After 60 years of pain, Minnesota families get closure all at once

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 22, 2011 - 10:05 AM

DNA testing helps to bring home remains of three Minnesotans who died within weeks of one another as prisoners in the Korean War.

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James Sund, Ralph W. Carlson, Master Sgt. Michael C. Fastner

In a remarkable testament to new technology, the remains of three Minnesotans who died within weeks of one another as prisoners in the Korean War -- their whereabouts unknown for 60 years -- will be back at home within a month of each other.

In a remarkable testament to fate, two of them may have been in the same prison camp at the same time in early 1951.

One was James Sund, an Army corporal whose remains will be flown Friday evening to the airport in Fargo, N.D., and receive military honors. He will be buried Tuesday in his hometown of Highlanding, Minn. The other was Ralph Carlson, an Army sergeant and tank driver who was buried last month in his hometown of Braham, Minn.

The third was Army Master Sgt. Michael C. Fastner, a 31-year-old St. Paul native who died about the same time at another prison camp about 120 miles away. Fastner, a prisoner of war in both World War II and the Korean War, will be buried Friday at Fort Snelling following a funeral service at the Church of St. Agnes in St. Paul.

The recoveries are part of a sustained military effort based in Hawaii to bring home and identify the remains of American service members.

Fastner had been captured by enemy forces near Kunu-ri, in late November 1950 and died of malnutrition in captivity on Feb. 28, 1951, at a facility known as Camp 5, on the banks of the Yellow River, according to accounts of surviving POWs after the 1953 armistice.

His remains were turned over by the North Koreans in 1993 and positively identified in March of this year.

Fastner's son, Michael Belles, who was too young to remember his father, said his remains not being recovered "was always a big void."

"It's important for the entire family to have him returned to his home where he can be with his family again," Belles said. "It's something likened to a miracle that his remains were located and turned over by the North Koreans, especially when you consider relations between the United States and North Korea."

Blood tests lead to closure

Sund's remains were identified after two of his sisters were asked five years ago by a special military unit in Hawaii to provide blood samples for DNA testing. Sund, 28, was killed on April 24, 1951, after being taken prisoner two months earlier.

"They did not do a service for him at the time because he was missing in action,'' said Marilyn Stanley, a niece. "I think it was always an open wound where you never know exactly for sure what happened to him."

Carlson, 22, was reported to have died from dysentery in April 1951. Carlson's remains were returned to his boyhood home in Braham after his remains were confirmed. Records indicate that Sund and Carlson could have been prisoners at the same time in what was known as the Bean Camp.

Advances in DNA testing

The identification effort springs from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, activated in 2003 in Oahu, Hawaii. The group's Central Identification Laboratory identifies the remains of a missing service member about once every four days.

More than 88,000 Americans remain missing from World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War and the Vietnam War. Advancements in DNA testing have allowed scientists to make identifications that previously were unavailable.

"DNA technology has advanced such that they are actually exploring the nuclear DNA side of things," said Maj. Carie Parker, a spokeswoman for the command. "They're hopeful that it will assist them even more in identifications over the years."

On-again, off-again efforts

The group's work in Korea, though, has proved especially difficult because of tense on-again, off-again relationships between the U.S. and North Korean governments.

Some remains were returned immediately after the end of the conflict. But between 1954 and 1990, the United States could not persuade North Korea to search for and return any additional U.S. remains.

Between 1990 and 1994, North Korean officials exhumed and returned what they claimed were 208 sets of remains. U.S. efforts to identify them were hampered by record-keeping and recovery methods.

Individual remains were co-mingled with other remains, leading forensic scientists to estimate that boxes turned over could include the remains of as many as 400 people.

Carlson's remains were found as part of 11 boxes returned in 1991. Fastner's remains were included among 33 boxes turned over in 1993.

Sund, who grew up on a farm, was taken prisoner on Feb. 12, 1951. He was reported to have been killed when American forces attacked the camp he was being held in on April 24, 1951.

The sisters who gave blood samples recently were informed that 45 to 50 percent of his remains had been identified and would be returned.

'Something special'

After Sund was reported missing, a memorial stone was put up in the Highlanding cemetery, but there was never a funeral service.

On Tuesday, there will be a gathering of family, friends, veterans organizations and the Patriot Guard. An honor guard from the Minnesota National Guard will be part of a funeral procession through Thief River Falls and past the Sund farm to the cemetery, where he will be buried.

Records show that Carlson and Sund were prisoners at the Suan Bean Camp, a staging area so named because prisoners were fed a ball of rice and soybeans twice a day.

Carlson was taken prisoner on Jan. 4, 1951, and marched to the camp from Seoul. He may have been moved from the camp after the bombing in which Sund was believed to have been killed.

Linda Carlson Wescott, a Carlson niece, has extensively researched the prison camp and the effort to recover prisoner remains. She said it is significant that the men's remains would be returned now, given how North Korea is clamping down on searches in populated areas like those where camps were located.

"The North Koreans do not want their residents to have much contact with the Americans," she said. "It really is something special that James Sund and my uncle have been returned."

Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434

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