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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, August 1, 2004

Recovering the fallen

 •  The JPAC team
 •  Unit originated with Vietnam War

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

SEOUL, South Korea — Sgt. 1st Class Devon Escoffery was stationed here in 2001 when the two bodies floated over the demilitarized zone from North Korea.

Staff Sgt. Jamie Trice, a member of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command team, helps to cover equipment accompanying teams headed for North Korea to recover remains of U.S. servicemen from the Korean War. About 8,100 Americans are still listed as missing.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

They had drowned in flooding and, as storm waters carried them over the border, soldiers from the North shot at them, believing they were defectors.

Escoffery was part of an Army detail sent to collect the remains near the cease-fire demarcation where a deadly Cold War of wills has been fought since well after the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

On Saturday, he'll cross into the North along with 27 other U.S. military members and civilians.

The team from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawai'i is heading into one of the most xenophobic countries in the world to recover remains of U.S. soldiers killed more than half a century ago in Unsan County and at the Chosin Reservoir, scenes of fierce fighting with the Chinese.

A returning team is coming out on Tuesday via means historic for U.S.-North Korea relations: by foot across the fortified divide.

American service members' remains also will be repatriated in a joint operation to U.S. control later this week through the demilitarized zone for just the third time.

Hawai'i-based recovery teams will be going to Unsan County, site of battles by the Army's 1st Cavalry and 25th Infantry divisions in November 1950, and the Chosin Reservoir, where the 7th Marines fought Chinese forces in late 1950.

Gregory Taylor • The Honolulu Advertiser

Escoffery, making his first foray into the North, is part of the U.S. Defense Department's only presence in this isolated Stalinist state with nearly 1 million soldiers and 10,000 artillery tubes permanently massed on the border, poised to attack Seoul just to the south.

He's a little anxious.

"What if one day you are over there and they decide they want to hold you?" said Escoffery, 40, who is married and has two children. "What do you do then? You're cut off from the world, have no communication. These are just 'what ifs' in your head."

But the New York man is glad to go and be part of a mission that is both humanitarian and military.

"I look forward to doing these missions," said Escoffery, who's been with the unit just a month. "It's a valiant effort the United States has made." The team is bringing "closure for loved ones, for them to feel at ease. I think that's important."

The POW/MIA command, working out of 10 trailers and a permanent building at Hickam Air Force Base, is inserting its 35th team into North Korea for 30 days, and taking out its 34th.

Hampered by wind and rain, the exiting group is expected to return with fewer than five sets of remains.

Capt. Judd Stiglich, an air operations officer with the accounting command team, straps together transfer cases in preparation for the trip to North Korea. Remains recovered during the mission are to be placed in the cases, which then are covered with U.S. flags.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

Toward the end of a mission to the Chosin Reservoir in June, Air Force Capt. Chris Tarrant's team uncovered a set of remains.

Dog tags were still around the serviceman's neck, and in his wallet were family photos and a newspaper clipping detailing how he had received a Bronze Star by taking out a machine gun nest in World War II.

"When you find stuff like that, everything comes together," said Tarrant, 30, on the plane ride to South Korea. "Sometimes when you are on a mission you find just teenie pieces of bone. When you find everything in place right there, it makes you feel, 'Wow, this was a person, and now we get to bring him home to his family.' "

Going in, Escoffery has reason to be edgy. Fifty-one years after the war ended, the peninsula remains as volatile as ever.

President Bush included North Korea among his "axis of evil" for its nuclear ambitions, there's unrest as a younger generation of South Koreans seeks reunification, and uncertainty as the United States moves troops away from the demilitarized zone — the "tripwire" against attack from the North.

But since 1996, the anthropologists, mortuary affairs specialists and assorted grunts of the POW/MIA command have been in North Korea, quietly coming and going, and delivering on America's promise not to forget its missing war dead.

On Friday, the team in blue jeans and hiking boots made the 10-hour flight from Hawai'i to Japan and then to South Korea on a C-17 cargo carrier with lumber for one camp, 15 metal transfer cases for the remains and other supplies necessary for the 30-day mission.

