Eight Thousand Mysteries

Fifty-five years after the last shots were fired in the Korean War, the dead are still trickling home.

On Dec. 20, 2007, the fallen soldier was Army Cpl. Robert S. Ferrell of Dallas, a POW who died in 1953; his bones matched a relative’s DNA.

A few weeks earlier, the casualty was 1st Lt. Dixie S. Parker. Killed in his foxhole during the furious Chinese push to the south in November 1950, the Green Pond, Ala., native returned to his family after his remains were dug out of a North Korean mass grave.

Thanks to a few trips into the reclusive world of modern-day North Korea to collect bones, and a continuing effort to collect matching DNA from relatives of missing soldiers, the military’s Defense Prisoners of War/Missing Personnel Office, better known as DPMO, continues to reunite a slow but steady stream of lost soldiers with their long-grieving families.

More than 8,000 U.S. troops and airmen are still missing from the Korean War theater. The story of one particular soldier – a Vermont farm boy who was barely 18 when the war swamped his life – has touched off shock waves with POW/MIA advocacy groups and military investigators, leading to hopes that a long-suspected but never-solved mystery of the war may finally yield an answer.

The soldier was Army Sgt. Richard Desautels, a feisty kid from a rural dairy farm near Shoreham, Vt.

The mystery that his case might help answer is whether or not American POWs were secretly held in communist China during and after the war, something the Chinese have denied for five decades. If so, were some – possibly hundreds – never allowed to come home?

The bombshell in Desautels’ case was a revelation delivered by Chinese officials to a team of visiting U.S. dignitaries in 2003. They had discovered classified Chinese army records that claimed Desautels “went insane” and died as a POW in Shenyang, more than 100 miles inside Chinese territory, in April 1953. His remains, the Chinese said, were buried near the Manchurian city but later lost to a construction project.

The Chinese have steadfastly refused to let Americans see the original documents. But the Desautels communiqué, brief as it was, marked the first time in 50 years the Chinese have admitted that any U.S. POWs were taken into Chinese territory or buried there. It has sparked hope in some quarters that documents in Chinese archives could lead to information on hundreds of U.S. and U.N. personnel that military intelligence suspected, at the time of the war, were being held in secret Chinese camps.

