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North Korean POW in 1950. Funeral In 2015. What Happened In Between Is Remarkable!

“My dad had brown hair the day before, but the day after, his hair was gray,” says Laverne Minnick. This is what she remembers of the day her family found out that her brother had died in a POW camp in North Korea. She was seventeen in 1953 when she heard the news. However, her reflection on this life-changing day didn’t come out of nowhere. It was provoked by her brother’s remains finally being identified 64 years after his death in 1951.

Another KIA soldier's remains are identified and returned to the U.S. / Via The U.S. Army and Sgt. Lance Alan Schroeder

Sgt. 1st Class Arthur F. Jewett’s remains are identified and returned to the U.S. Jewett was also KIA in Vietnam / Via The U.S. Army and Sgt. Lance Alan Schroeder

During the war in North Korea, many soldiers were captured by enemy forces. U.S. Army Cpl. Robert V. Witt, Minnick’s brother, was captured by the Chinese on December 1st, 1950. The very next day, Witt and his unit (part of the regiment known as Task Force Faith) were reported MIA. Witt survived about two months in the POW camp before he died of malnutrition near the end of January.

But his death was not known by the U.S. government until 1953. It was on July 27th of that year that UN troops were released by North Korea after they signed an armistice. The government only learned of Witt’s death after his fellow POW’s were debriefed about their experience.

It was around this time that Minnick’s father’s hair turned grey.

North Korea released several hundred boxes of remains to the U.S. in the early 90’s and even more in 2000. The remains of nearly 600 U.S. servicemembers were taken to Hawaii where they were processed by the Department of Defense’s POW/MIA Accounting Agency (The DPAA). But it’s no easy feat to identify KIA soldiers based solely on their remains. They were fortunate to identify Witt’s remains after his family submitted DNA. Witt’s remains were matched to him using the DNA of his brother.

Worker for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency excavate a site in Vietnam in 2014 / Via DPAA

Local Vietnamese workers removing sediment from the roots of a tree for the DPAA in 2014 / Via The DPAA

Witt was given a full military funeral on Friday, October 30th, much to the contentment of his family. To have a family member reported missing for two years, find out they were KIA, and then to not know the whereabouts of his body would be tough on any family. It’s a degree of permeating uncertainty that nobody should ever have to go through. Having a funeral offers a family a degree of closure, especially military families. It allows them to put their grief behind them. It allows the deceased to rest in peace.

When Minnick’s father’s hair turned gray, many people didn’t believe her. She said, “many people say that’s not possible, but that’s what I remember…That’s how upset we were.”

After six decades, her family can finally rest easy knowing that Cpl. Witt’s remains are back home in California where they belong.

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Will S. is a left-handed bibliophile who now owns a cherry-red Schwinn Traveler III. On summer afternoons you can almost see his vermilion shadow passing you at great speeds.