Springdale • Four years ago, Sunny Lee was back in her native South Korea with more than a dozen family members of American service members still listed as missing in action from the Korean War. Sometime during the sightseeing tours and government medal presentations, she said, she noticed a pain in her stomach.
She had trouble eating, too, but she didn’t pay it much mind.
Maybe it was from the stress of her volunteer efforts, which bring surviving relatives to the nation their loved one sacrificed for. Or maybe it was the weight of all the others left to find. She forged ahead.
But by the end of the next year’s trip, in 2017, the pain was too much. She went to a doctor when she returned home to Utah and learned her diagnosis: stomach cancer. As she underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments, she put her travels on hold.
She focused on getting better, and she’s now in remission — and back to work with a new focus. “I couldn’t just sit back and say, ‘I’m done with it,” Lee said.
‘Bring me my daughter’
Lee still remembers the photograph that sent her down this path. One night, as she was researching a woman’s query, she saw a black and white, standard military headshot of the woman’s father — a Minnesota-born Marine pilot, Maj. George Major.
Anti-aircraft artillery downed his plane in North Korea in January 1952. No one ever found his body. It’s not an uncommon story. What drew Lee in, she said, was his gaze. He stared right at her. Lee felt he was speaking to her.
“I could tell from his eyes, just looking at me, telling me, ‘Sunny, can you bring me my daughter?’”
Lee had been working with veterans, helping them and often their accompanying relatives return to South Korea. Now she made it her priority to find and reach out to the families of MIA service members — and eventually she did find the major’s daughter.
Over the following three years, she connected with scores of families from across the country connected to missing service members, and took the relatives of about 100 to South Korea.
When she first started trying to find such relatives in 2015, she cast a wide net. She wrote letters when she got a lead, but that was hit or miss. “They thought I was a tour guide trying to make money out of this,” Lee said.
She said her contacts at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, or DPAA, will forward her contact information to relatives when they ask for assistance, but privacy laws prevent the military from helping more than that. In the past, media coverage has been helpful in connecting people with her.
This time, she said, she wants to take a more focused approach and go state-by-state to track down the family members of the approximately 8,150 MIA service members from the Korean War.
She decided to start with finding the relatives of the 40 Utahns still missing.
‘We, Koreans, never forget’
The Korean War began on June 25, 1950, when forces from the newly established communist North Korea crossed the 38th Parallel into democratic South Korea. President Harry Truman sent U.S. troops to aid the South Koreans two days later. The U.S. lost 33,686 service members in battles, far more than any other country that sent its military to help South Korea.
The implications of the war, which technically never ended, are far-reaching. They laid the framework for much of the way the world functions today, including setting the stage for the U.S.-Russian Cold War, The New York Times reported. And yet, the conflict, when it’s remembered at all, is called the “Forgotten War.”
Lee said that’s partly because the war arrived on the heels of World War II, a “victory war” that had a clear and successful ending for the U.S. and its allies. By the time the Korean War started, Americans were tired of war. And even when it was effectively over, there was no winner. Lee said she’s met veterans of the war who don’t even have a hat to show for it, who never received medals for their sacrifices.
Despite how the war is seen in the U.S., Lee said, “We, Koreans, never forget about that."
Lee was born less than a year before the July 1953 armistice that stopped the war. She remembers American troops were always around because she lived close to a military base. Although she didn’t interact with them, their presence made her feel secure. She previously told The Tribune that she savored the powdered milk brought to her country by the Americans.
“My parents always talk about American heroism. So I grew up with that story,” she said. After she married, she and her husband immigrated to the United States with the help of his sister, who had married an American. She and her husband moved to Springdale from California after they retired.
‘Bring his spirit home’
Lee said she’s happy to search for families, to give back, but acknowledged it takes a toll on her. Lee teared up several times as she recently described her work.
Sometimes her husband will find her in her office, sobbing late at night, as she puts herself in the shoes of the thousands of young men who died for her country and never made it back to theirs.
