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thedrifter
08-27-07, 08:17 AM
ID of Korean War remains may end family's wait

By Chris Kenning
ckenning@courier-journal.com
The Courier-Journal

In December 1950, Donald Morris Walker was a 19-year-old Marine from Louisville hunkered down at the Chosin Reservoir, surrounded by 60,000 Chinese troops who had poured across the border and into the Korean War.

With temperatures below zero at night, Walker and his fellow overwhelmed U.S. troops became locked in a desperate two-week battle that would claim Walker's life.

He was buried in a Hungnam cemetery that soon fell behind enemy lines. Four years later, North Korea returned some U.S. remains to Hawaii, but Walker's could not be found. However, some unidentified remains were interred in a military cemetery in a volcanic crater in Hawaii.

Now, after decades of uncertainty among his relatives, military forensic investigators recently said they believe they are close to identifying his remains and returning them to his family.

Walker's Louisville niece, Carolyn Walker, who works in a preschool in Floyd County, Ind., said the family may try to have him buried at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, D.C.

"My mother told me my uncle died," said Stewart, but relatives were left with "a lot of questions."

If a final identification using DNA and other methods is made, it would be the second person from Louisville in recent years to be identified among the more than 80,000 Americans missing from conflicts dating to World War II.

In 2004, the remains of Louisville pilot Norman Schwartz were returned to U.S. soil -- 50 years after he was shot down over China while flying a secret CIA mission to pick up a western spy.

It's the job of the military's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command -- the world's largest forensic anthropology lab. The unit recovers and identifies as many as 100 remains each year in a painstaking, years-long process that can involve diplomatic negotiations, research, expeditions and laboratory identification.

"There is such a long period of time when there's no information," said Ted Barker, administrator of the nonprofit Korean War Project, which helps connect former units and obtain services for vets.

Stewart said before the military contacted her family, she had only sketchy details about her uncle, because some closer relatives had passed away.

Military records show that Walker, born April 16, 1931, in Louisville, enlisted March 28, 1950. A private first class, he was assigned to the Marine's 1st Service Battalion of the 1st Marine Division. Such support companies drove trucks moving loads of ammunition, rations and fuel.

Just months after his enlistment, he was shipped off to respond to North Korea's 1950 invasion of South Korea. In September of that year, U.S. troops landed at Inchon, cutting off North Korean troops and recapturing Seoul.

As Gen. Douglas McArthur pushed northward near the Chinese border on the Yalu River, China made good on warnings that it would intervene, sending hundreds of thousands of troops over the border. U.S. forces quickly found themselves overwhelmed and were sent into a long retreat.

At the Chosin Reservoir, the 1st Marine Division and some U.S. Army units were vastly outnumbered by Chinese troops. Adding to the misery was cold so bitter that it froze water canteens, made it impossible to sink tent pegs into the frozen ground and caused frostbite.

During the fierce fighting, most troops -- including support troops -- were pressed into combat, Barker said.

Walker died Dec. 7 -- on the second of a two-day period when hundreds of Marines were killed, wounded or went missing in action, according to reports. U.S. Marine records say he was struck in the head with a missile during combat, though records from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command showed he died of a gunshot wound.

On Dec. 13, six days later, he was buried in Hungnam as the Marines battled their way to the city's port to be evacuated by sea. When the war ended in 1953, the area fell under North Korean and Chinese control.

"Walker was killed and buried by U.S. forces. He was killed in action, but his remains were never returned to the family," said Brian Desantis, a joint accounting command spokesman in Hawaii.

The United States was allowed to exhume the graves in 1954 under "Operation Glory." From the area that Walker was buried, about a half-dozen remains couldn't be identified. They were considered unknown soldiers for decades.

But a recent increase in identifications, the result of what Barker said was a burst of funding that helped expand staff, led the military to eventually identify the other soldiers.

Investigators figured it was likely that the last set of remains belonged to Walker. Although some tests are pending, circumstantial evidence suggests "it is likely who we think it is," he said.

A DNA sample from the remains has been sent to the armed forces DNA lab in Blackville, Maryland. A sample from the family has been submitted to the same lab. In addition, the military is using a technique that superimposes a digital photo of a soldier onto the digitized skull.

Stewart said she would like to have his remains buried in Arlington National Cemetery to honor his service, which garnered him a list of citations and medals including the Combat Action Ribbon, United Nations Service Medal and the Purple Heart.

Still, the family is waiting for final word.

"We asked -- are you sure?" Stewart said, recalling the officials promised to let them know as soon as tests were completed, which Desantis said could take weeks or months.

Reporter Chris Kenning can be reached at (502) 582-4697.

Ellie