The hunt for 83,000 missing U.S. service members, dating to World War II, is daunting. Pentagon officials came to Bellevue on Saturday to update some 200 family members on the continuing searches.
More than anything, Jeff Delplain is haunted by the uncertainty surrounding his father’s disappearance 65 years ago in North Korea.
The remains of 1st Lt. Theodore Delplain, a decorated Army officer, are still unaccounted for after his unit was overrun by Chinese soldiers near the Ch’ongch’on River in November 1950.
The federal government considers him killed in action, as Delplain’s company of soldiers covered the withdrawal of U.S. troops in the face of a withering communist assault. But without conclusive evidence, his son wonders if his father was captured and tortured.
“Whether my dad was actually killed in action or ended up in a gulag, I don’t know what to believe,” said Delplain, a Seattle resident who was born two months before his father disappeared.
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Delplain, along with some 200 family members of other missing warriors, were in Bellevue on Saturday to hear from Department of Defense experts conducting the continuing search for nearly 83,000 missing soldiers, sailors and airmen. Of those, a reported 1,511 are from Washington state.
In some ways, the hunt is only getting harder. Witnesses are dying off, evidence such as bone fragments are degrading, and relations with countries such as North Korea are strained. On top of that, the search is down to the most difficult cases, including some deep under the sea.
But one after another, Pentagon officials told family members Saturday they remain passionately committed to the cause, while using modern tools such as DNA identification (with samples collected from families Saturday) and a new $85 million lab in Hawaii.
The recovery efforts have been criticized in recent years, especially in a scalding 2013 internal report that highlighted “dysfunction” and sluggishness among U.S. officials.
The Pentagon has reorganized the global search under a single agency, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), which seemed to get positive reviews from family members who spoke up in Bellevue.
Delplain, for instance, has been frustrated by what he sees as a lack of political leadership in Washington, D.C.
“I have a better feeling. Now I feel something is really getting done,” he said Saturday after a series of briefings by DPAA officials.
Author Wil S. Hylton’s book “Vanished” focuses on the search for lost World War II airmen. While Hylton has clashed with Pentagon officials, he defends the efforts of dedicated searchers, who leave their own families to dive and dig, from the bottom of the South Pacific to the boggy jungles of Southeast Asia, with a reverence for their mission.
“I would say that it’s about as profound a humanitarian gesture as the American government ever makes,” Hylton wrote in an email, adding that he considers some of the recent criticism, particularly in the media, “trumped up.”
The challenges are daunting, according to Hylton and government officials.
Of the missing, some 73,000 date to World War II. Many of those were lost in deep water, said Michael Linnington, a former Army general and director of DPAA since June. Linnington estimated that 28,000 of those missing are recoverable.
Obstacles range from deaths of villagers who might remember where U.S. planes crashed to the fading ink of carbon-paper records used at the time.
The Korean War, which accounts for the next biggest group of the missing — 7,821 service members — presents different hurdles.
American searchers rarely have been allowed in North Korea, where most of the missing are believed to have been lost, because of its dictatorial regimes. And no recovery teams have been in North Korea since 2005.
“It is the most challenging area right now,” Linnington said.
Vietnam presents another set of stumbling blocks. “Time is perhaps the greatest enemy” there, said Jack Kull, DPAA policy adviser. Vietnam’s acidic soil eats away at human remains. Furthermore, most of the missing his agency is searching for involved downed aircraft, with evidence from high-speed crashes scattered over acres.
In many instances, Kull said, the remains recovered in Vietnam “could fit in the palm of your hand.”
Layered onto those difficulties are restrictive policies, both of foreign countries and the Pentagon. The government of Laos limits the size of U.S. recovery teams, Kull said, and U.S. helicopters are not permitted to scour the rugged jungle terrain. At the same time, the Pentagon won’t let American personnel travel in Laotian helicopters that don’t meet U.S. safety standards.
Just five Americans are still missing from operations in Iraq dating to 1991. Linnington attributed the low number to technology that precisely tracked downed aircraft and the fact that U.S. forces were not overrun in those conflicts.
“In many cases we sustained additional casualties because we’d never leave anyone behind,” he said.
Dick Jones of Portland continues to hunt for his cousin, Maj. Buddy Smith, who was lost in an apparent Vietnam mountaintop plane crash in 1968.
Jones said he was encouraged by the DPAA’s progress. “It looks like they’re putting more resources into it and getting access to areas they didn’t 15 years ago,” Jones said.
Linnington said his agency’s $116 million budget was spared from recent Defense Department cuts. This year, he said, 29 investigative teams and 57 recovery teams were expected to visit 23 countries.
As for Delplain’s fears of his father’s capture, Linnington said he’s not seen any credible evidence to support rumors that American POWs were taken by train to prison camps in the Soviet Union and China.
“What would be the best in the world,” said Delplain, “would be just to find out what happened” to his father, who was also part of the Normandy Beach invasion in World War II and was awarded a number of medals that over the weekend were presented to Delplain in Bellevue.
“If he was killed leading his men and saving thousands of others (retreating) that would be wonderful,” said Delplain, an Air Force veteran. “To be captured and put through one of the gulags, that’s unconscionable.”
But not knowing his father’s fate, “That’s the worst,” he said.