Michael Bliss would like to bury the father he lost when he was 3 years old.
Valerie Lindsay would like the remains of the uncle she never met.
And former Marine Sgt. John Cole hopes the U.S. government identifies the remains of the two men he lost from the fire team he commanded in 1950.
“I could have been in that group,” Cole said of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who were killed during the Korean War and their bodies never recovered. “I could have been in one of that 5,500 they’re still looking for.”
The U.S. Department of Defense says there are 34 Utahns still missing in action from the Korean War. Their families, as well as those Utahns who served on the Korean Peninsula, have been watching the news over the past week hoping their loved ones or comrades are among the remains the North Korean government recently provided to the United States.
None of the families or veterans expects a quick answer. The Defense Department’s POW/MIA Accounting Agency has spent years explaining their work to them and giving them updates on their individual cases.
“It’s such a long process to identify them,” said Bliss, whose father, Army 1st Lt. Clarence Bliss, of Bountiful, was lost in 1952. “I’m not holding out hope that we’ll find anything out anytime soon.”
Yet Bliss is optimistic he will one day be able to bury his father. He long ago provided a DNA sample that might be used to confirm whether some set of repatriated remains are that of his dad, a forward observer who was scouting enemy positions when the airplane he was aboard vanished.
The remains might also answer questions about what happened to him. His son assumes the plane was shot down, but there was no distress call and no eyewitnesses. Nor was Clarence Bliss, who was 31 and whose wife was pregnant with their second child when he went missing, ever reported as being a prisoner of war.
“It would be nice to give him a burial and have a closure, from that standpoint,” said Michael Bliss, 70, “and have a place that family can go and just kind of honor him.”
Sunny Lee, a Seoul-born resident of Springdale, who helps organize trips to South Korea for former soldiers and their families, said she has been watching the news of the repatriated remains and been speaking with families from across the country, wondering if their loved ones are in any of the caskets that recently landed in Hawaii.
There’s not much families can do right now. She urged any families who have not already done so to try to attend one of the meetings the POW/MIA Accounting Agency holds around the country and submit a DNA sample there.
Lee has known families who went on the “emotional journey” of having their soldier’s remains returned from the Korean Peninsula.
“You cannot imagine that they’ve been waiting six decades," Lee said, “and now finally they are coming home.”
Lindsay believes she knows what happened to her uncle, Army Pfc. Patrick W. Van Dewerker, of Brigham City. Witnesses and Defense Department research, she said, indicate he was taken prisoner while fighting in Taejon (Daejeon), South Korea, on July 20, 1950. Reports showed he was forced to walk in what was called the “Tiger Death March” and died in the cold in North Korea.
The remains have never been returned, Lindsay said. She would like a funeral for Van Dewerker while four of his 14 siblings are still alive.
Some of Van Dewerker’s older brothers served in the military, Lindsay said. “I guess he just considered it his duty."
Cole’s fire team was at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. He doesn’t know the names of the two men he lost.
They mostly called each other by where they were from. Cole was called “Utah.” Cole’s machine gunner, he said, was “New York.” And the two men whose remains have never been recovered were “New Jersey” and “Missouri.”
Now 91, Cole has been one of Utah’s foremost advocates for Korean War veterans, helping raise money for memorials and organizing ceremonies. He sees the personnel still missing in the two Koreas as unfinished business that’s being addressed with the recent return of remains.
“To me, it’s a huge great step toward getting our veterans out of North Korea,” he said.
As of Dec. 31, 2017, the POW/MIA Accounting Agency listed 34 Utahns as still missing from the Korean War.
U.S. Air Force
1st Lt. Clayton Conley, 1951
Airman 1st Class Howard L. Coshaw, 1953
1st Lt. Carl Julius Evans, 1952
1st Lt. Robert Wheeler Gillespie, 1951
1st Lt. Harold Ray Holmes, 1952
1st Lt. Grant W. Madsen, 1951
1st Lt. Thiel M. Reeves, 1952
Pfc. Ralph S. Asher, 1950
Pfc. Neldon Earl Blackett, 1952
1st Lt. Clarence B. Bliss, 1952
Pvt. William F. Brown, 1950
Pfc. Gerald Dwaine Durbin, 1950
Pvt. James S. Gablehouse, 1950
Cpl. Frank R. Gallegos, 1950
Pvt. Frank Keith Hoesch, 1952
Cpl. Walter Varsall Jensen, 1950
Cpl. Hugh C. Killam, 1950
Capt. Auburn Marr, 1950
Pfc. Joseph Marrelli, 1950
Sgt. 1st Class Richard F. Matthews, 1950
Pfc. Morris S. Mickelsen, 1952
Capt. Paul M. Nestler, 1950
Cpl. David John Pethel, 1950
Cpl. Orville Paul Phillips, 1950
Pfc. Vincent M. Ryan, Jr., 1950
Pvt. Glen Lamar Shupe, 1950
Cpl. Howard Stewart, 1950
Pfc. Patrick W. Van Dewerker, 1950
Pfc. Lagrant L. Wadman, 1952
1st Lt. Samuel V. Westerman 1950
U.S. Marine Corps
Pfc. Thomas Montoya, 1952
Cpl. William E. Wagner, 1950
Lt. j.g. Ross Kay Bramwell, 1951
Airman Lawrence O. Larsen, 1950
Source: U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, as of Dec. 31, 2017