Her dedication to the cause is tangible, in the knickknacks she keeps to remind her of why she does it, like a small wooden windmill where she’s scrawled the combatant numbers for South Korea’s allies. Or in the sheer breadth of binders and highlighted pieces of paper where she organizes information.
And every Memorial Day, she said, she pulls out her materials from past trips, and looks at the faces of the men who never came back home.
The impact she has on those who go on the trips is just as obvious.
One of the sons of a missing service member who traveled with her in South Korea stitched her a quilt, decorated with the names of some of the service members she puts so much time into remembering. He told her to curl up with it when she underwent cancer treatments.
But she never did, Lee said, showing it off. The quilt was too special; it remained a spotless, bright white.
In a letter, James Montgomery thanked Lee for taking him on the trip, conceding he was reluctant at first. “My Dad’s body still remains in Korea, but we were able to bring his spirit home,” he wrote.
A focus on Utah’s missing
Lee doesn’t make any money from her research. She’s an intermediary between the South Korean government and veterans and the families of those missing, in a position dubbed volunteer coordinator. The government pays much of the costs to get these families to the country and show them around once they arrive.
It’s not uncommon for South Korea to honor those who helped the country in its infancy. Earlier this month, it sent 10,000 masks and other protective equipment to the Navajo Nation, which has been hit hard by the coronavirus. About 800 Navajo service members fought in the Korean War, the government said in a news release.
“We hope our small gifts will console the veterans in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. The government remembers those who made noble sacrifice to defend a strange country 70 years ago, and we hope they will proudly tell their posterity about the choice they made so many years ago,” said Kim Eun-gi, co-chairman of the 70th Anniversary of the Korean War Commemoration Committee.
According to the DPAA, there are 36 Utahns still missing from the Korean War. Two others were missing, but their remains have since been found, and Lee counts two additional service members not listed on the federal site.
Lee says she’s lived in Utah long enough to know that families in the state have many children — children who are now adults and probably still living today, many of whom know very little about the war their parent fought. She hopes news coverage can raise awareness of what she’s doing and will bring families to her.
She wants to give these family members closure. “I want to keep doing this," she said, “as long as my health allows.”
These service members remain listed as missing in action from the Korean War.
Clarence Bruce Bliss, Bountiful
Lagrant Leslie Wadman, Brigham City
Frank Richard Gallegos, Carbon County
Thiel M. Reeves, Cedar City
Richard Garrett Hollyoak, Eureka
Samuel Vern Westerman, Garfield
Glen Lamar Shupe, Huntsville
Howard Lamont Croshaw, Logan
Howard Andrew Stewart, Milford
Joseph Marrelli, Mohrland
Ross Kay Bramwell, Ogden
William Francis Brown, Ogden
Carl Julius Evans, Ogden
William Edward Wagner, Ogden
David Leon Nielsen, Palmyra
Harold Roy Holmes, Provo
Arthur David Arrivee, Salt Lake City
Ralph Stephen Asher, Salt Lake City
Neldon Earl Blackett, Salt Lake City
Glenn Robert Bothwell, Salt Lake City
Joseph Richard Bridge, Salt Lake City
Clayton Conley, Salt Lake City
Gerald Dwaine Durbin, Salt Lake City
Clyde Neil Foster, Salt Lake City
Robert Wheeler Gillespie, Salt Lake City
Frank Keith Hoesch, Salt Lake City
Louis Norgall Christensen, Salt Lake City
Lawrence Oliver Larsen, Salt Lake City
Grant Wells Madsen, Salt Lake City
Richard Franklin Matthews, Salt Lake City
Thomas Montoya, Salt Lake City
Paul M. Nestler, Salt Lake City
Ronald Warren Dibble, Spring City
Morris Sophus Michelsen, Spring City
Orville Paul Phillips, Wasatch County
Leonard Kelsey Chinn, Washington County
Walter Varsall Jensen, Washington County
Vincent Martin Ryan, Jr., Weber County
James Edward Martin
Jack J. Saunders