My father was lost, but never found, in the Korean War. Missing is quite different than killed. I could write a whole piece on that alone. For now, let me just say I have a shadow that follows me. It is the question never answered, it is the heartache born of what might have been and of what might have happened.
Last week was Father’s Day. My brother sent an innocent message: Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I cried, again, and wrote back “Why does it break my heart every time?” His answer was direct. “At some point, we will need to accept that he's gone.”
It was logical. It was the truth. It is something I will never be able to do.
I have, from the first day I remember, needed to know what happened to my father. I have spent the last two decades trying to find out. This process is a sad one. You learn enough to know there is more that must be told. You learn men were taken and never returned, and that your father might have been among them. You learn enough to never, ever, be able to let go.
About ten years ago, I was invited to participate in a Department of Defense delegation to North Korea. It would be a humanitarian mission, in search of cooperation in the effort to account for the 8,000 men who remain missing from the Korean War. For me it would be much more than that. North Korea has always been the frozen tundra that, in the dark of night, took my father without explanation. It is the place in which the truth lies, waiting.
I packed my bags to travel thousands of miles, a world away, and decades in time. I knew it would be a trip back to January 13, 1952, months before I was born, the night a part of me died.
As we prepared for landing in Pyongyang, I wondered if my arrival would be anything like that of my friend, Gerri, who had come on a similar mission a couple years before. When her plane hit the runway, men came running with hoses to put out fires that erupted here and there in the tires or engines or elsewhere on the plane. As she made her way into the terminal, there were no lights. When she fumbled her way into the ladies’ restroom, she found herself sloshing ankle deep in overflow from the hole in the ground that served as the toilet.
Now as we hit the runway, I readied myself to leap from flames and then to swim in waste. None of it would matter. After a lifetime of imagining the place, I was in North Korea. It might as well have been Oz.
Our landing was, actually, quite uneventful. Inside the building – I hesitate to call it a terminal – there was no public presence. There were no airlines coming and going, no commercial anything. The only sign of life came from a few men walking around, all of them wearing simple brown pants and a matching brown jacket. None of them acknowledged us. If I tried to make eye contact, they quickly looked away.
Our escort was military. They took us to a state-owned facility for official guests. It was sort of like a hotel, but it was definitely not open to the public. The building was situated on acreage down a long deserted road, which was guarded at its mouth by armed military personnel. Though simply outfitted, the residence was lovely. We were free to walk its grounds, which I did frequently. There was a body of water on the property that appeared to be a habitat for beautiful white cranes. The cranes were large and stately birds. One of our hosts told me that North Koreans believe the crane is the symbol of eternal life.
Our main purpose in North Korea was to visit the sight of ongoing remains recovery operations. U.S. teams were in-country searching for Americans who had been buried and left behind during the war. Two teams had been deployed, one to work burial sites in Unsan County and one to work near the Chosin Reservoir. Both locations had seen large battles between American and Chinese forces in the fall of 1950.
We flew by helicopter to the Chosin Reservoir. A flight attendant served us beverages and gave a speech about The Imperialist Americans and all that was wrong with our society. She offered many statistics, including the fact that 250,000 American women were sold into sex slavery each year. It was an odd kind of welcoming address.
The Chosin team was camped in the middle of nowhere. Armed guards encircled the place. We were told the guards were for our own protection because the local population hated Americans so much, but the guards and their guns were at all times facing inward.
When we got to the recovery site, we walked to the edge of a grave. The top surface of a set of remains had been exposed. A farmer had found them while working his field. Apparently, a small group of Americans had come down the road from the reservoir to this farm and were ambushed by Chinese soldiers. The fallen man’s position in his grave told a harsh story. You could tell he had not been buried by friends or anyone who cared about him. He was not laid out. He’d obviously been tossed into a hole and covered over. He’d been cut down and disposed of without kindness, with no reverence. It was a sight no loved one should ever see.
We traveled the next day by vehicle to Unsan. The ride there took us through the western region, the area in which my father’s plane went down. Rice paddies and flowers lay amongst low rising hills. Scattered farmhouses with thatched roofs dotted the landscape. There were no vehicles anywhere and, what machinery we could see was handmade and primitive. It looked as though the country had stood still in time; the iron curtain drawn tight around it had kept out the trappings of progress.
Our vehicles stopped at the side of the road. One of the soldiers invited me to get out. He pointed off in the distance with a sweeping gesture. "Your father…here. His plane crashed somewhere here.”
My legs felt wooden as I walked into a field through tall waving flowers that whispered against each other in the breeze. There was nothing around. My mind traveled back, as if in a time machine. It went to that night, when their engines stopped and the plane fell. I closed my eyes and saw the flames. I saw my father, maybe jumping into the darkness, maybe riding the plane into the ground. Either way, he’d been here. I could feel him around me. I hoped, wherever he was, that he could feel me around him. It was the most spiritual moment I’ve ever experienced.
When we returned to Pyongyang later that afternoon, we attended a dinner hosted on our behalf. I sat next to a military man about my same age. He spoke some broken English and told me he’d lost his father in the war, too. He didn’t know what happened to his dad, either. I’d never stopped to think of losses suffered by the North Korean people. They’d always been the bad guys to me, as if that somehow made the families impervious to heartache. The soldier and I spoke of our fathers. We each tried, but failed, to contain our emotions. From distant parts of the world we had grown up hating everything about each other. That night, we became friends.
On the heels of that emotional experience, we were taken the next day to the national war museum in Pyongyang. Our guide took us into the Atrocities Room and turned our attention to their main exhibit. There, from floor to vaulted ceiling, was the story of my father’s loss mission. Ken Enoch and John Quinn, two of his crew mates, had been captured and taken as POWs. They were forced to sign germ warfare confessions and had become poster boys for North Korean anti-American propaganda.
Giant photographs of Enoch and Quinn, along with drawings of bombs that showed bugs crawling out of them, and blow-ups of the signed confessions, covered the full length of the room. We stood before the wall for thirty minutes listening to a presentation about the Imperialist Americans, the demons who had bombed their lands and infected their people. The guide gestured angrily toward the photographs. I felt a sweat creep up under my hair. Did they know my father had been on the same mission? Would they find a way to hold me back when the rest of my delegation departed?
By the time the trip was coming to an end, I felt almost schizophrenic. One minute I’d be confronted with deep rooted hatred and shameless repression that stirred dark and angry responses. Then, almost from nowhere, beauty or kindness or compassion or some powerful connection to my father would come upon me. It was a place for which I had no use, and it was a place that meant more to me than anywhere else.
It came time to leave. Our plane taxied, then gathered its speed down the runway. I was sad. It felt like I was leaving my father behind. I turned to take one last look at this country that had swallowed him up. The sky was blue that day and the hills were green, but my eyes saw nothing past the white crane that flew just beyond the wing, keeping pace at my window. His large wings moved as though to music. The bird could have gone anywhere, but he went with us. Just before we lifted off, the crane turned his head to me and our eyes met. In that fleeting instant, I found my father and knew then I would never let him go. Like the crane, he would have eternal life.