Missing since the Korean War, soldier's remains may return home to Iowa
By KEVIN HARDY | Des Moines Register | Published: July 8, 2018
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The call came on the old crank phone in the Kreider family dining room.
It was a Wednesday in February 1951. The family had just returned to their 100-acre Iowa farm after a trip into town.
The phone rang, but there was no one to answer it. Dad was outside, probably milking the cows. And mom was nowhere to be found in the family's two-bedroom farmhouse.
Back then, kids didn't talk on the phone. But 15-year-old Harlan Kreider picked up the handle anyway.
It was the Floyd County sheriff. He had received a telegram. And the news was devastating.
Harlan's older brother, Leighton, had gone missing a world away, fighting in the U.S. Army during the Korean War.
It took the boy three tries to build up the courage to give the news to his father outside.
"I couldn't tell him," he recently recalled from his home in Plover, Wis.
The Des Moines Register reports that Leighton Kreider is one of the 7,800 American servicemembers who still have not come home after losing their lives in the Korean War.
But last month's summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Un has sparked new hope that more soldiers' remains will be repatriated.
That includes 133 soldiers missing from Iowa.
For Harlan Kreider, hope has come and gone too many times to count. But even at 83 years old, he hasn't given up looking for his big brother.
While Trump and Kim discussed denuclearization and a path toward normalizing relations between Washington and Pyongyang, their summit produced another fruit: Kim agreed to return the remains of some 200 American servicemembers who died in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea during the war.
There is no word yet about which soldiers may come home. And it's unclear how long the testing and identification process will persist.
But Kreider is hoping his brother is among those returning to the United States.
"He deserves to come home," he said.
If North Korea honors its commitment and returns the remains, the gesture would go a long way in galvanizing a relationship with the United States.
"Of all the things North Koreans could do, this is one that is meaningful and will show some goodwill, if they follow through," said Mark Tokola, vice president of the Korea Economic Institute of America. "If they can't even do that much, it would be disappointing."
Tokola, a retired U.S. diplomat who served at several embassies, including in Seoul, South Korea, was surprised to see Kim agree to return the remains so quickly.
But he said it was one of few tangible commitments to come out of the June 12 summit in Singapore.
"It might show they'll be cooperative with other things as well," he said. "So in a way, it's a test, but it's significant in its own right."
It might open the door for Americans to enter North Korea to excavate in areas believed to hold the dead. North Korea has allowed that in the past, but at a high price. No searches are allowed now.
Korean War veteran Ed Wittig is skeptical that anything will happen with Trump and Kim at the table.
"It's one liar talking to the other liar," he said. "I don't trust them."
Wittig, who served in the Air Force in 1952 and 1953 in Korea, tries to attend all funerals of Korean-era vets near his home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
He and two other Korean War veterans made a point to attend the homecoming of Army Sgt. Donald Baker on June 19, a Korean War veteran who had been missing since 1950.
While he remains doubtful, he hopes to attend more of these ceremonies in the future.
"Nobody wants to be buried in somebody else's soil," he said. "Bring 'em home."
Baker was only 20 years old when he went missing in Korea. His parents and siblings all died without knowing what really happened to him and feared he had been tortured at war.
As he manned the pulpit in a funeral home chapel, the Rev. Wendell Beets recognized the oddity of eulogizing a man entirely unknown by all the living.
"We don't know a lot about Sgt. Baker," he said. "We know he lived and existed."
But his family still had cause for celebration.
What was lost had been found. And distant relatives learned he had not been tortured, but died in battle. A mystery that haunted their parents and grandparents was finally solved.
A white-gloved honor guard carried Baker's casket through Oak Hill Cemetery. They performed a 21-gun salute, and a member of the Iowa National Guard knelt and offered a perfectly folded flag on behalf of a grateful nation.
It's the same graveside ceremony the military would offer to any of its own. But the routine service brought with it a basic dignity that fate had denied Baker.
"It made me feel patriotic," said Candace Trent, Baker's great-niece. "He's part of our family and it felt like no one really cared, but they do care. He was a soldier just like any other soldier and they cared."
Until then, Baker had been a ghost in family lore.
Relatives didn't even have pictures of him until this year.
But now, with a memorial and answers to decades of questions, he is a family legend. Trent said she can now tell her children a complete story about his sacrifice.
"I can take them to the place of his burial and say here lies your great uncle. He was an American hero, he gave his life for this country," she said. "What an amazing thing to be able to pass on."
But she can't help but think of all the other families out there who haven't been gifted that closure.
"Unfortunately, it is 68 years later, but he came back to us," she said. "There's still hope out there."
To hear his Harlan Kreider tell it, his brother Leighton was a stubborn child. He tested his parents' direction and squabbled with them often.
