After the armistice of July 1953, the chaotic carnage of the Korean War was finally over. Some 1.6 million Koreans were dead, while 36,516 U.S. soldiers had also lost their lives during the conflict. Even today, there are still some 7,750 American personnel who served in the conflict who are classified as MIA; their fates remain undetermined. But nearly 65 years after the end of hostilities, the fate of two of the missing soldiers was finally discovered.
The roots of the Korean War lie in the collapse of the Japanese Empire at the end of World War Two. Until then, and since 1910, Korea had been a colony of Japan. But after Japan’s 1945 defeat, a newly freed Korea was left with various parties vying to be the country’s legitimate rulers.
After much jockeying for political position, the situation in Korea crystallized into the two sides of North and South. The communist North, led by Kim Il-sung, was backed by Russia and China. The South, meanwhile, was supported by the United Nations, with the Americans the leading power in a coalition of countries.
The U.N. formally recognized South Korea as an independent country in 1948 – something communists in the South were vehemently against. As a result, guerrilla warfare broke out throughout the country. There was also armed conflict at the 38th parallel – the line of latitude which marked the border between North and South Korea.
Then, in 1950, North Korea’s main backer, the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin, gave Kim Il-sung the go-ahead to invade South Korea. In June of that year, then, North Korean troops entered the South Korean capital, Seoul. The only hope for South Korea was American intervention – which duly came in the shape of U.S. troops and munitions with the sanction of the U.N.
Initially, the U.S. military intervention was somewhat chaotic. Gradually, however, the conflict settled down into round after round of attack and counter-attack. Territory was taken, relinquished and then retaken, time and again. The Chinese troops, meanwhile, were now fighting alongside the North Koreans, who were also supported by Soviet aircraft.
The conflict thus became part of the international conflict known as the Cold War, in which America and its democratic allies fought against the world’s communist nations. For the G.I.s on the ground, the war was a bitterly fought series of battles, often in extremely difficult conditions, especially during the freezing temperatures of the Korean winter. What’s more, American forces made up some 90 percent of the boots on the ground.
Now, among the U.S. troops to head to Korea was Corporal Robert Perry Graham from San Francisco. In February 1951 Graham was attached to Company A, 13th Engineer Combat Battalion, 7th Infantry Division. At that stage, you see, his unit was busy fighting North Korean forces near the South Korean city of Hoengsong.
Chinese troops had attacked Hoengsong on February 11, 1951, and quickly defeated the South Korean personnel defending the city. The Chinese were then able to advance on U.S. support troops from both sides, forcing a general retreat and killing hundreds of the Americans. And this was the battle that Graham was caught up in.
In the face of a strong attack, Graham’s unit had been given the order to withdraw to the city of Wonju. The troops had to fight their way there through strong opposition, though. And after the subsequent brutal battle, during which the Americans had pushed the Chinese back, many G.I.s were found with their hands bound, each killed by a single bullet to the head.
Then, when Graham’s unit got to Wonju they realized that the corporal was not with them. Indeed, Graham’s fate was unknown, and on February 13, 1951, he was reported missing. Then in 1953 news came from freed American POWs that Graham had been captured and held prisoner at Suan Camp.
The reports said that Graham had died in the prison camp in March 1951. But given that there were no physical remains to confirm this account, Graham’s family were left in limbo. Although it seemed likely that he had indeed lost his life, without the indisputable evidence of a body, no one could be certain.
Another American soldier who served in the conflict was Private Roy A. Henderson from Newark, Ohio. In July 1950, when he was just 18 years old, Henderson was with Company B, 1st Battalion, 29th Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division. Out in Korea, the young soldier and his unit had dug in to a defended position near the town of Anui.
North Korean troops had ambushed another 29th Infantry Regiment unit, the 3rd Battalion, sending it into retreat earlier that July. Henderson and his comrades in the 1st Battalion were to stem the advance of the North Korean 4th Infantry Division at their position in Anui.
However, the Korean infantry attacked Henderson and his unit at Anui, forcing them to retreat. Under severe pressure, the Americans were left with little option but to ditch most of their equipment and head south towards their own lines. But after the U.S. troops’ escape, Henderson was nowhere to be seen.
Private Henderson was actually declared dead in 1953. But like the Graham family, Henderson’s relatives had no physical body returned to them. That meant they couldn’t have a proper funeral, which of course is an essential part of the grieving process. Both families could only hope, therefore, that the remains of their loved ones would eventually turn up. However, as the years turned into decades, this seemed to be an increasingly unlikely outcome.
Then, on April 1, 2016, came two extraordinary announcements from the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) – one concerning Henderson and the other Graham. The agency is an official body that keeps track of all American military personnel lost in wartime. And even though the Korean War ended 65 years ago, the DPAA is still working to trace the remains of men unaccounted for in that conflict.
Incredibly, after all those years, the remains of both Corporal Graham and Private Henderson had been conclusively identified, and now their families would each be able to have a funeral. Moreover, if it weren’t for perseverance and cutting-edge technology, these identifications might never have happened.
In the four years from 1990, the Koreans had handed over 208 containers of assorted human remains to the U.S. And when put together with further remains salvaged after operations in North Korea from 1995 to 2006, the remains of some 600 soldiers who’d served in Korea were discovered. Graham was identified by comparing DNA with that of his nephews. Henderson’s identification, meanwhile, came from chest x-rays and dental records.
Both Roy Henderson and Robert Graham were subsequently laid to rest on April 8, 2016. And Graham’s niece, Nicole Venturelli, told ABC News about the return of her uncle’s remains to San Francisco. “It was a beautiful night. There were policemen, firemen and the military, and they did the tradition thing when they cover the casket with the American flag and walked it past the family. It was a big welcome, very emotional and overwhelming for us,” she said.