Wednesday, September 15, 1999

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
A headstone for an unknown Korean War soldier
rests at Punchbowl crater.

Search for
answers on Korea
unknowns begins
at Punchbowl

Families of at least 50
Korean War soldiers hope
DNA tests bring closure

By Gregg K. Kakesako


The families of the 8,200 servicemen missing in action in the Korean War have sought closure for decades.

Now, as the country looks to the 50th anniversary next June of the start of the Korean War, at least 50 soldiers buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Punchbowl crater with the common epitaph "Unknown" may get some recognition for their ultimate sacrifice.

Under a joint military service color guard, two sets of remains were to be disinterred this morning from Section U on the mauka side of the crater and taken to the Army's Central Identification Laboratory at Hickam Air Force Base. Eight hundred sixty-six sets of unidentified remains from the Korean War are buried in that one section.

Forensic experts at Hickam will use mitochondrial DNA technology to identify the remains.

The Central Identification Laboratory has been the key agency in the military's attempts to identify the missing from the Vietnam War. The DNA Identification Laboratory in Rockville, Md., will carry out the mitochondrial DNA screening. The technique uses similarities in maternal DNA to make identifications.

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Casket bearers wait for ceremonies to begin for Korean War
remains at Punchbowl National Cemetery this morning.

"It's been a long time in coming," said Donna Knox, head of the Coalition of Families of Korean and Cold War POW-MIAs.

"We waited so long," said Knox, who lives in southwest Virginia and whose father, Lt. Harold Downes, was a navigator on a B-26 bomber that was shot down during a night bombing mission over North Korea on Jan. 13, 1952.

"It's such a wonderful development -- something we have been working on for more than a year," she said. "We hope it will provide the many answers that the families deserve after such a long time."

Knox said several organizations have worked hard on the issue since 1990, especially after technology became available making identification possible from bone fragments and other samples.

Johnie Webb, deputy director of the Central Identification Laboratory, said the Army has dental records of some of the missing soldiers and will be seeking blood samples from the maternal side of the soldiers' families, which will be used to try to make a DNA match.

"We have blood samples from 10 families, and we are hopeful that we can complete the process in three to four months if everything goes well," he said.

Webb said current plans call for disinterring up to 10 sets of remains during the first year of the program.

But he cautioned that "there is no such thing as an average time since the process is very labor-intensive and time-consuming."

Most of the Korean War unknown remains at Punchbowl were turned over by the North Koreans under "Operation Glory" in 1954, Webb said.

The remains were processed by the Army in Japan, and "we have a lot of information" -- such as dental, anthropological and historical data -- that will help the military in making matches, he added.

Knox said her organization and others have been pushing since 1992 and finally were able to meet with officials from the Army's Casualty and Mortuary Agency last year to begin the identification process.

Adding impetus was the success last year in using DNA technology to identify the remains of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Blassie, who had been buried as a Vietnam War unknown in the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

In May the Pentagon announced a policy to apply DNA technology to identify Korean War and World War II remains previously classified as "unknown."

Today's ceremony comes as the military gathers Friday to honor the nation's prisoners of war and missing in action. POW-MIA recognition day generally is held on the third Friday in September.

Gene Castagnetti, Punchbowl cemetery director, pointed out that 49 years ago today, the U.S. invaded Inchon, which marked the turning point of the Korean War.

"But more important, this day marks the journey in our effort to keep faith to attain the full accounting of Americans 'unknown,' but who are not forgotten," Castagnetti said.

"It's the appropriate and right thing to do for the families so they can learn the final resting place of their loved ones."

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