866 Unknown Heroes

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BY DUANE VACHON – On June 3, 2010 approximately 50 National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (NMCP), Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) military and civilian employees, and invited guests gathered in Section U, near grave 901 to witness what is hoped will be the last leg of the journey of what now is only known as X-17120.

In June 1953 as part of the Armistice Agreement that was signed in Panmunjom members of the U.S. Graves Registration Division started meeting  regularly with United Nations and Eighth Army officials to work out how an exchange could be effected for the  return of Korean War casualties that had been listed as missing in action or lost at sea.


Almost three years later, in May 1956, a casket containing the remains that were only known by X-17120 was laid to rest in NMCP as part of a mass burial of more than 860 Korean War Unknowns that lasted for more than a week.

X-17120 would remain undisturbed until March 2010, when the Joint POW/MIA, through their investigation process, decided they should be able to identify X-17120 and provide closure to family that had been missing a loved one from the Korean War.

Members of JPAC arrived at NMCP for the 10:00 a.m. removal of the casket on June 3, 2010, and, shortly thereafter, transported the remains to their headquarters at Hickam Air Force Base to begin the identification process.

Officials at the Joint POW/MIA Command believe the remains are those of an U.S. Air Force pilot whose F-84E Thunderjet fighter was shot down on October 9, 1952, while on a combat mission.  His aircraft received a direct hit by anti-aircraft fire and augured into the ground.  He was listed as Missing in Action and presumed dead on December 31, 1953.

If successful in the identification, the family will be given the option of having the remains returned home for interment or reburied in the original grave in NMCP.  If JPAC is not successful in identifying the remains, the remains will be returned to this national shrine to be reburied in its original gravesite.  In the meantime, that gravesite remains vacant until a final decision has been made.

Should the identification of X-1710 be successful that will leave 865 American unknowns from the Korean conflict in U section of the National Shrine.

The National Cemetery of the Pacific is unique in that it is the only National Cemetery that has American unknowns from the Korean conflict buried in it.

Implementation of Korean Communications Zone (KCOMZ) Op Plan 14-54 – better known as “Operation GLORY” – was put into effect on 22 July 1954.  United States engineers furnished by the United Nations Command, Military Armistice Commission Support Group, constructed a railhead and reception area.  UN Command also provided a battalion from the 1st Signal Unit to establish signal communications.  The Transportation Corps made plans for the evacuation, by rail, of all deceased military personnel on our side.  The Quartermaster Corps issued all necessary supplies and materials.  And the KCOMZ Quartermaster Graves Registration proceeded with the disinterment of all enemy remains of deceased military personnel interred in South Korea.

In the month leading up to the actual exchange of military remains, the Quartermaster Graves Registration Committee held three additional meetings with the Communist side – to discuss the approximate number of deceased involved, examine the signatures of officers who sign receipts for the remains, and to decide how both sides would proceed from the railheads to the reception areas with the demilitarized zone.  Also to discuss the means of identification, use of vehicles in the proscribed areas, and ground rules for photographers and news correspondents.

On 30 August 1954, the disinterment of all enemy deceased military personnel was completed, and all remains delivered and stored at “Glory Railhead,” near Munsan-Ni, Korea.  At 0930 the next day (September 1st) the Chief of KCOMZ Graves Registration Division met his North Korean counterpart at the reception area within the demilitarized zone, and received the first 200 remains of deceased UN military personnel.  At 1300 hours these remains were evacuated to “Glory Railhead,” where a ceremony was held.  In attendance were several major figures from the United Nations Command, U.S. Far East Command, Military Armistice Commission, and representatives from the Republic of Korea Army.  A religious ceremony was conducted by chaplains of the Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish faiths.

The exchange of deceased military personnel between the United Nations in South Korea, and the Communists in North Korea, continued daily, except Sundays, until 21 September 1954.  On that day North Korean representatives turned over 123 remains, and advised UN Graves Registration officials that there were no more to be delivered.  The United Nations group continued delivering enemy deceased until 11 October.  A final tally showed that 4,023 UN deceased personnel had been received from the North Koreans, and that 13,528 had been delivered to them.

At the last formal meeting on October 11th, both sides agreed to continue searching in remote areas, and if additional remains were discovered, they would be returned prior to the end of the month, if possible.  The UN Chief of the Graves Registration Committee further advised the North Koreans that the exchange facilities would be left standing for as long as was felt necessary.

For their part the North Koreans announced that they had disinterred 78 more bodies, which they forwarded to UN officials the next day (October 12th).  Then again 66 additional remains were handed over on November 9th.  This brought to 4,167 the total number of United Nations deceased military personnel turned over by the North Koreans during Operation GLORY.

I called this article “866 Unknown  Heroes”.  Of course it’s much more than that.  There are mothers and fathers, wife’s and children, girlfriends and boyfriends, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews.  The list goes on and the number 866 pales.  All of these people have a vacuum in their life that will only be filled when we have identified each of the unknowns in Section U at this national shrine.

Duane A Vachon PhD works at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. He is the author of “Gems From The Antipodes: 12 Collections of Faith-Focusing Insights” He also writes a weekly column  “in The  Big Island Reporter”mailto:vachon.duane@gmail.com/