Korean War Veteran Leads Search for MIAs

Korean War veteran Ron Broward has made nine trips to South Korea in search of the remains of fallen Marines. He's determined to bring his war buddies home, more than half a century after the shooting stopped. Jason Margolis of NPR station KQED has Broward's story.

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An American veteran is working to identify troops from a forgotten war. The Korean War left more than 36,000 Americans dead. More than half a century after the shooting stopped, about 8,000 Americans are listed as missing in action. From member station KQED Jason Margolis reports on an effort to complete their stories.

JASON MARGOLIS reporting:

Ron Broward was 17 years old when he was sent to Korea. He was assigned to the same squad as his older brother's best friend, Jackson Rarrick. Together the two young Marines celebrated Broward's 18th birthday.

Mr. RON BROWARD: And he says, `Hey, Ronald, I got something special for you,' And he said, `Open your hands.' And he poured into me--it was Downey dirt from where we lived. He'd put Downey dirt in a little bottle, put it into his pack, so I got to hold dirt from my hometown.

MARGOLIS: A few days later during that spring of 1951, the Marines of the 1st Battalion, 1st Regiment were overwhelmed by 140,000 Chinese soldiers at the Battle of Horseshoe Ridge in South Korea.

Mr. BROWARD: Jackson and I were running down the hill laughing. Jackson was laughing and I said, `Jackson, what are you laughing about?' And he was 6'4", a great big Marine. He says, `Ronald, we're United States Marines. What are we running for?' And we both stopped and looked up the hill, about 20 yards away, it was just a swarm of people coming and we didn't have any more ammunition. And Jackson looked at me and he said, `Jesus, I guess we don't have any choice.' So we kept running.

MARGOLIS: Broward was hit by shrapnel, but made it to the relative safety of a nearby river. More than half of the 900 Marines at Horseshoe Ridge were either wounded or killed that day. Four, including Jackson Rarrick, have never been found. Broward is now 72, but he still looks the part of a tough Marine. And he says his service is not complete. Over the past two decades he's made nine trips to Korea looking for clues about those who disappeared. He also convinced military officials to conduct two search-and-recovery missions to the old battleground site.

Mr. BROWARD: They were youngsters that never really had a chance, and it's our duty to bring them home.

MARGOLIS: To identify soldiers forensic experts can rely on physical evidence, like dental records or even a recovered ring or a scrap of clothing. The military also began using DNA samples, matching old bone fragments with DNA from living relatives. Still, using DNA samples is a major challenge. The military needs more samples from the relatives of missing soldiers. But after more than half a century, these relatives are hard to track down. But Broward isn't giving up.

Mr. BROWARD: This is an isolated barrel roster from North Korea. All the names crossed out are guys that were found. See, after the war the Chinese turned over about 4,600 such remains to the US and they...

MARGOLIS: More than 400 of those remains are still unidentified. Those soldiers are buried in Hawaii at a military cemetery known as the Punch Bowl. Broward says he spends about four hours a day combing through stacks of documents, cross-referencing unmarked burial plots with the dates that the remains of unidentified soldiers were evacuated from Korea. He's hoping to present enough compelling evidence to convince the military to disinter a body and conduct a DNA test. Broward says he's confident the remains of his best buddies will be identified either in Hawaii or through another visit to Korea.

Mr. BROWARD: There's a certain feeling you have when you've been, you know, with a bunch of guys in the infantry. So you want to bring them home.

MARGOLIS: For NPR News, I'm Jason Margolis in Davis, California.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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