CAPT Tracy D. Connors, USN (Ret)

Time To End Don’t Ask, Don’t Search Policy

“All of America’s veterans have placed the nation’s security before their own lives. Their sacrifice creates a debt that America can never fully repay…. And we will not stop searching until we have accounted for every soldier and sailor and airman and Marines [sic] missing in the line of duty.” President George Bush, 11 November 2005

No words can ever bring lasting comfort to any family that loses a son or daughter—whatever the reason. Families of military personnel that are wounded or killed in action face an even more difficult adjustment.  Most of these losses occur overseas during military actions, some of which remain classified for many years afterwards, making it difficult for the families to determine or understand the circumstances during the combat action.  Often, the remains cannot be retrieved at the time of the death because the action occurred in hostile territory.

Historians and politicians can tell you the date the war or “police action” began and usually when it ended.  For the families who lose loved ones, the day the “I regret to inform you telegram” arrives is when the war or action starts for them.  For many, it is never over because the remains of their loved one are not high enough on the government’s priority list.

Baited Trap, the Ambush of Mission 1890 tells the story of two such families—the Lear family of California and the Eaton family of Massachusetts—who are still waiting 55 years after their husbands or brothers were killed in the Korean War’s deadliest helicopter rescue mission.  They and other families of Korean War-era KIA’s are asking hard questions about what is being done to repatriate the remains of U.S. servicemen killed during the Korean War.

The location of the Lear-Eaton crash site is well documented from reports filed shortly after the action, a daring rescue led by Air Force Captain Wayne Lear, of Ensign Ronald D. Eaton, a Navy Corsair pilot shot down south of Wonsan, North Korea.  Escorted by several Mustang fighter-bombers, one of them piloted by 1st Lt. Archie Connors, Lear and his medical technician Airman Bob Holloway, finally had Eaton on board after the third attempt under heavy ground fire during which they and their aircraft were hit. As the wounded Lear tried to keep the badly damaged helicopter in the air, another hit by deadly anti-aircraft fire sent the helicopter into a diving spin. Holloway and Eaton tried to ride Holloway’s parachute to safety from an extremely low altitude, but Eaton fell to his death when the parachute snapped open. In trying to hold the aircraft steady for the few moments his passengers needed to get out safely, Lear sacrificed his own life when there was not enough altitude for his parachute to open when he exited the craft less than 500 feet in the air.  A few moments later, while making a low pass over the helicopter crash site to locate any survivors, Connors’ plane was also shot down. Only Holloway survived after enduring 14 months in a Chinese POW camp.

Mission 1890 on 25 June 1952 was the deadliest helicopter rescue mission of the Korean War.

In 1953, during Operation Glory, Connors remains were repatriated and buried with his family in Jacksonville, Florida. The remains of both Lear and Eaton, buried less than a mile away from Connors’ crash site, have not been returned.  It is unclear that a search and recovery mission to the location of their crash site has even been requested by the U.S. government during periodic negotiations with the North Korean government for access to known grave sites.

Until recently, the U.S. government sought authorization from the government of North Korea to search for remains.  Negotiations and discussions would lead to permission for searches in designated areas.  Permission was sometimes denied by the North Korean government to search in some areas, e.g. former prisoner of war camps.  When permissions were granted, the locations where U.S. searches were conducted were usually conducted in areas where multiple burials were expected.  While understandable in some respects, such a policy pursued over years has resulted in more remains from Army and Marine Corps KIA’s being returned than Air Force or Naval Aviators lost in combat.

Families of missing Korean War servicemen such as the Lear and Eaton families are asking why the location of their missing servicemen has not been given more priority since the location is documented and the site will include two sets of remains.

Since 1996, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), has conducted 33 Joint Field Activities (JFA’s) in North Korea. [Source: DTIC as of 2 Nov 2007]  “Because the temporary suspension of field operations in North Korea remains in effect, no JFA’s are scheduled in 2006,” the DPMO web site reports.  None were scheduled in 2007, either.

It has been the policy of the U.S. government for the last two years to not even seek permission to search for and retrieve remains.  Requests for JFA’s were suspended in 2005 based on the volatile political situation that then existed.  In effect, the government adopted a “don’t ask, don’t search” policy that is still in place even though relations with the government of North Korea have improved significantly in recent months.

The DoD department that coordinates and conducts such searches—Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, DPMO—is still waiting for authorization from the National Security Council or the State Department to request permission from the North Korean government to conduct JFA’s.

On this Veterans Day,” President Bush affirmed on November 11, 2005, “we honor the courage of those who were lost in the current struggle. We think of the families who lost a loved one; we pray for their comfort. And we remember the men and women in uniform whose fate is still undetermined — our prisoners of war and those missing in action. America must never forget their courage. And we will not stop searching until we have accounted for every soldier and sailor and airman and Marines missing in the line of duty. (Applause.)”

The White House promised that it “will not stop searching until we have accounted for every soldier and sailor and airman and Marine missing in the line of duty.” However, the United States has not requested permission from the North Korean government to search for remains of U.S. MIA’s in over two years.

The question being asked by all the families of Korean War KIA/MIA service members is when will the White House put real meaning behind a currently empty promise?  When will Korean War searches be resumed so that the families, now increasingly elderly, can find closure?  Why is it necessary to add to the suffering endured by these families, who know where their loved ones are buried, but realize that senior government decision makers are not placing a high enough priority on efforts to bring them home with the “dignity and honor” they deserve.  When will the National Security Council or the State Department, the levels at which this decision needs to be made, allow the Defense Department to resume discussions with the North Korean government about this important initiative?

The U.S.-N.K. political environment has changed. When will political decisions being made by the Executive Branch reflect the improved environment–when will the Korean War KIA remains repatriation issue become a priority for our national leaders?  Words in speeches are “cheap.”  These young men didn’t give lip service to their devotion to duty.  When will our government show the same devotion to duty as these soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, who paid the highest price of all?

The official Dod “Strategy” on missing personnel commits the U.S. government to its military members, DoD civilians and DoD contractors “that if they become missing from their units, are captured, or die while serving our Nation in combat, every effort will be made to see they are recovered and returned with all the dignity and honor they deserve.”

Clearly, that commitment currently lacks support from the highest echelons of the U.S. government. What does the “don’t’ ask, don’t search” policy do for the morale of today’s serving men and women?  Until the families of Korean War-era KIA servicemen know that JPA’s are once again a priority for our government, the “universal expectation that no one will be left behind” cannot be the “fundamental article of faith that underpins the motivation and confidence of every U.S. service member deploying to a foreign duty location.”

Why aren’t’ we back in North Korea recovering the remains of our boys?  When can the families of Korean War KIA’s gain closure?

About Tracy Connors

Tracy D. Connors graduated from Jacksonville University (AA), University of Florida (BA), the University of Rhode Island (MA), and Capella University (Ph.D. with Distinction, human services management, 2013). Ph.D. (Honorary), Leadership Excellence, Jacksonville University, December, 2013. Designated a "Distinguished Dolphin" by Jacksonville University, Feb. 2, 2010.