Military Mystery: Two Valley Men's efforts to find Korean War Dead

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65-years ago in June, the United States entered into three of the bloodiest years in American history. (KFSN)

65-years ago in June, the United States entered into three of the bloodiest years in American history. Today, a six decade Korean War military mystery still haunts many American families. Two men with Valley roots and distinguished military careers devoted a part of their lives trying to solve it.

Veterans on a recent Central Valley Honor Flight watched a somber ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. As Douglas Justus, helped place a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier -- the World War II Army veteran from Visalia thought about his brother.

Justus explained, "And when I laid that wreath on that thing I just broke into tears. You know and especially knew that my brother would have loved it."

Like his brother, Bert Justus served in World War II. Five years later, "Uncle Sam" called him to duty again to fight in Korea. But Lieutenant Bert Justus never came home. After being wounded, captured, and forced to march more than 200-miles into North Korea, the enemy left him for dead in a village.

Justus added, "You couldn't make it, they either shot you or left you on the side of the road."

Bert Justus is one of more than 5,300 American servicemen still missing and "unaccounted for" in communist North Korea.

25 years ago, a historic ceremony at the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea may have given the Justus family and thousands of others hope of finally bringing home their loved ones killed in the Korean War.

On Memorial Day, 1990, the North Koreans handed over five wooden boxes to the U.S. and the United Nations command. Inside those boxes -- skeletal remains of American servicemen -- the first bodies returned by the reclusive north since the end of the Korean War.

As a reporter covering the event, the North Koreans allowed me to cross the tension filled border that separates the two Koreas. Dick Adams of Caruthers also walked into North Korea that Memorial Day with a Congressional delegation. As President of the National Korean War Veterans Association, Adams had worked for two years prior -- trying to persuade the North Koreans to release the remains of any U.S. servicemen.

Adams explained, "Well, I first met with the North Koreans in New York at the UN building."

Recently, I caught-up with Dick Adams at the Caruthers Veterans Memorial where the name of the former Army tank commander and Purple Heart recipient is one of 950 on this wall. Adams remembers being pushed and shoved by the foreign media, as he was shown the war dead remains, 25-years ago.

Adams said, "And they opened up the boxes and some of them had shoes in it, and some of them had jackets, and some were just bones."

Rear Admiral Larry Vogt, formerly of Fresno, also played a key role in the return of the remains as Commander of the U.S. Naval Forces in Korea -- and as the senior member of the UN Commission supervising the Korean Armistice Agreement.

"The bodies had been commingled," said Admiral Vogt. "Bones were from maybe 20-30 different bodies, and it was really a mess."

In a recent Skype interview, Admiral Vogt told me the North Korean role in the exchange was only motivated by what they could get out of it.

"We paid for each one of those remains," said Admiral Vogt. "There's money exchanged for us to get those back."

The efforts of Admiral Vogt, Dick Adams, and several others a-quarter century ago, resulted in hundreds of American remains being returned from North Korea and positively identified in the following years.

Adams said, "We thought maybe we accomplished something and I guess we did."

Escalating tensions between the U.S. and North Korea suspended the search for remains in 2005. Time and construction work in North Korea are destroying burial sites of American servicemen. Those facts bring little comfort to Douglas Justus. He's left with memories of a brother who suffered and died for his country.

Justus added, "It breaks my heart to think about it, the way they treated those men, no respect at all, just take away all your dignity."

Dick Adams believes it's now too late to reclaim any American remains in North Korea. I received this statement from the Pentagon which said the Department of Defense is committed to achieving the fullest possible accounting of American war dead. The statement reads: "U.S. efforts to recover Korean War remains are a humanitarian effort for our missing servicemen, their families, and the American people. North Korea's provocative actions have led us... to suspend remains recovery operations until their actions demonstrate a willingness to live up to its commitments."

Since 1999, the U.S. has exhumed more than 90 unidentified Korean War remains at the "Punchbowl" Cemetery in Hawaii. 55 of those remains have been identified using DNA and other scientific methods.

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