YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — Coming off what he termed the “most successful year we’ve ever had,” the commander of the U.S. unit tasked with recovering the remains of American servicemembers around the globe hopes for even more success next year.

The gains made during five recovery missions to North Korea this year will help negotiations for next year’s missions, Maj. Gen. W. Montague “Que” Winfield, head of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, said in an interview Thursday.

On Friday, Winfield and several other officials presided over a U.N. Command repatriation ceremony at Yongsan Garrison in which the remains of Korean War servicemembers began their journey home to the United States.

“The gauge of our success isn’t the number of remains that we bring back, but the level of cooperation that North Korea extends to our missions,” Winfield said.

Even so, he noted, some 40 sets of remains have been recovered this year, the most since the North Korea missions began in 1996. Winfield attributes that increase to several factors, most notably a North Korean concession to allow JPAC advance teams to investigate sites before a full excavation team is dispatched.

Additionally, JPAC teams have been given greater access to North Korean veterans and citizens who might have information, a crucial resource in identifying where remains might lie.

“I’ve asked why we were treated differently the second year of the missions versus the first year,” Winfield said. “The experts said familiarity tends to be more productive. That has allowed me as a commander to ask for more and receive much more than in years prior.”

This year, for the first time, American teams have been allowed to choose where to look for remains, instead of going only where the North Koreans have permitted.

JPAC conducts missions in 53 countries, Winfield said. While not all were sites of battles involving U.S. troops, they were areas where planes might have gone down or ships might have sunk.

“Our old flight lanes crossed every part of the world,” Winfield said. “Burma, China, India — those were overflown all the time during World War II.”

The JPAC teams, and Winfield in particular, know their mission gets harder as time goes on.

“The clock is ticking,” Winfield said. “Many of the witnesses, whether veterans or other witnesses, are getting old. That’s why our oral history program is so important. We can record what they have to say and archive all of that information now.”

In places like North Korea, he said, the loss of former battlefields in rural areas also poses a problem.

“If they’re going to dam up a river and a possible site is going to be underground, or if they’re going to build a skyscraper on top of it, we can’t tear it down,” Winfield said. “But we have purchased houses and crops to get to sites.”

Negotiations for next year’s missions will be held next month. Winfield says his priorities will be to get more time for investigation teams to do their jobs and, especially, to get permission to search the sites of former POW camps.

“We have not been allowed to go there, and but we know where they were. And we know there are lots of remains there,” he said.

Negotiations with the North Koreans often end up with both sides giving concessions. In return for allowing remains this year to be repatriated by land over the DMZ for the first time, for example, the North Koreans demanded changes to the missions that give the teams less flexibility in movement.

Nonetheless, Winfield said he and the rest of JPAC would live up to their solemn duty.

“We love this mission. It is the most noble and honorable mission we could have. Our job is to keep the promise we make to Americans when they put on the uniform,” Winfield said. “Leave no one behind. Our motto is, ‘Until They’re Home.’ We’ll be here until they all are.”

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now