Pvt. Harry Robinson returned to South Philadelphia from Korea in the spring of 1952 with a piece of shrapnel in his thigh and a Purple Heart for his service.
There was no parade. No family celebration. The Robinsons were distracted, still grieving for Harry’s younger brother, Cpl. Joseph C. Robinson, reported missing in action. The Army later determined that Robinson was a prisoner of war killed in March 1951.
“My mother was very happy to see me, of course, but she never really got over the fact that she lost a son,” Harry Robinson, now 86, said this week. “He was just 18. She thought he was coming back, that he was going to show up one day. I think she thought that until the day she died.”
Robinson’s three remaining siblings are still waiting for news about him, not with a knock at the door but a phone call from someone in the Department of Defense, telling them his remains have been found — they’re believed to be in the northern hills of Pyoktong, North Korea.
The United States hasn’t looked for remains in North Korea since 2005, but following President Trump’s June 12 meeting with Kim Jong Un, families are hopeful that searches could resume. There are 7,700 service people still missing from the Korean War, according to Chuck Prichard, director of public affairs for the Pentagon’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. Of those, about 5,300 are believed to still be in North Korea.
Many remains are buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu or are among the 200 boxes the North Koreans have turned over to the United States. The Central Identification Laboratory in Honolulu continues to search through them.
“One case at a time, that’s the way it goes,” Prichard said. “Don’t give up hope. That’s what we ask people.”
Last year, Prichard’s department identified remains of 42 missing Americans from the Korean War. So far this year, there have been 19. From 1996 to 2005, the government paid North Korea about $19.5 million for cooperation in its recovery of 229 sets of American remains.
Prichard said he does not know what a renewed on-the-ground search mission would look like in North Korea. “That’s up to the State Department,” he said. “We’ll be ready when they’re ready to send us.”
A merry prankster
Joseph Robinson was a prankster. That’s how his three remaining siblings remembered him in Wallace Robinson’s Elkins Park living room this week. They reminisced over framed military medals, yellowed newspaper clippings, and the fragile remnants of their mother’s diary.
He was the kind of guy who would dangle little brother Wallace (now 81 and the family historian) out the back window of the house while sister Mary (now 84 and a great-grandmother) played lookout. He could stretch a dime far enough to cover water ice for all five of his siblings by swiping it back when the salesman wasn’t looking. He played basketball so well that Mary often catches herself watching the game on TV and wondering how far her big brother might have gone.
Joseph Robinson enlisted at 17 “as a way to grow up a little bit,” Harry Robinson speculates. He was a gunner assigned in the First Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division — one of the last segregated units to fight in the war.
The family never had a funeral, never got a folded-up flag or a gun salute.
Wallace Robinson sent his DNA to the DPAA in 2004 in hopes that something might turn up. The department has about 80 percent of the DNA for all unaccounted-for soldiers from Korea.
In 1999 the government had DNA for about 20 percent of the missing.
The Korean War Project, a Dallas-based nonprofit, launched by Ted Barker and his brother more than 20 years ago, keeps a large unofficial database of missing service people without DNA matches. The site has also become a portal for thousands of families looking to connect.
The entries read like short, heart-wrenching classifieds.
“I am looking for anyone who remembers my dad. Named Don Luse. He was a medic when captured.”
“Seeking any information on my brother, Normand Connor, who was a P.O.W. and died in camp.”
Barker said he has had a “deluge” of people reaching out since the June 12 summit in Singapore. “People are coming back to us or finding us to ask about their relatives,” he said. “We’ve got filing cabinets and boxes full of handwritten letters. We’ve got guys in their 90s learning how to use an iPad to try and find someone.”
Marjorie Miles Hantwerker posted about her brother, Sgt. William Thomas Miles Jr., on the site and was connected to soldiers who served with him and eventually the man who took over the unit, the Fourth Ranger Infantry Company. She was able to piece together what happened through interviews and records. Miles, a graduate of Northeast High School, was assigned to intercept intelligence behind enemy lines in July 1951, when a Chinese encampment was discovered nearby. Miles radioed to warn others of the discovery, likely saving hundreds of lives, but was never heard from again, his sister said.
Hantwerker said being able to tell her brother’s story — a book is in the works — is in some ways more important than getting some piece of him back.
“It just breaks my heart my parents never knew,” Hantwerker said. “My mother, God bless her, we would go off to school, Dad would go to work, and she would sit there with my portable typewriter writing letters to anybody she thought of who could help.”
Pennsylvania had one of the highest Korean War casualty counts of all states, at 2,401, according to the National Archive. Barker said that those figures are outdated and that the number is actually higher. There were 836 casualties from New Jersey. “You had a lot of military and reserve units called up and a lot of these guys traditionally were young men from rural or mining areas who joined the military after WWII,” he said. “They joined to get away from or find a path out of poverty.”
Barker said he’s hopeful but skeptical about the Trump summit translating to more identifications. Even if a team is sent over and remains are located, he said, it takes an average of six years to make an identification.
“In some cases you have a finger bone, that’s it, or a tooth, and the remains are so fragile and small.”
Janella Apodaca Rose, chairperson of the National Alliance of Families for the Return of America’s Missing Servicemen, put it more bluntly.
“If the Pentagon proceeds at its current pace, all the siblings and spouses will be dead by the time the remains are identified,” she said. “There is a potential that even the returned POW/MIA’s children may not be alive to see a confirmed identification of remains.”
It does happen, though. Mariam Espey, of Mount Laurel, got a call from a Pentagon official in 2009 telling her that her older brother’s remains were identified from boxes in Honolulu, 58 years after his death. Her family had a full military funeral for Army Sgt. Dougall H. Espey Jr. at Woodlawn National Cemetery in Elmira, N.Y., where the family lived at the time of his enlistment. They honored him on what would have been his 80th birthday.
Espey, now 88, a former counselor at John Hancock School in Philadelphia, also served in Korea, with the Air Force Nurse Corps.
“It was only partial remains,” she said in a phone interview this week. “It was just several bones. But it was enough to have a funeral, which we did. And there was some closure for the family.”
In Wallace Robinson’s living room, talk turned to his brother’s many honors.
Wallace held up a plaque with medals pinned in neat rows beside his picture. “I would like to see him get his deserved burial in Arlington,” Wallace said. “He did a lot of stuff over there and look at this. That’s all we’ve got left.”
The room was sad and still for a moment until Harry chimed in. “Let me see those, because some of those medals, I have, too,” he said earnestly, and his siblings erupted in laughter.
“This isn’t about you!” Mary said.
“Some of them are just for being there!” Harry observed, noticing a medal engraved with an eagle, hanging from a black ribbon bordered with red, white, and blue stripes. “I don’t have this one.”
Mary told her brother gently, “That’s probably because you came home.”
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