Presumed American remains from Korea War heading home

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

PYEONGTAEK, South Korea (AP) — Decades after the end of the Korean War in 1953, the remains of dozens of presumed U.S. war dead were on their way Wednesday to Hawaii for analysis and identification. The U.S. military believes the bones are those of U.S. servicemen and potentially servicemen from other United Nations member countries who fought alongside the U.S. on behalf of South Korea during the war.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and the commander of U.S. forces in Asia, Adm. Phil Davidson, were expected to speak at a ceremony marking the arrival of the remains on U.S. soil and the beginning of a long process to identify the bones.

North Korea handed over the remains last week. A U.S. military plane made a rare trip into North Korea to retrieve the 55 cases. About 7,700 U.S. soldiers are listed as missing from the 1950-53 Korean War and about 5,300 of the remains are believed to still be in North Korea.

Hanwell Kaakimaka’s uncle, John Kaakimaka, is among those who never came home.

“We’ve been watching the news, and we’ve been hopeful that my uncle is among the remains,” he said. It could bring his family some closure, he said.

His uncle, who was from Honolulu, was a corporal in the 31st Infantry Regiment of the Army’s 7th Infantry Division. He went missing on or about Dec. 2, 1950.

Hanwell Kaakimaka said the story he heard from his dad was that his uncle was injured and was being brought back from the front when Chinese troops overran his uncle’s unit’s position and attacked its convoy.

If John Kaakimaka’s remains are ever identified, his family wants him to be buried in a cemetery at the base of Diamond Head crater in Honolulu because that’s where his parents and brothers were laid to rest, Hanwell Kaakimaka said.

The Kaakimaka family provided DNA samples to the U.S. military’s Defense POW/ MIA Accounting Agency over a decade ago, hoping officials would be able to make a match.

The agency identifies remains of servicemen killed in past conflicts. It typically uses bones, teeth and DNA to identify remains along with any items that may have been found with remains like uniforms, dog tags and wedding rings. But North Korea only provided one dog tag with the 55 boxes it handed over last week.

Before the remains were put on military planes bound for Hawaii, hundreds of U.S. and South Korean troops gathered at a hanger at the Osan base in South Korean for the repatriation ceremony, which included a silent tribute, a rifle salute and the playing of the U.S. and South Korean national anthems and dirges in front of the U.N. flag-covered metal cases containing the remains.

“For the warrior, this is a cherished duty, a commitment made to one another before going into battle, and passed on from one generation of warriors to the next,” Vincent Brooks, chief of the U.S. military in South Korea, said in a speech.

The remains were then moved in gray vans to an airfield where U.S. and South Korean soldiers loaded them one by one into two transport planes. Four U.S. fighter jets flew low in a tribute.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said last week that the return of the 55 boxes was a positive step but not a guarantee that the bones are American.

A U.S. defense official said Tuesday that it probably will take months if not years to fully determine individual identities from the remains. The official, who discussed previously undisclosed aspects of the remains issue on condition of anonymity, also said North Korea provided a single military dog tag along with the remains. The official did not know details about the single dog tag, including the name on it or whether it was even that of an American military member.

The repatriation is a breakthrough in a long-stalled U.S. effort to obtain war remains from North Korea. About 7,700 U.S. soldiers are listed as missing from the 1950-53 Korean War, and 5,300 of the remains are believed to still be in North Korea.

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