Military members of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command work together to get equipment and other materials ready for the team's recovery mission across the demilitarized zone and into North Korea.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

POW/MIA teams have recovered the remains of more than 200 U.S. soldiers from North Korea. The Hickam lab identified 15 for return to families and burial.

Since May, remains coming out have been transferred in a joint North-South effort over the demilitarized zone, the same territory over which soldiers traded machine-gun fire as recently as July 2003. U.S. recovery teams also have been crossing the border there.

More than 250 South Korean, 50 U.S. and 375 North Korean personnel have been killed since 1967 in the zone.

Day in and day out, the "Joint Security Area" of Panmunjom is a glare-down, with South Korean soldiers standing practically eyeball to eyeball with the North in a clenched-fist martial arts pose.

In a testament to the danger, Camp Bonifas in Panmunjom takes its name from a U.S. Army captain who was hacked to death in 1976 by North Korean guards wielding knives, clubs and axes.

Army Lt. Col. David Buckingham, director of operations for the POW/MIA command, avoids discussing the politics of North Korea's decision to allow the transfer, but acknowledges that everything the North does is "very nuanced."

Since April, the North also has allowed the transfer of generators, tents and other equipment across the border, saving the United States money.

By the Numbers — the missing

78,000: Number of U.S. service members still missing from World War II

35,000: Of those, the number considered recoverable

8,100: Number of missing from the Korean War

1,800: Number of missing from the Vietnam War

120: Number of missing from the Cold War

1: Number missing from the Gulf War

More than 1,100: Number of Americans missing from our nation's military campaigns who have been accounted for since 1973 425: Total personnel assigned to JPAC

34: Number of JPAC teams that have gone into Korea

18: Total number of JPAC recovery teams

10-14: Typical number of personnel in a team

Source: Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command

Flights from Beijing to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang had been the primary method of entry and exit.

Part of the willingness to cooperate is financial. The United States last year agreed to pay North Korea $2.1 million for recovery operations.

The POW/MIA command has been averaging four a year. Five total recovery missions are planned for this summer.

The joint services unit, which has 450 members and a $54 million budget, conducts 10 missions to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia each year, 10 worldwide missions to places such as Papua New Guinea and the Himalayas, and the five recovery missions to North Korea.

The Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Office sets policy, and the POW/MIA command conducts all recoveries and identification of U.S. missing war dead.

Identification can take several months to a year. Eighteen rectangular metal tables at the unit's lab at Hickam hold remains associated with cases in progress — from two dozen pieces of bone no longer than 4 inches to semi-complete skeletons browned by the earth.

Army Sgt. 1st Class Konrad Murak, 36, is making his second trip to the North.

The assistant team leader, with the POW/MIA command since last October, was in Unsan County in June. His group didn't find any remains, just a few artifacts.

Murak is going to Unsan, an area 60 miles north of Pyongyang that was the site of battles between Communist forces and the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry and 25th Infantry divisions in November 1950.

According to the Korean War Almanac by retired Army Col. Harry G. Summers Jr., the 25th Division had 13,685 casualties in the war. A total of 3,048 soldiers were killed or died of wounds received in action, 10,186 were wounded, 67 were missing in action and 384 were held as prisoners of war.

A dozen other team members will accompany Murak.

A second team is heading to the east side of the Chosin Reservoir, where the 7th Marines fought Chinese forces in late 1950. About 8,100 U.S. soldiers are still missing from the Korean War.

Murak, who was born in Krakow, Poland, and became a U.S. citizen in 1991, said going to North Korea is a "very extraordinary experience."

"People live in the past," he said. "It's very limited the places they'll let you go, and you're under constant watch."

Last month, he flew to Pyongyang, and the team was taken to the dig site in sport utility vehicles. The capital is a "very gray city that doesn't seem alive," he said.

Just about everybody wears a button with the likeness of leader Kim Jong Il, trucks are driven by wood-fed steam engines, and at the sound of a bell, entire villages fall out to plant crops.

In other countries, the team hires local workers to help with digging and screening the dirt to find remains. In North Korea, it's the Korean People's Army doing the digging, and guarding over the team. Between 50 and 75 guards are assigned for each group of 13 U.S. team members.