“This is a big opening after all these years,” said Mark Sauter, a Washington-based investment broker who has researched Korean War MIA cases for the National Alliance of Families for the Return of America’s Missing Servicemen, a national advocacy group. “They have information on a lot of guys. The question is, will the U.S. government get that information?” A STRANGE TALE. Desautels’ case is one that military investigators have been probing for years, partly because it is so strange, DPMO spokesman Larry Greer said. Desautels went into combat in August 1950, about a month after North Korean troops struck across the 38th Parallel into South Korea. By late fall, U.S. forces pushed the North Korean advance almost back to the Yalu River, the border with communist China. Then disaster struck. The Chinese swarmed across the border in huge numbers in late October 1950, devastating U.S. and U.N. advanced units. A second big push in the waning hours of November turned the tide completely, sending U.S. troops and their allies into headlong retreat. According to DoD records, Desautels was caught in the rout, shot in the kneecap and captured near Kunu-ri, where Chinese and North Korean forces trapped convoys of fleeing troops in a narrow, mountainous pass. More than 11,000 U.N. troops were lost, killed or captured during the frigid hours of Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, 1950. Between 4,000 and 5,000 of those began a long, deadly march into hastily improvised prison camps. Desautels was not among them. He disappeared, only to reappear 10 months later in a Chinese-administered POW camp near Pyoktong, North Korea, known as Camp 5. Desautels, a member of A Company, 2nd Engineer Combat Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division, told several of his fellow prisoners that the Chinese used him in the months after his capture to repair and drive supply trucks for one of their military units, according to debriefing records that were declassified in the 1990s. Raised in a French-speaking household, the already bilingual Desautels, nicknamed “Dizzy,” said he picked up the Chinese language “fairly well as there was no one else to talk to,” according to the debriefing of Sgt. Wesley Little, one of his campmates. Desautels’ knowledge of the language quickly got him into trouble when the guards caught him translating their conversations and news reports for other prisoners. The Chinese separated him from fellow prisoners and held him at their headquarters at Pyoktong, recalls Frank Shoback, another campmate. Most of Desautels’ fellow prisoners reported last seeing him in the spring or summer of 1952, “banged up” and starved in the words of one, chopping wood to fire the Chinese commanders’ stoves. Clarence Banks reported seeing Desautels “firing one of the buildings” in Pyoktong in July 1952 while Banks and a group of POWs were led out of the camp to gather firewood. “We hollered to him, and when he stood up we could see that he had been severely beaten and had lost 20 or 30 pounds and seemed to be in quite a daze,” Banks wrote in his debriefing report in 1954. “That’s the last time I saw him.” THE ULTIMATE FATE. What finally became of Desautels is still a mystery. The idea that he might have gone insane in April 1953, as the Chinese said in 2003, seems plausible to Searles, who did not know Desautels in the camp but did watch other men break. “If the body don’t get no nutrition, the mind don’t get no nutrition,” Searles said. “And then if you’re in stress all the time ... You’re in turmoil. You’re in purgatory.” Desautels’ older brother, Rolland, says he doesn’t believe a word of the Chinese report, which is why it took five years for it to surface in public. Rolland said he kept it to himself, believing it to be false, until he mentioned it to a National Alliance of Families researcher last summer. And DPMO released the report to the family, but not the public, because it didn’t feel it constituted a confirmation of Desautels’ fate, Greer said. For his part, Rolland said be believes the dates are wrong in the Chinese report, because a POW who visited his family five years after the war said that he saw Desautels on repatriation day in the fall of 1953, at least five months after the Chinese say he died in Manchuria. His suspicion was partly backed up by the debriefing of one former POW, Richard Grenier, who claimed he spotted Desautels in Pyoktong village on the day the other prisoners headed to their repatriation sites. “He must have been held!” Grenier wrote in his debriefing report in June 1954. Desautels, apparently worried he would never be released, asked several fellow POWs to tell someone about him if he failed to make it home, because he didn’t think the Chinese would let him go. He told one of his fellow prisoners that his captors intended to take him to Antung, China. Declassified Army intelligence documents generated during the war mention Antung as a site where there was a “large U.N. POW camp inside city (sic) in several two-story buildings along a street,” Sauter wrote. The documents also list a Manchurian city then known as Mukden as the suspected site of a secret prison camp, possibly holding as many as 2,700 British, Australian and U.S. prisoners. Mukden is now called Shenyang – the city that the 2003 Chinese report listed as Desautels’ burial site. During the war, the city was known for two things, according to one of Sauter’s research papers. It was the home of a military aircraft plant and the home of a school for foreign languages. In 2008, it hosted one of the soccer venues for the Beijing Olympic Games. A STICKY PROCESS. U.S. investigators may soon get their best chance in more than five decades to find out what the Chinese know – or knew at one time – about the fate of 8,000 people missing in action. In an agreement signed in February 2008, the People’s Liberation Army Archives Department offered to let Chinese researchers, approved by the Chinese and DPMO, go through broadly defined sets of archives. Their charge is to tease out any information that may shed light on the fate of Americans who are still missing from “before, during and after the Korean War,” according to the agreement. The results are supposed to be forwarded to DPMO every six months. The Americans have agreed to cover the costs, according to the memorandum, but only up to $150,000 a year. With that, the Americans are asking their Chinese counterparts to comb through records of POW camps and hospitals that may have treated prisoners, records of anti-aircraft units that may shed light on the fate of missing U.S. pilots, records from pilots who may have shot down U.S. planes, records of communications between the Chinese and their Russian advisers, and records on prisoner interrogations. The idea that any U.S. prisoners will be found alive seems far-fetched. But their ultimate fates may finally become clear. “Nobody, including the Chinese, buries the remains of an enemy soldier without making a record of it somewhere,” Greer said. “The task, of course, is finding it.” Meanwhile, thousands of families are waiting, hoping to fill the void that a lack of closure has left in their hearts for decades. In a way, Norma Frushon is one of the lucky ones. Now 70, she was 11 years old the day she learned that her beloved oldest brother, Cpl. Joseph Gregori – the one everyone called “Sonny” – was among the 350 missing from the disastrous Battle of Unsan on Nov. 1, 1950, when two Chinese divisions suddenly slashed into unsuspecting U.S. troops near the Yalu River. Over the years, she read everything she could about the battle that took him away: the frigid cold, the Chinese bugles blowing in all directions through the night, the fear as units disintegrated and the enemy closed in. She sent a sample of her DNA and kept in contact with the Department of Defense, keeping the search alive. On May 23, 2006, at 10:30 in the morning, she finally got the call – Gregori’s bones, found in a mass battlefield grave, had been linked to her DNA. It still upsets Frushon to think of the horror her brother faced in his final hours, she said late last year. “But by the same token, knowing that he is home here with us, where he belongs – it’s very gratifying.” Thousands of others are still waiting, hoping for any bits of information – even something as ephemeral as the Chinese report on Desautels – that could shed light on their loved ones’ fates. For many families, answers may never come, said Delores Alfond, national chairperson for the National Alliance of Families. Despite research agreements and occasional breakthroughs, people have grown too old, the documents are too ancient, and the war was too chaotic to surrender its secrets readily, she said. “I don’t think we’ll ever resolve the prisoner-of-war issue,” Alfond said. “But we’ll keep trying.”   David Fisher is a writer who lives in Oregon.