The other day, the U.S. military moved 100 empty coffins to the border of North Korea.
That’s because during the June 12 summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump, North Korea agreed to repatriate the remains of soldiers lost in the Korean War.
They’ve been missing for almost 70 years.
There are almost 7,700 Americans still unaccounted for, according to the Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
One of them is Cpl. Wayne Barton Gill Jr.
Born in 1930, Gill grew up in Woodburn, Oregon, the youngest of three children. At 19, he enlisted in the military, first serving in Okinawa, Japan. On July 16, 1950, he wrote to his family in Salem saying he was packing his stuff to move out to “you know where.”
Eleven days later, he was reported missing in action (MIA) in South Korea.
At 95, Gill’s sister Corinne Steiger is still waiting for her brother’s remains.
“I think that’s the only reason I am still alive,” she said, “to get the whole family back together. Then I can go.”
Gill’s niece, Pam Brekas was only 2 years old when Gill left to serve, but she was able to connect with him through his letters home.
“Every letter he wrote home asked about me,” she said. “‘How’s Pammy?’”
Brekas knew her uncle had fought in the Korean War and never came home. Beyond that, her family didn’t know much more. About 10 years ago, Brekas started looking more seriously into what happened to her uncle; she worked with the Coalition of Families of Korean & Cold War POW/MIAs for answers.
They learned his name appeared on a chalkboard in a former schoolhouse in Seoul where North Korea kept prisoners of war. Brekas said some of those POWs were taken north; others were killed en route.
“His name does not appear on any list of any group that was living or that was found dead,” Brekas said. “So it’s as if he just kind of vanished.”
The family submitted DNA samples to a laboratory in Hawaii that’s been working to identify some remains. They sent in letters Gill had licked, leaving his own DNA on the envelopes. They found samples of his baby hair and some of his baby teeth.
Twice before, the family thought they had identified remains that might be his. They’re still waiting for one set to be identified. Brekas said another identification ended in disappointment when it turned out not to be her uncle.
“Somebody else got an answer which is really good,” said Brekas. “We don’t know whether we ever will or not.”
The family is hopeful but cautious about the new agreement between North Korea and the U.S. to repatriate remains.
“I would like to hope that through this dialogue that the leaders are having, that the remains could be recovered,” Brekas said. “I’m hopeful that would happen, but I’m really skeptically optimistic because they’ve had agreements in the past only to fall apart.”
Between 1990 and 1994, 208 caskets were repatriated. A few years later, the United States conducted 33 joint field operations in North Korea recovering 229 caskets. The most recent recovery occurred in 2007 when North Korea returned seven sets of remains.
Even when remains are repatriated, the process to identify them can take years. Brekas has been through it before.
“It’s like a big CSI puzzle,” she said. “They have to do DNA testing, they have to do historical testing and it is an extraordinarily long process.”
But if Corporal Gill’s remains are repatriated from North Korea or identified in Hawaii, his family will be ready, Stieger said.
They’ll bring him home and bury him in Woodburn’s Belle Passi Cemetery — reunited with his family at last.