"They take the job very seriously, and we respect that," Murak said. "There's no conversation, or 'How's your family? How's your life?' We're not authorized to share any media with these guys, magazines or anything of that nature."

U.S. Marines rest in the snow in December 1950, after fighting their way from an enemy encirclement at Chosin and on to Hungnam.

AP library photo

No unsupervised contact with North Korean civilians is allowed, and there's very little supervised contact.

The Korean People's Army "pretty much" knows "where all the sites are at," Murak said. The hilltops have features such as foxhole depressions that sometimes are visible to the eye.

For their part, the team members leave their military uniforms at home, aren't armed and don't train with weapons. On his last trip, Murak slept in a tent and ate canned food.

Buckingham said some of the extreme tensions ease beyond the border, however.

"There's a fundamental difference between a military line of demarcation between two still technically opposed military forces who are only in an armistice ... and a humanitarian team of 28 people," he said.

If there's any group that's safe, ironically, it's the POW/MIA command team deep inside North Korea, Buckingham added, because the North has invited them and is guarding them.

"I would say the last thing the Korean People's Army, or the government of North Korea, the DPRK government, wants, is for a U.S. soldier to get injured or killed while operating in North Korea," he said. "We're very, very safe."

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-5459.

• • •

The JPAC team

JPAC has 18 recovery teams.

Each team includes one civilian, a forensic anthropologist; the rest of the members are from any of the four military branches.

Here is a breakdown of the typical JPAC team:

Team leader: Typically a captain in the Army or Air Force. Has overall responsibility for the team's operation and safety.

Team noncommissioned officer:Typically an Army sergeant first class trained in the field of mortuary affairs. Assists the team leader.

Forensic anthropologist: An expert in the excavation of human remains who directs the excavation.

Linguist: Critical to the interaction with local nationals (anywhere from 10 to 100) hired by the team and with governmental counterparts of the host nation.

Medic: May be a full M.D., a physician's assistant or a combat medic. Provides medical support and ensures field sanitation is established and maintained.

Life support technician: A specialist (typically Air Force, Marine or Navy ) in determining if recovered items were clothing worn or equipment used in an aviation mission. Also trained in identifying aviation equipment remains left after a crash.

Forensic photographer: A combat camera specialist responsible for photographic documentation of the site, artifacts, materials and remains found. Photos become part of the recovery evidence. When a positive ID is made, the photographs are given to families.

Explosive ordnance disposal technician: A specialist in the identification and safe handling of unexploded ordinance.

Mortuary affairs specialists: Specialists in the recovering, processing and custodial documentation of human remains.

Note: As the mission dictates, the teams may be augmented with mountaineering specialists, communication technicians and mechanics.

Source: Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command

• • •

Unit originated with Vietnam War

The origins of today's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command date to the Vietnam War and two Army mortuaries — one on the eastern coast in the city of Danang, the second on Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base just outside Saigon. When the war ended, these mortuaries closed and their staff and equipment were consolidated and moved to Thailand.

Developments over the next 30 years led to the creation of today's command.

Jan. 23, 1973: U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory was established at Camp Samae San, Thailand. Its mission was to search for, recover and identify servicemen lost as a result of the Vietnam War.

1976: CILTHAI was inactivated and moved from Thailand to Hawai'i. The laboratory was redesignated the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii.

August 1985: USACILHI was established as an operational element of the U.S. Army Military Personnel Center. Its mission: to search for, recover and identify the remains of missing servicemen lost as a result of World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and other conflicts and contingencies. CILHI was located on Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu.

Jan 20, 1992: The Joint Casualty Resolution Center replaced the Joint Personnel Recovery Center that had operated under Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, during the war. In 19 years, the JCRC resolved 316 of the 2,267 cases of unaccounted-for Americans lost in Southeast Asia. Jan. 23, 1992: The U.S. Defense Department created Joint Task ForceiFull Accounting to achieve the fullest possible accounting of Americans missing as a result of the war in Southeast Asia.

Oct. 1, 2003: The Joint POW/ MIA Accounting Command was activated as a merger of the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory and Joint Task Force—Full Accounting.

Sources: U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps Web site, Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command Web site, Joint Task Force—Full Accounting Web site.