"He wasn't really bad," Harlan Kreider said. "He just had his own mind."
Tensions at home grew so much that his mother gave him an ultimatum: if you can't get along here, then go ahead and move out. So he did.
But even after leaving the farm near Rockford, Iowa, he stayed close with the family.
And when he enlisted, first in the National Guard and then in the U.S. Army, there were few concerns. He had two uncles who served in the Army Air Force in World War II and returned home safely.
From the war front, he wrote home weekly, mentioning the battles but never giving his family much to worry about.
A couple of years after learning of his brother's disappearance in Korea, Harlan Kredier decided to join the armed forces himself. He didn't tell anyone at the time, but he had quietly determined to find Leighton in Korea on his own.
It didn't take him to long to realize the folly of that plan: the Navy sent him in the opposite direction.
Ever since, Harlan has spent countless hours tracking down old Army comrades, researching online the men who filled prisoner-of-war camps and writing to the Department of Defense in search of answers.
"I'm probably closer to him now than I ever was," he said through tears.
Sometimes, he wonders how his brother would have aged.
What would he be like now? How would he look?
But Leighton remains frozen in time, forever a 20-year-old Iowa farm boy in a world that faded away long ago.
"Most of the people who really knew him don't exist anymore," Harlan Kreider said.
On Feb. 5, 1951, Allied forces launched an offensive attack against North Korean and Chinese Communist forces north of Wonju, Korea.
The group's northward drive met light resistance at first, but opposition forces launched an aggressive counter strike that pushed soldiers from the United States and the Republic of Korea south.
A series of Chinese-erected roadblocks caused the allies to split apart, according to military records. And the 3rd Battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division split up to make their way on foot on Feb. 12.
Somewhere along the way, Leighton Kreider was captured.
The enemy marched him and other prisoners to the Suan Bean Camp in North Korea.
Using interviews with other soldiers, the Army determined Leighton Kreider died of starvation in May 1951 inside North Korea's Mining Camp near Pyongyang.
Other prisoners buried his body there.
In 1954, the family held a memorial service in Iowa.
Harlan Kreider remembers the Army asking his mother at the time if she wanted her son's remains unearthed and brought home or left in North Korea. But she was horrified at the thought of splitting up his remains.
"She had no qualms with bringing him back if she knew she could have all of him," he said.
He now doubts whether the Army even knew where his body was at the time. The military now says it has not been allowed to search in the former POW camp.
He's grown frustrated with the government's inability to bring Leighton home. Annual updates for families of the missing in Washington, D.C., have become a familiar disappointment.
"You hope and do a lot of work and get nothing back," he said.
He had grown so hopeless that he initially decided to skip this year's trip to Washington. But now, the with the news of North Korea agreeing to repatriate dozens of sets of remains, he's determined to go see what comes next.
Kreider is 83 and has been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. His mind is sharp, but he struggles to focus on reading or watching television. He said people sometimes struggle to understand his words.
The search for his brother is more urgent now.
He's been unable to interest his younger brother in the effort. And he's unsure whether any of his three faraway children would pick up the cause in his absence.
His wife, Connie, said the group that travels to Washington each year looking for answers has grown into a family. But each year, the people there grow grayer and frailer.
"All of the people who have been going to these meetings all these years are all getting up in age," she said. "We don't have that many years to chase after this."
In the basement of his Wisconsin duplex, Harlan Kreider has erected a small shrine to his brother.
The back wall contains a pair of matching shadowboxes. One documents his own service memorabilia. And the other contains Leighton's Purple Heart, Prisoner of War medal and Combat Infantryman's Badge.
There's a framed photo of Leighton in his full dress uniform that the South Korean government gifted Harlan on a recent trip for relatives of the American war dead.
Inscribed in the corner, it reads: "In honor and memory of our Korean War hero. He will never be forgotten."
Harlan hasn't lived in Iowa for years. He moved around the country, spending many years in California, and has now settled in a part of Wisconsin surrounded by timber farms and cranberry bogs.
Even after all the effort of his search, he's unsure what he would do with his brother's remains if they were brought home.
He might find a place to bury them in Wisconsin near his home.
Or it might be best fitting to honor Leighton with one of the white marble headstones that fill Arlington National Cemetery.
But it's more likely that Leighton will come home to Iowa.
A plot has memorialized him at Mason City's Memorial Park Cemetery for more than 60 years.
His bronze headstone lies inches away from one that marks the graves of the mother and father who survived him.
They had a service here, a full 21-gun salute and everything, back in the 1950s. But the headstone is only ceremonial.
In the cemetery's front office, Leighton's name isn't listed in the giant spiral notebook that organizes the names of all the buried dead.
Harlan Kreider hopes he lives to see this patch of earth disturbed.
But for now, as ever, the grave remains empty.