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U.S. looks for relatives of MIAs for DNA matching

November 17, 1999|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Suffering from exposure and dysentery, Pfc. Raymond L. Woodring of Waynesboro, Pa., was last seen lying along a freezing North Korean road with five other dying prisoners on Nov. 2, 1950.

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Pfc. Robert Earl Meyers of Greencastle, Pa., is presumed to have died on Dec. 1, 1950, as Chinese troops overran his position south of the North Korean village of Kunu-ri.

The Department of Defense wants to find relatives of these Franklin County servicemen, missing since the early months of the Korean War. Those relatives are being asked to supply DNA samples that could help identify the soldiers' remains if they are ever recovered, according to Franklin County Veterans Affairs Director Robert Harris.

Since 1996, North Korea has allowed joint Korean-American teams to excavate sites where Americans are believed to have died or been buried, Harris said.

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Woodring and Meyers were lost when United Nations forces battled up and down the Korean peninsula against North Korean and Communist Chinese forces.

Woodring, who served in Co. I, 21st Infantry Regiment, was listed as missing in action on July 12, 1950, less than three weeks after North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel, according to a 1958 government list of Korean War MIAs.

Harris, however, said there is solid evidence Woodring died while a prisoner of war. The evidence comes from a list compiled by another POW, Wayne A. "Johnnie" Johnson.

Johnson, who was captured, "wrote down the names of POWs on cigarette papers, using bits of charcoal," Harris said recently. Johnson was able to smuggle out the list of 496 names of dead servicemen when he was released at the end of the war, earning a Silver Star for his efforts.

The "Tiger List," named for a sadistic North Korean officer, gave hometowns and dates of death. While many prisoners were shot or beaten to death, most died of exposure, disease or starvation, according to Wilbert R. "Shorty" Estabrook, of Laguna Hills, Calif. He is the head of Tiger Survivors, an organization of former prisoners of war.

Estabrook said Woodring, 19, was captured north of Taejon, South Korea, on July 12, when many U.S. units were overwhelmed by advancing North Koreans. Woodring, Estabrook and other prisoners then began a "death march" taking them deep into North Korea.

"Whether he died or was shot is a toss-up," Estabrook said. "He was pretty far gone," he said, adding that some soldiers too ill to continue marching were executed.

There is no evidence that Meyers, who served in Co. A, 2nd Engineer Battalion, was captured, according to Phil O'Brien, an analyst with the Defense Prisoner of War Personnel Office in Arlington, Va. His battalion was advancing along the Chong-Chon River in late November when China entered the war.

"The point of the 2nd Division was literally overrun," O'Brien said. Meyers was lost as the 2nd Division retreated "through ambush after ambush," but there is no eyewitness account of him being killed.

"Normally, you have to have two people see you die, or someone so close that there can be no mistake, a foxhole buddy," O'Brien said. Otherwise, if the body is not recovered, a soldier is listed as missing in action, rather than killed in action.

Military records said Meyers was survived by his mother, Mrs. Grace P. Meyers. A sister, Mrs. Betty McKissick, was listed as a survivor of Woodring. Harris said he wants to hear from them or other relatives so they can submit a blood sample to be tested against DNA recovered from remains.

O'Brien said joint recovery teams have brought back 42 sets of remains since North Korea began allowing battlefield excavations in 1996, but only three have been identified. The Koreans have yet to allow excavations at sites where prisoners of war were kept.

Department of Defense records list 8,216 U.S. military personnel as "bodies not recovered," according to O'Brien. That includes 4,264 missing in action, 2,054 POWs who were not returned, 1,805 who were presumed killed in action and 93 nonbattle casualties whose bodies were never recovered.

O'Brien said relatives of Woodring, Meyers and other missing men can get blood-sample kits from the Department of Defense Service Casualty Office. The blood can be drawn by any physician, and the government will pay the bill.

Because any remains will likely be skeletal, O'Brien said mitochondrial DNA, passed on by the mother's side of the family, is most likely to be recovered from remains.

Any relatives of Meyers or Woodring can get more information by calling Harris at 1-717-263-4326.

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