Tuesday, September 04, 2001

Soldiers' families hope bodies can come home

Science helps to ID war dead

By Bruce Schreiner
The Associated Press

        WHITESVILLE — Pauline Mills has no grave to visit, nowhere to place flowers to honor a brother killed on a Korean battlefield.

        The best she has is in her dining room — a picture showing Robert Wright in his Army uniform, a shrine to a farm boy who left for war and never returned.

        The photo, fading with age, was taken during a short homecoming after Wright finished basic training. Months later, a telegram arrived on Aug. 16, 1950, with word that the teen-age private was missing in action.

        The family got official word of his death on New Year's Eve, 1953. But haunting questions lived on. Wright's body was never recovered, and his family didn't know where he died, or how.

        A half-century later, Ms. Mills and her sister, Anna, gave a bit of their own blood to try to find out. They donated samples for use by an Army laboratory in Hawaii whose mission is to unearth and identify remains of American soldiers.

        The task of accounting for all American soldiers killed in action since World War II remains massive. Remains of more than 78,000 Americans who fought in World War II are unaccounted for, about 8,100 from the Korean War and about 1,950 from the Vietnam War, according to the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory.

        The Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs has joined the campaign to bring back remains of 147 Kentucky soldiers still missing from the Korean War, which ended in 1953. So far, the agency has tracked down relatives for about half, said Les Beavers, a retired Army brigadier general who is commissioner of the department.

        Mr. Beavers said 14 Kentucky soldiers still are missing from Vietnam. He did not have a figure from World War II.

        Ms. Mills' blood could be the crucial clue if anyone finds the remains of the younger brother she helped raise on a farm outside Whitesville, a small town east of Owensboro in Daviess County.

        Forensic specialists at the Army lab could match Ms. Mills' blood with her brother's remains through use of mitochondrial DNA, said Ginger Couden, a spokeswoman for the lab at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii.

        DNA — deoxyribonucleic acid — contains the genetic code and transmits hereditary patterns.

        To establish a link through mitochondrial DNA, blood samples must come from the maternal side of a soldier's family.

        Ms. Couden said DNA evidence is one puzzle piece, along with skeletal remains, dental records and personnel and military intelligence data, which the military puts together to identify remains.

        The search goes on for kin of each soldier. “It's an American value to not leave their wounded or killed behind,” Mr. Beavers said.

        After all these years, Ms. Mills, 81, clings to hope that her brother's remains will someday come home for proper burial in his hometown.

        “I've prayed and prayed that we would find out something specific,” she said. “Miracles do happen. I still have a little bit of hope before I leave this world to find something to clear up all the unanswered questions.”

        For Ann Adams of Princeton, DNA evidence led to identifying the remains of her brother, Air Force Capt. James Swayne Wilson Jr., who died when his B-29 bomber was shot down in 1951.

        Ms. Adams' blood sample helped identify bones, among 208 sets of remains that North Korea turned over between 1990 and 1994.

        “It was a long struggle but it was worth it,” she said. “I think everyone who is in the situation I was in should hang in there and keep hoping. I can certainly feel for them. I know exactly what they are going through.”

        Since 1996, the Army lab in Hawaii has dispatched teams on 19 missions to North Korea to search for more remains of American soldiers, Ms. Couden said. The searches have turned up remains believed to be those of at least 127 servicemen, she said. So far, 11 servicemen have been identified.

        Two more missions are planned to North Korea this year, plus one each to Vietnam and New Guinea, Ms. Couden said.

        “We're doing everything that we can,” Ms. Couden said. “We'd like to provide closure for all family members searching for answers.”

        For Jack Sublett, his family's loss in Korea is a tragic story without an epilogue. His brother, Asher Brown Sublett, was killed in fighting near the Yalu River in 1951, his body never retrieved.

        The family eventually learned of Asher Sublett's final moments from an Army comrade who said Asher took cover in a ditch with a jammed rifle. He looked up and was struck between the eyes by shrapnel.

        Jack Sublett, 76, of Bowling Green, remembers crossing a field to hand his father the telegram with word that Asher, an Army corporal, was missing. His father threw up his arms, shouting “My boy, my boy,” Mr. Sublett said. “That will ring in my ear for the rest of my life,” he said.

        Jack Sublett and a sister provided blood samples in hopes that their brother's remains might someday be laid to rest next to their parents.

        “I just hated that we couldn't have his body here to have a burial here at home with the rest of his folks,” he said. “It grinds on you.”


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- Soldiers' families hope bodies can come home