Records May Shed Light on MIA from Korea China agreed Friday to grant the U.S. access to military records the U.S. hopes will clarify the fate of some 8,000 servicemen still unaccounted for from the Korean War. Charles Ray, the Defense Department official who signed the agreement, talks with Jacki Lyden.
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Records May Shed Light on MIA from Korea

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Records May Shed Light on MIA from Korea

Records May Shed Light on MIA from Korea

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It's sometimes called the Forgotten War, but it left the landscape blood soaked and devastated.

Unidentified Man: In Korea, three years of combat end as United Nations and Communist negotiators at Panmunjom sign a truce. The long war, undertaken to stop Red aggression, is over. The enemy holds less territory than before his troops marched, but the cost has been bitter for both sides.

LYDEN: Nearly 37,000 American troops died in theater; more than two million Chinese and Koreans. The United States government says that more than 8,000 American servicemen are still unaccounted for. But yesterday, China reached an arrangement with the United States to hand over sensitive military records of the People's Liberation Army. Those records could shed light on the fate of missing Americans. China managed many of the POW camps in North Korea after entering the war in 1950.

Deputy CHARLES RAY (POW/Missing Personnel Affairs): The questions are who died, when did they die, and where were they buried.

LYDEN: That's Charles Ray, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for POW/Missing Personnel Affairs. I spoke with him yesterday about the Chinese archive which the U.S. has been trying to gain access to since 1992.

So what are some of the examples of specific and concrete things that you hope to learn from these records?

Dep. RAY: Well, primarily, just to learn the burial locations of those prisoners who died while in captivity to enable us to focus our search when we are able to get back into North Korea so that we'll be able to go to where we think the remains might be interred.

LYDEN: Does this mean that U.S. researchers will go into the archives of the People's Liberation Army?

Dep. RAY: No, at this point, we will not have direct access. We will have information provided to us by the Chinese researchers who will actually be the ones to do the archival entry.

LYDEN: I'm just wondering if anybody had any idea how extensive those records might be.

Dep. RAY: No, I couldn't really tell you. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if they find out things about the archives that they haven't really known. When these records are archived, quite often they're not indexed neatly like you find the books on the shelf at your local library. These could very well be bundles of documents in a cardboard or wooden box in the back corner of a room somewhere, and so going through them, finding specific information really involves pulling out all of these pieces of paper, reading them line by line and extracting the information you're looking for.

LYDEN: Charles Ray heads Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Affairs. Bringing home the dead and missing of war can take decades; it certainly has for Bud Wendling of Roswell, Georgia. His father, Major George V. Wendling, was an Air Force pilot shot down during the Korean War. Mr. Wendling only recently learned that the Defense Department holds regular update meetings for families still missing loved ones from the past four wars.

How old were you when your father's plane went down?

Mr. BUD WENDLING: A month shy of five years old.

LYDEN: And what did you know of your father's disappearance while you were growing up?

Mr. WENDLING: Oh, we did not know exactly what had happened. We had multiple stories. There was no certainty whatsoever, and I only began to get some of that pieced together only in the last six or eight weeks, oddly enough.

LYDEN: Recently, you did learn something concrete. What was it and how did you find out?

Mr. WENDLING: I was not aware that there was a case analyst for my father's situation until I went to the family briefing on February the 9th, and at that point in time, I sat with him for about an hour and discussed this.

LYDEN: And what do you know about Major George V. Wendling, your father?

Mr. WENDLING: He was - he went missing in action April 13, 1952, Easter Sunday. He was flying out of Suwon Base in Korea with another F-86 pilot. My dad was the pilot of an F-86 Sabre jet. They were going into an area that most people now know as MiG Alley, and there were four enemy aircraft MiG-15s in the area that closed in on my dad. The flight leader saw cannonballs coming by his plane, saw my dad's plane hit - heard a radio transmission from my dad only saying, I'm hit. We don't know if that means that the plane was hit or whether he was hit personally.

LYDEN: And who was piloting those MiG jets, Chinese or Korean pilots?

Mr. WENDLING: Russians. We know it was Russians. I actually know the name of the man that shot my father down.

LYDEN: How did you find that out?

Mr. WENDLING: Got that from J.B. Wiles(ph), the case analyst. And this is also one of the reasons they think they know where my father crashed because about two weeks after my father went down, there was what they called a Chinese propaganda broadcast that talked about finding the wreckage of an airplane, and finding an American pilot in it. And they had the tail number of the plane, which was the tail number of my father's plane. They found certain personal artifacts including a college ring with his name inscribed inside of it. And the reason that they found things like that was that after the Russians would shoot on a plane, they would send ground people in to confirm that. And those personal artifacts would then be taken to some place where they could be registered, and in many instances they were taken to POW camps.

LYDEN: What about your mother? Did she ever give up hope?

Mr. WENDLING: No, I really don't think so. You know, about three years ago, I remember sitting in the office one morning, and the phone rang, and it was my mother. And she had either read something in the newspaper or heard something on the radio about remains being found in Korea. And you could just tell from her voice that there was just this excitement that was somewhat, you know, indescribable, and it just told me that this would never leave her.

LYDEN: That was Bud Wendling of Roswell, Georgia. The remains of his father, Korean War pilot Major George V. Wendling, are still missing.

Coming up, we'll say goodbye to a beloved sports broadcaster. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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