By David Vergun
Lt. Col. Don C. Faith Jr., a World War II and Korean War veteran and Medal of Honor recipient, was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Va., today.
Faith, who commanded 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division, was killed Dec. 2, 1950, by communist forces.
But it would take decades and a lot of help from other soldiers and Defense civilians before his remains were finally recovered in North Korea and identified. Only then could his family finally have the closure they so desperately wanted.
Barbara Broyles, or “Bobbie,” as she likes to be called, was only four years old when Faith left for Korea. She was young but still remembers. It would be the last time she would see her father alive.
“What I recall most about my father was that he was happy. I still can hear him laughing. He enjoyed life. And above all, he enjoyed the Army,” she said.
Bobbie said her father used to read to her from his own childhood books, a collection of six volumes titled “The Old House.” She said when he left for Korea, her mother, also named Barbara, read those books to her. She still has them.
President Harry S. Truman awarded the Medal of Honor, posthumously, to her father 18 months after his death. It was Gen. Omar N. Bradley who presented the medal to her mother, June 21, 1951.
Faith was born in 1918 and grew up in Washington, Ind. After the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, many Americans flocked to recruiting stations. However, Faith had decided to join the Army months before.
In February 1942, he received his commission and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division, where he served with great distinction in the North Africa campaign and later in Europe. He was awarded two Bronze Star Medals.
Following the war, Faith served in China and then Japan. He was in Japan when the war in Korea started in the summer of 1950.
A lieutenant colonel at that time, he was given command of 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry, a unit that would soon be in the thick of the fighting.
MEDAL OF HONOR
Some of the fiercest fighting of the war took place in the vicinity of a place called Chosin Reservoir in North Korea in November and December 1950. That’s where Faith and his battalion were when the Chinese decided to enter the war. The Chinese sent thousands of troops south across the Yalu River into Korea.
The entry of China into the war and their drive south into Korea surprised the Americans who were quickly outnumbered and outgunned.
Faith’s Medal of Honor citation describes the action he took during this attack, noting that he “personally led counterattacks to restore (the battalion’s) position” and link up with other units, as they’d been disbursed by the enemy’s “fanatical attack.”
“Although physically exhausted in the bitter cold, (he) organized and launched an attack which was soon stopped by enemy fire,” the citation reads. “He ran forward under enemy small-arms and automatic weapons fire, got his men on their feet and personally led the fire attack as it blasted its way through the enemy ring.
“As they came to a hairpin curve, enemy fire from a roadblock again pinned the column down. Lt. Col. Faith organized a group of men and directed their attack on the enemy positions on the right flank. He then placed himself at the head of another group of men and in the face of direct enemy fire led an attack on the enemy roadblock, firing his pistol and throwing grenades.
“When he had reached a position approximately 30 yards from the roadblock, he was mortally wounded, but continued to direct the attack until the roadblock was overrun.
“Throughout the five days of action Lt. Col. Faith gave no thought to his safety and did not spare himself. His presence each time in the position of greatest danger was an inspiration to his men. Also, the damage he personally inflicted firing from his position at the head of his men was of material assistance on several occasions. …”
Faith was killed Dec. 1, 1950, in the vicinity of Hagaru-ri, North Korea. He was 32 years old at the time.
What follows is an account of his repatriation, the process of returning his remains to the United States. Leading the effort was Faith’s daughter, Bobbie. She was helped by a lot of dedicated men and women of the Department of Defense.
In the decades that followed the Korean War, thousands of remains of service members missing in action in Korea were recovered and returned home. In September 2004, some remains were excavated in the vicinity of Chosin Reservoir by the Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command, or JPAC.
Among the remains were those of Faith, according to Michael J. Mee, chief, Identifications Past Conflict Repatriations Branch, Human Resources Command.
Once those remains were recovered, they were sent to the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, or AFDIL, located in Dover, Del. AFDIL’s Central Identification Laboratory then made a positive DNA match, using a sample Bobbie had provided, Mee said.
Mee and two others who work for him collect DNA samples from MIA relatives, if they are willing to provide them. The lab keeps all the DNA samples on file, Mee explained, in case remains are ever found.
