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Remains of Korean War POW return home after 60 years

By Becky Schlikerman, Chicago Tribune –

CHICAGO — For 60 years, Army Cpl. Chester Roper’s family wondered what happened to the young man who went to fight in the Korean War.

All they knew for certain was that the 20-year-old from Pittsburgh went missing and was never heard from again.

Without confirmation of his death, the family never arranged for a funeral. His mother and sister rarely spoke of their grief, and Roper’s fate was a taboo topic, said his nieces, who knew only that their uncle likely perished in the war and they should not pry for more information.

In December, a Department of Defense special unit assigned to attach names to U.S. troops killed in past conflicts confirmed that unidentified remains held in Hawaii were Roper, who died as a POW in North Korea. They used dental records and an old X-ray of Roper’s clavicle to make the identification.

Advances in technology and better access to former war zones during the last 10 years has helped the Department of Defense identify hundreds of servicemen classified as missing in action or prisoners of war. In 2011, the remains of 90 military personnel were identified, officials said. This year, 16 service members have been identified and their families have been notified, said a spokeswoman for the Defense Department’s POW/Missing Personnel Office.

Roper’s remains were returned Wednesday at O’Hare International Airport to his closest living relatives, his two nieces.

When she saw the wooden coffin carrying her long-lost uncle, tears rolled down Charlene Byrd’s face.

Police and dozens of patriotic bikers flying American flags led a procession from the airport to a funeral home in Chicago. In neighborhoods along the way, police officers offered crisp salutes.

At the funeral home, Byrd gazed into the coffin that held her uncle’s remains, which were covered by a new dress uniform decorated with Roper’s Purple Heart and POW medal. Byrd, a retired Chicago police officer, thought about the family who could not be there to welcome Roper home.

Roper’s sister died in December, just two days after learning that her only sibling’s remains had been identified. She suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and her daughters could not be certain that she fully understood the news. Roper’s mother and father died without knowing what happened to their youngest child.

“My grandmother was so sad for the longest (time). They couldn’t tell if he was dead,” Byrd said. “Naturally, she never knew for certain.”

Nearly 8,000 Americans involved in the Korean War are still unaccounted for, but a dent has been made in the numbers by the Defense Department’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command.

“At times hope seems dim, but occasionally a miracle does happen,” said Bill Norwood, the president and founder of the Korean War Ex-POW Association.

Officials have been able to reconstruct what happened to Roper in North Korea.

The Army corporal was part of a firing battery in a unit made up of African-Americans — the 503rd Field Artillery Battalion, said Phil O’Brien, a senior analyst for forensic support for the POW/Missing Personnel Office.

In late November 1950, Roper and his unit were “overrun” by Chinese forces “deep within North Korea,” O’Brien said.

After being held captive for weeks, Roper and others marched for five days and on Jan. 20 1951, he entered a camp near the south bank of the Yalu River near a village called Pyoktong.

But after weeks of malnutrition and exposure to the brutal winter, Roper fell ill with pneumonia, O’Brien said. He died on or about Feb. 10, 1951, and was buried by his fellow prisoners on a frozen hillside.

In 1954, the United Nations and the communist governments exchanged the remains of some war dead, including those who had died in Roper’s camp. The Army was unable to attach a name to each person recovered.

Unbeknownst to his family, Roper and thousands of others were buried as unknowns at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii.

That is where he rested until analysts began a routine re-examination of his file, O’Brien said.

Officials were able to narrow down possibilities because Roper was one of just a few young black soldiers held in the camp, said Air Force Maj. Carie Parker, a spokeswoman for the POW/Missing Personnel Office.

Roper’s remains were exhumed and officials used dental records and an X-ray of Roper’s chest to help identify him, officials said. The X-ray, which was part of a group of X-rays discovered by military analysts in recent years, showed Roper’s clavicle, O’Brien said. Clavicle bones have unique ridges that can be used to help confirm identity, similar to fingerprints, O’Brien said.

The family was notified of the identification Dec. 28, Byrd said.

“We’re happy, but it’s also sadness because my grandmother and my mother could not be here for it,” Byrd said.

“He’s been buried two to three times, and he hadn’t gotten home yet,” Moody said. “He can finally have a resting place near his family.”

Roper will be laid to rest Friday with full military honors at Evergreen Cemetery in Chicago. His grave marker will be inscribed with his name and the message “Welcome home.”

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