“‘Until They Are Home’ has been one of the sacred vows of the U.S. military…(but) U.S. remains in North Korea lost in limbo,” the Fox News reported a year earlier. According to the News, between 1996 and 2005, joint U.S.-North Korea search teams recovered 229 sets of American remains. But Washington soon gave up the efforts, claiming that it’s not safe for the remain-searchers and that there was no guarantee in finding more remains. Then North Koreans began to construct 10 Hydroelectric Power-plants along the Chong-chon River 4 years ago, the U.S. soldiers’ remain-recovery sites are forever lost.
Many wonder how their families feel about their loved ones’ remains still buried somewhere in North Korea, including myself, a Korean-American who lived here in the U.S. more than a half century.
Bob Wailes, a Lenexa resident, 69, lost his elder brother in one of those hellish camps in North Korea along the Yalu River and bitter about not being able to bring him home for a proper burial. Bob was six-years-old when he attended Ardean Wailes’ funeral service at St Ambrose Cathedral in Des Moines in 1953.
“Ardean was the first Iowan to die in the Korean War on July, 31, 1951 at age 23, and my other brother, Eugene Wailes, then 19, went to Korea 8 months later to look for Ardean, but was severely wounded,” he told me at a recent meeting. “I have an article from the Des Moines Register about my two brothers.”
The digitally scanned old newspaper clipping dated August 3, 1953, was blurry, yet with a magnifying glass, I was able to read it: “Seeking Brother in Korea, D. M. Marine, 19, wounded:
“A Des Moines Marine who went to find his brother was wounded in some of the last fightings, it was revealed Sunday. Mrs. Billie Wailes said she has been notified that her youngest son Pfc. Eugene Wailes was wounded July 25, (1953) in action with the first Marine Division. “Enlisted a year ago, he requested duty in Korea, Mrs. Billie Wailes said. ‘He sailed for Korea in Dec. 1952. He didn’t have to go but he wanted to see if he could find his older brother,’ said Mrs. Wailes. Army Pfc. Andean R. Wailes, 23, was reported missing in action in Korea Feb. 4, 1951. He had enlisted in the army in 1949 and was stationed in Alaska before he was sent to Korea,. Mrs. Wailes said. She felt both her sons would come back safely…..”
As a small boy, at his brother’s funeral service, Bob Wailes wondered whether his big brother was inside the casket covered with the American flag. As he grew older and understood what “war” was about, he began to learn more about the Korean War: how Korea was split at the end of WWII by the two powers–Russians in North Korea and Americans in the South; why 95,000 North Koreans launched a surprise attack across the 38th Parallel on a Sunday morning in June 1950, and why American troops rushed to South Korea followed by soldiers from 21 different nations calling themselves United Nations Forces.
As a young adult, particularly after his mother passed away in 1963 when he was 16, Bob Wailes looked for information about his oldest brother–how and where he died. From going through his mother’s keepsakes, he found what he was looking for– a newspaper clip about Gerold Young, a Des Moines resident, who had lived in the same POW camp where Ardean had until he died. The article contained much information: how the two men were captured in the early phase of the war about the same time, forced onto the Death March that took about four months, including a 9-day march along an 110-mile snow-covered mountain terrain in deadly cold weather, during which hundreds of prisoners were shot for not walking fast enough.
They landed on Camp 1, in early November, a dismal place along the frozen Yalu River, that had no heat, no solid walls to block the chilly Siberian winter winds, and served a meager portion of cracked corn mixed with barley, which was suitable for cattle, not for humans. The worst was re-education program in which the Chinese captor’s taught the prisoners the virtues of Communism. Ardean contracted dysentery during the March, and in July, he died in Gerold Young’s arms, weighing only 90 pounds, having lost 110 pounds. He was one of 2,806 died in captivity out of 7,245 American POWs who were captured.
But Gerold Young returned to Des Mines in the fall of 1953, when the prisoners of war were exchanged at the Bridge of No Return, along with 4,418 Americans. According to the newspaper clip, he met with Mrs. Wailes and delivered her Ardean’s humble possessions–his dog tag and a small hand knife.
Earlier this year, while searching Ancestry.com, Bob’s wife Sue came across an army document containing grave marker information and a hand-written note on the back that read that the Purple Heart for Ardean Wailes had never been delivered to Mrs. Wailes. Encouraged, Bob searched further and found a record that his other brother Eugene had received the Purple Heart for his injuries but not Ardean.
Using the contact number from the website, Bob contacted Military Order of Purple Heart, and through that channel, he was able to connect with the Department of Defense in Washington, DC. A letter arrived shortly with the names of the medals and certificates that were awarded to Ardean, and in July last year, a packet arrived in his mailbox.
Inside the package were a Cold War Certificate, Purple Heart, POW Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Korean Service Medal (with a double Bronze Star attachment), United Nations Service Medal, Republic of Korea-Korean War service Medal, including buttons, awards, and decorations from the Department of the US Amy.
When Asked how he felt, Bob said, “This is certainly not the ending we wanted, but knowing that my brother was recognized for his ultimate sacrifices for his service to our country and the evidences are in our hands helps us deal with our loss.”
It’s certainly a “happy ending” for the family that suffered and grieved for its lost loved one, but what about the rest of the brothers, sisters, sons and daughters of those perished in the long ago war and buried in unmarked graves in that hostile land called North Korea?