Families meet, hoping for word about MIAs

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 29, 2009 - 10:50 PM

Almost 90,000 troops are still missing from three wars.

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Photographs of brothers Joseph, left, and Dale Howell sat on a table Saturday at the Minneapolis Marriott Southwest. Joseph Howell was reported missing in action in the Korean War. Dale joined the Army to search for him and was subsequently killed.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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Joyce McDermott remembers the day in 1950 when she walked in the door of her grandmother's Platteville, Wis., house to find everyone crying. Her big brother, Cpl. Joseph Howell, was missing in Korea.

Fifty-nine years later, she hasn't given up trying to find him.

McDermott, 76, crammed into a Minnetonka hotel ballroom with about 160 others Saturday, each searching for answers to a family mystery.

They were attending one of nearly a dozen gatherings that the Department of Defense holds around the country each year to brief families concerning efforts to find loved ones missing from wars dating from World War II to Vietnam. Each came searching to fill a void left by the disappearance of a father, a brother, an uncle or other relatives.

In addition to meeting one-on-one with each family requesting it, government specialists gave detailed presentations about their painstaking procedures to find answers: Combing through warehouses of documents, looking at maps hand-scrawled on battlefields, digging football field-size grids of shallow trenches to search for the remains of a single soldier at a potential burial site.

They heralded the important role that DNA plays in trying to match remains with family members -- it's now used in about 70 percent of cases --and urged family members to provide DNA samples themselves and check for traces of DNA that their loved ones may have left behind on letters sent home or even wristwatches they had worn.

Under the guidance of the Defense Department's POW/Missing Personnel Office, a team of about 600 specialists with an annual budget of about $105 million solves about 80 to 100 cases each year. But there's still a lot of work to do. More than 78,000 military personnel are still missing from World War II, more than 8,000 are missing from the Korean War and more than 1,700 from the Vietnam War.

But as time and technology march forward, there will be fewer families seeking answers. Changes in warfare have enabled authorities to keep better track of fighters in modern conflicts. Only one member of the U.S. military is missing in each of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Families in the ballroom Saturday understood the monumental task of trying to piece together evidence from days when authorities couldn't track troops using GPS and other devices.

McDermott was 17 when her oldest brother disappeared at the age of 22. He had been the strongest male figure in her life; her mother had died when she was young and her father had remarried, leaving McDermott and her brothers to live with their grandmother.

The day that someone knocked on their door with a telegram was "devastasting," she said. "Everybody sat and cried."

Within months, her second-oldest brother announced that he would go search himself, she said. Dale Howell joined the Army, and a little over a year later in Korea, he was killed in an accidental shooting.

Joseph Howell had disappeared while troops were retreating. Unlike others in his unit, he was not taken prisoner, officials told the family. They simply don't know what happened to him.

"There's always that hope," McDermott said Saturday, describing how she had married and raised a family in the same house where she grew up. She didn't want to move, at first, because if Joseph ever showed up, she figured he'd come back there.

Kenneth Wilkowski of Crystal never knew the father he came to search for. Sgt. Louis V. Wilkowski is believed to have been killed in action in 1950, when Kenneth was not yet a year old. His mother never fully recovered, he said, and struggled with depression while his grandparents raised him.

Wilkowski sat down with Army Lt. Col. Matthew Kristoff to ask questions about his father's case. Louis Wilkowski went missing while working as a medic in a large and chaotic battle in North Korea, authorities had told him. Authorities have an area pinpointed to search for him, but the United States terminated searches there in 2005, when tensions on the Korean Peninsula increased.

"Hundreds of men were lost in that area," Kristoff said.

"I know you guys are doing your best," Wilkowski told him.

While he won't remain hopeful, Wilkowski said that he would do what he could to gather evidence; he let a technician swab the inside of his cheeks for DNA. He will search for letters his father wrote to his mother. He will provide portraits of his father, in case specialists someday want to try to match bone structure with photographs.

If someday his father's remains are returned, Wilkowski said, he'll bury them next to his mother's.

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102

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