He said the procedure for extracting the DNA is painless, involving a simple cheek swab.
As an aside, since the 1990s, all service members’ DNA is on file at the lab.
Faith’s remains were among the last to come out of North Korea, said Mee. In 2005, North Korea prohibited JPAC teams from doing any more work there.
The process of obtaining the remains of service members in North Korea has always been peculiar, Mee said.
The North Koreans “rarely ever let us go to a primary burial site,” he said. “They would take remains from a primary burial location and rebury them somewhere else.
“Then, they’d come up with a witness who would tell the JPAC team members, ‘look over here, dig here.’ Whatever their rationale was, I can’t explain it,” he said.
Despite this peculiar custom, Mee said the JPAC team members were nonetheless happy to get remains out of the country. He said he hopes one day the North Koreans will again let the teams do their work there.
Faith’s remains were not positively identified until Aug. 14, 2012, Mee said, using five DNA sequences from the recovery site.
Eight years seems like a long time from when Faith’s remains were found to when he was identified, but AFDIL is backlogged with work, Mee said.
JPAC provides the labs with about 100 remains a year, Mee said. More than half of them are soldiers.
He said sorting through the remains is laborious work and that members of AFDIL liken the process to putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle without first seeing a picture of how it’s supposed to eventually look.
Sorting the remains of service members from North Korea is a particularly daunting task, he added, not just because they are re-interred in secondary grave sites, but also because the records North Koreans provide are often not reliable.
Mee cited an example of the difficulty.
In the mid-1990s, the North Koreans turned over 208 boxes to the United Nations, he said. Those boxes, which are referred to as K208, were full of remains that were co-mingled. The lab is still working today on identifying those.
Using DNA samples alone can be challenging, since so many people share similar snippets of DNA, Mee said. If teeth are found, that is much more reliable, he said. But the lab can only work with what they get, which often is very little.
Working to bring home all or most of those still missing in action will take years, if not decades.
“Most Americans don’t realize that there are 87,000 unaccounted-for service members who never came home,” Mee said. That number includes around 83,000 from World War II, Korea and Southeast Asia, primarily Vietnam. Remains from those three wars constitute the bulk of the work being done now by JPAC and AFDIL.
Over the years, Bobbie has been in close contact with the accounting community, which includes JPAC, AFDIL and other organizations.
In the 1990s, Bobbie got to meet the men who were in Faith’s battalion when she was invited to Fort Drum, N.Y., for the christening of the headquarters building in her father’s name.
Bobbie said meeting the survivors of the battle left a deep and lasting impression on her.
“They told me, ‘we would have followed him anywhere. We would have followed him to hell and back,'” she said, adding that many of the veterans said they are alive today only because of him.
Mee, who has been with the program since 2009, said he had the honor of calling Bobbie with the good news that the remains of her father were positively identified. He said she had been in contact with the accounting community for years, hoping they could locate the remains of her father and return them to the United States.
Within just days of telling Bobbie the good news, Mee scheduled a meeting with her in October 2012 in her home in Baton Rouge, La.
Mee and 17 case managers who work for him meet with the next of kin whenever remains are positively identified. The meeting takes at least three hours, he said.
During that meeting, relatives are given an in-depth briefing of how and where the remains were found. The team uses skeletal diagrams, for instance, to illustrate the condition of the remains recovered. Additionally, the team reviews the entire repatriation procedure — from lab to eventual burial.
“If any material effects were found, watch, ring, dog tags, uniform items, coins, lighter, insignia, toothbrush, eyeglasses and so on, we try to return them to the family,” he explained.
Accompanying Mee at the visit was a casualty assistance officer from nearby Fort Polk.
The meeting with Bobbie “was a big deal for her and her family,” Mee said. “We’ve known for years that she was looking forward to this day.”
He added that Bobbie was especially appreciative of the very detailed briefing which was given to her at her home.
“These people (the accounting community) are absolutely astounding,” Bobbie said.
Bobbie said she hopes others who are waiting for the return of their loved ones will find a measure of peace and closure, like she has.
And for his part, Mee said he hopes to help make that happen.
“Repatriation is one of the most rewarding and honorable missions I’ve ever performed,” he said.