'Humbling' and 'historic' to participate in repatriation of remains from N. Korea, say C-17 crews
By WILLIAM COLE | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: August 13, 2018
HONOLULU, Hawaii (Tribune News Service) — The three Hawaii-based C-17s flew west days apart and landed at Osan Air Base in South Korea for what would be the rarest of missions.
One of those cargo aircraft with an active-duty Air Force crew from the 15th Wing flew into North Korea early on the morning of July 27 — the 65th anniversary of the Korean War armistice — to take on board 55 wooden boxes with the remains of presumed Americans killed long ago.
Five days later two other C-17s — one with an active-duty crew and the other with a Hawaii Air National Guard crew — flew the American-flag-draped caskets from South Korea back to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam for identification.
The enormity of the mission — flying into North Korea and receiving 55 wooden boxes of remains — didn’t affect Staff Sgt. Chance Gorham until he saw the procession heading to the big jet.
“It really seemed like a normal mission (at first),” said Gorham, an aircraft maintainer with the 15th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Joint Base Pearl Harbor- Hickam. “It didn’t really kick in what we were doing until we actually saw the boxes coming out to the jet.”
Three tugs with trailers at Kalma Airport in Wonsan, North Korea, made repeated trips to line up the boxes in neat rows behind the C-17, he said.
The North Koreans “were very respectful when they brought them out,” placing bubble wrap on the tarmac before setting down the containers, Gorham said.
Seeing the remains and bringing them to South Korea “was probably one of the most memorable experiences and missions that I’m going to (have),” said the 12-year Air Force member.
The turnover of remains — the first in more than a decade — was agreed to by North Korea during President Donald Trump’s historic summit with Kim Jong Un on June 12 in Singapore.
Vice President Mike Pence, who flew to Hawaii, said the repatriation to American soil on Aug. 1 at Hickam was “just a beginning” after Trump “secured a promise from Chairman Kim to return the remains of all fallen U.S. service members lost in North Korea.”
On Friday several of the crew members who flew into North Korea and brought the remains home from South Korea spoke with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser about the rare experience.
Mission commander Maj. Nicole Stenstad with the 15th Operations Support Squadron said the effort went off “flawlessly.”
She admits a “whole lot of things” went through her mind before landing in North Korea. “I would say the biggest is uncertainty about what would happen,” she said. “I mean, we prepared as best as we possibly could, and I think that’s why the mission went as well as it did.”
The aircraft, with a crew of about 10, along with four members of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency from Hawaii and other officials, flew from Osan, out over the ocean and into North Korea with South Korean air traffic control passing the flight to North Korean air traffic control.
Stenstad, who was in one of the pilot’s seats and was focused on communication and coordination while another pilot flew the plane, said she briefly noticed hills and buildings as the flight transitioned from sea to shore.
“I would say we were more focused on safely landing the plane — so I can’t say I was really enjoying the scenery too much,” she said. The airport, meanwhile, “was good enough for us to land on.”
Once on the ground, North Korean officials came out to the jet. Asked about armed North Korean guards, Stenstad said, “I don’t know how much of this I can go into.”
The crew spent a few hours on the ground before heading back to Osan.
The active-duty Air Force “owns” the Hawaii-based C-17s, with the Hawaii Air National Guard acting as an associate unit also flying and maintaining the jets.
The three planes were sent to South Korea to cover all contingencies, Stenstad said. The two C-17s that didn’t fly into North Korea were used to transport the remains to Hawaii.
In South Korea the remains were inspected further, placed in aluminum transfer cases and covered in American flags en route to Hawaii.
Maj. Brandon Chang, a Hawaii Air Guard C-17 pilot with the 204th Airlift Squadron, who helped return 27 sets of remains on the aircraft named the Spirit of Daniel Inouye, said seeing those caskets on board “was pretty deep. Surreal … Bringing them back to loved ones — it touched me inside.”
Tech Sgt. Makaio Roberts, a loadmaster with the 204th, said, “For me, I call it the three H’s — it’s humbling, (an) honor, and it’s pretty historic, just to be able to bring them home.”
The remains have been moved into the accounting agency’s lab at Hickam for forensic analysis. No identifications have yet been made, the agency said.
The largest previous single turnover of remains by North Korea was 33, so the July 27 return was a “high water mark,” according to the accounting agency.
Stenstad was asked whether the crew who went into North Korea saw Kim, the reclusive nation’s notorious leader.
“We did not,” she said with a laugh.
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