placed without dog tags or other identification, sometimes bodies were moved intentionally, Mee said.
Ongoing tensions between the U.S. and North Korea further impede the repatriation process.
The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, an entity of the Department of Defense, is tasked with the recovery and identification of missing combat personnel. The long lapse between’s Scott’s death and the return of his remains owes to the limited scientific resources in earlier years and a backlog of remains to be identified today.
As part of the Army’s Casualty and Mortuary Affairs unit, Mee travels the country meeting with 25 to 30 families whose relatives have been identified. Sitting with the mother of a fallen Korean War serviceman as well as four generations within the same family was “an absolute first.”
Frances Dresser remembers her son as a boy who was fond of helping older people. For Goff, it’s simply enough to have closure.
“It’s a story,” Goff said. “It deserves to be told. 63 years is a lifetime for people, but they stuck to it and really tried to bring it to fruition.”
“I’m still having a hard time accepting it,” she said.