Today is the anniversary of the day my father was lost over North Korea. I have many people in my life for whom I am thankful. This is not to take away from the riches they have brought me. But today I pay homage to the layer that lies beneath everything else. It has come forward through the years and become a part of who I am. A while ago I wrote an essay about my father’s loss. In tribute to him today, I am posting it.
It came in a telegram. In the ‘50s that’s how they did it. “I regret to inform you…”
It’s the message that brings a military wife to her knees. An envelope delivered to the front door. She takes it into her trembling hands and stares at it, already knowing.
My mother was seven months pregnant with me when she got her telegram. The message was not of death. Hers delivered a different kind of blow. My father was Missing in Action. He’d gone out on a night mission over North Korea and hadn’t come back to base. No word. No witnesses. He’d simply disappeared.
He’d probably been captured and was being held as a POW. Mom tried to stifle the terrible images of torture and starvation that crept in at night when she was supposed to be sleeping. She clung to her thoughts of the day he would come home. Two months later, I was born. My older brother and I were good distractions.
The days and months passed. It got harder to picture his face and to hear his voice. But still she clung to the glimmer that had insinuated itself into our lives. Dad would be home as soon as the war was over.
When the war ended a year and a half later, they televised POWs crossing the bridge during repatriation in Panmunjom. As the men hobbled across, one by one, expectant and frightened families watched from far away. When they saw their Johnny cross over, they would cry out. Some jumped to their feet. Mom stood silently, clenched fists at her breast, searching the faces.
The last man crossed over. His family must have been so relieved. My mother crumbled to the floor. This was not the grief of a woman who’d been told her husband had been killed. Mom was caught somewhere between his death and something worse. Where was he?
The government promised to do everything it could to get answers but that turned out to be more talk than action. Later, the 944 List came out. My father’s name was on it. The list was of men who remained missing for whom the government felt there should be an accounting based on circumstances surrounding their loss. In my father’s case, two of his crew members had come back. They’d been captured and held for the rest of the war. That meant the North Koreans and the Chinese who fought with them had found the air craft wreckage. They either had my father or knew where he was buried.
There should have been information but there wasn’t, and there was no coordinated effort to get any. Eventually, the government changed my father’s status from MIA to Presumed Dead and that was the end of it—for them, but not for us. When you love someone, it’s hard to just presume he's dead. He is your husband. He is your children’s father. He is your life. You don’t just write him off and go about your business.
You wait and wonder and agonize every day over what might have happened to him. Years pass and details of the life you shared with him begin to fade. But the anguish never does. It lives alongside of you in his stead. My mother carried on, but the loss came with her. Where was her husband?
My brother eventually stopped standing at the front door crying “I want my daddy,” but he never stopped missing the man who had carried him on his shoulders. I grew up without ever having known my father, but my mother managed to bring him to life for me. His picture was on my bed stand. His hockey skates and other artifacts sat about the room. There were countless stories of him; there were countless tears for him. And always, always there was the hope that one day he would be standing at the door.
Years passed. The silent wondering pressed to the back of our hearts and made room for life unfolding. Then, in 1991, Boris Yeltsin came to the U.S. and told of how American POWs had secretly been taken out of Korea to the Soviet Union and never returned.
Families of the 8,000 men missing from the Korean War were outraged. The men’s children were now of an age to get involved and we did. We organized and demanded that the government do something to finally get the answers we had all yearned for but never received. The reluctant assumption we had made that our fathers must have died passed quickly from our lives and, in its place, came an anger that we had been made to live with the not knowing for forty years.
Each of us was set to wondering anew. Was my father one of the men who had been taken? Had he been thrown into a gulag and forced to live in Siberia, alone and waiting to be rescued? New anguish piled on top of the old. We were now guilty of inaction. We had abandoned our fathers.
There were Congressional hearings. An office was formed in the Department of Defense. Its mission: to find out what had happened to the men who never came back. I quit working and became a full-time advocate on behalf of POW/MIAs. Along with thousands of other family members, I badgered Congress and the State Department and the White House. I traveled to former Soviet Bloc countries and to China and even to North Korea is search of answers. There were marches and newsletters and too many speeches to remember. I combed the National Archives, filing one Freedom of Information request after another. Twice I testified at Congressional hearings. Most powerful of all, for me, I found my father’s crew members. They told me everything they could remember about that night. All of it placed my father’s loss in context, but none of it told me where he was. He had simply vanished.
More than twenty years into our search, we still have no answers. My father is 87 now, if he’s still alive. Every year, on January 13th, just at the hour his plane went down, I hike into the woods, his picture and his hockey glove in hand. I sit alone and find him in my heart and get into that plane with him. I picture a bail-out. Then I picture going down in flames, in case it happened that way. I feel his emotions as they must have been in those terrible moments when life and death flashed by him and chased him to the ground.
I lost my father to war. The fact that he was MIA instead of KIA has tormented me my entire life. We’ve pressed for resolution to the uncertainty. Find the answers, however bad they might be, we’ve always said. We just want to know.
Sometimes I wonder if I really do. After all these years, I have grown accustomed to having him somewhere out there. Missing in Action; not dead. The uncertainty has kept him alive. He is the man in the photograph—my father—all things a child might want him to be.