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Seeking Closure, An Effort To Repatriate Remains Of U.S. Vets Killed In Korean War


This Wednesday, the U.S. military will hold a solemn ceremony to receive 55 small coffins. They were flown out of North Korea last week following up on a commitment made by Kim Jong Un to President Trump. The caskets are believed to hold the remains of U.S. service members killed during the Korean War. But Defense Secretary James Mattis cautioned that that might not be the case.


JAMES MATTIS: You notice there was a U.N. blue flag on each of the boxes. Many of the U.N. nations with us also have missing. We don't know who's in those boxes.

MARTIN: Still, Secretary Mattis said, the moment carried significance some 65 years after the end of hostilities.


MATTIS: We have families that when they got the telegram have never had closure. They've never gone out and had the body returned.

MARTIN: One American hoping for closure is Rick Downes. He was just 3 years old when his father's plane was shot down. But, through letters and family stories, Rick Downes has managed to piece together a portrait of him.

RICK DOWNES: He was kind of a good guy, I think, and he had a lot going for him. He had gone into World War II as a young man and got a lot of training in in the Air Force and then never actually got to action. The war ended. And then got married to my mom, and they had me, and he went off to the University of Michigan and graduated - a business degree. Got a job at Kaiser Auto. And, very first day he was there, my mom got a telegram saying he'd been recalled to the Korean conflict. And his comment was, he hadn't even sharpened his pencil.

MARTIN: Forgive me for asking, but is there a moment when you accepted for yourself that he wasn't coming back?

DOWNES: Not a moment, no. Because there was a possibility he survived the air crash. We'll probably never be satisfied until we go around to some village in North Korea, which is what we're trying to do - is to get teams to go out to the air loss sites where some villagers buried the guy. And it's - you go around, and you interview, and they say, yes, the plane went down over here. And that's the grave. That's when I think I will say, OK, that's it.

MARTIN: I did understand that you did actually go to North Korea in 2016 to talk about the return of remains. Is there anything you can tell us about that trip?

DOWNES: Oh, that was wonderful. We've known about these collected remains for quite some time because all of North Korea was a battlefield. There are remains everywhere. And we wanted to go there and ask them if we could have some back. And so we met up with former Governor Bill Richardson. And, two months later, I was in Pyongyang.

When we got there, we flew in over where we believe my dad's plane went down. So that was a very special moment for me - to be able to look down and see the area of where, if he did go down with the plane, then that means his remains were there. The North Koreans treated us wonderfully, and we met with the vice foreign minister and made a proposal getting remains back. They said yes, they had remains. They didn't give us any number. And they'd be willing to turn some over to us. We just needed a note from the White House acknowledging this as a humanitarian experience.

This was the Obama administration, and they chose not to do that. Their priority was the nuclear disarmament. So we did not get what we wanted there. And what was interesting was that Secretary of State Pompeo just wrote a note acknowledging to Congress that this is a humanitarian effort, and it is the exact note that we were hoping to get from the Obama administration.

MARTIN: Mr. Downes, thanks so much for talking with us. We really appreciate it.

DOWNES: You're welcome, and thank you.

MARTIN: Rick Downes - his father Hal Downs was a radar operator on a U.S. Air Force bomber which went down over North Korea in 1952. Rick Downes is now president of the Coalition of Families of Korean and Cold War POW/MIAs. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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