FORT WALTON BEACH — Like their World War II counterparts, the number of surviving Korean War veterans is dwindling. But those remaining are heartened by the recent repatriation of purported remains of American military personnel from North Korea.
The remains, in 55 flag-draped metal caskets, arrived Wednesday in Hawaii aboard a military transport plane. An initial forensic examination by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) concluded the remains are likely American.
The repatriation was part of a joint statement from President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a June summit in Singapore.
"I think it's fantastic," said Robert Chaplin, a Fort Walton Beach resident who flew 49 missions during the Korean War as a tail gunner aboard a B-29. "I think it's great."
Chaplin lost friends in the Korean War, and almost of them were accounted for, he said. The lone exception was one aircrew that was forced to ditch in the ocean, he said, making recovery of the bodies all but impossible.
And while the remains recently returned to the United States have yet to be identified, Chaplin looks forward to the day when names can be assigned to them.
"I think for the families, it's a closure," he said. "I'm very pleased for the families."
Two local soldiers from the Korean War listed as missing in action and later presumed dead are among the Americans whose remains haven't been accounted for, according to the DPAA and the Korean War Project. The DPAA is the federal Department of Defense agency responsible for recovering remains from past American conflicts. The Korean War Project is a private clearinghouse for information on troops killed, missing or imprisoned during the war.
The DPAA estimates more than 7,500 Americans remain unaccounted for from the Korean War, with most believed to be in present-day North Korea. According to the DPAA, Army Cpl. Charles Vernon Rushing of the 1st Cavalry Division, and Army Cpl. Berl Devon Weekley of the 2nd Infantry Division, are among the 157 Floridians who have not been accounted for. The Korean War Project shows Rushing and Weekley were listed as presumed dead on Dec. 31, 1953 — five months after a July 27, 1953 armistice halted fighting.
Weekley, whose home was in Milton, according to the Korean War Project and Department of Defense (DoD), was listed as missing on Nov. 28, 1950, during combat in North Korea. The Korean War Project reports a friend saying Weekley, a few months short of his 18th birthday when reported missing, was killed in action.
Rushing, whose home is listed as Freeport by the Korean War Project and DoD, was reported missing during Sept. 6, 1950, fighting near Taegu in South Korea. Rushing was a little more than two months from his 21st birthday when he was reported missing, records show.
In the early 1990s, North Korea presented more than 200 caskets to the United States that were determined eventually to contain the remains of 400 people. In the ensuing years, ending in 2005, nearly 230 additional sets of remains were repatriated.