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Pa. man's MIA mystery deepens

December 13, 1999|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Of 11 men in an old newspaper photograph purporting to show a Greencastle, Pa., man as a prisoner of war, at least five died in captivity, some before the picture was published in 1951, according to Department of Defense records.

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The picture includes a man relatives and a friend have identified as Pfc. Robert Earl Meyers. The photo, which appeared in The Morning Herald in March 1951, probably was taken at a camp near the Chinese border, according to Phil O'Brien, an analyst with the Defense Department Prisoner of War Personnel Office.

Meyers, one of two Franklin County soldiers still listed as missing in action in Korea, disappeared Dec. 1, 1950, according to military records.

A boyhood friend serving in the same unit, Jack Mummert of Maugansville, said recently he last saw Meyers grabbing his rifle from a truck as Chinese troops ambushed their column in North Korea.

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All the men in the picture, which the caption said came from "enemy sources," were from Pennsylvania. Two are listed as having died, Cpl. Joe W. Howard of Philadelphia on Feb. 18, 1951, and Wallace A. Miller of Pittsburgh a day later, O'Brien said. That information came from reports compiled from interviews of repatriated POWs, he said.

O'Brien said only three of the men are known to have returned alive: Staff Sgt. Philip Aaronson of Harrisburg, Pvt. William Baker of Bucks County and Lorn Hemphill of Philadelphia. He said Aaronson, a B-29 gunner, is alive but very ill.

The photo caption identified the men, but O'Brien said one name did not turn up on any list, perhaps because it was misspelled. "That happened often" with names supplied by Korean soldiers, he said.

Another man, Pfc. James L. Hill of Philadelphia, is, like Meyers, listed as MIA, O'Brien said. Both were in the 2nd Division and both disappeared the same day. One former POW named Hill during post-war debriefings.

"Two witnesses would have assured him POW status," O'Brien said. There were no POW identifications of Meyers, however.

"The photo was surely taken at Camp 5," O'Brien said, noting all the verified names were held there.

"This was one of the worst of the camps during the first year," O'Brien said. The death rate averaged 10 to 12 men a day before the Chinese took over the camp in April 1951. The rate dropped to one a day afterward, he said.

More than 8,000 Americans are listed as "bodies not recovered" from the Korean War. That includes those who were missing in action, presumed killed in action or died in captivity, O'Brien said.

"If Meyers appeared in the photo with these other men, why didn't they report him when they returned?" O'Brien asked. He also wondered why the communists released a picture showing some men who were already dead.

North Korea is allowing limited excavations for remains of U.S. servicemen, but not at POW camp sites, O'Brien said.

Meyers' status as an MIA or POW came into question when the Department of Defense last month announced it was seeking DNA samples from relatives of two area soldiers for possible identification of remains.

Myers has three siblings in Franklin County: Shelva Moats and Richard Meyers, both of Mont Alto, Pa., and Shirley Suders of Waynesboro, Pa.

No close relatives of the other MIA, Pfc. Raymond L. Woodring, have been found. He is believed to have died in captivity on Nov. 2, 1950.

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