Last November, Bill Sowles was shocked to see his father's picture on a KIRO-TV/CBS news special in Seattle.
The astonishing thing about it was that his father, Salt Lake native Lewis William "Willy" Sowles Jr., was reported missing and presumed dead on Nov. 30, 1950. The footage he saw was taken in about 1953 of prisoners of war being held in Siberia, China, North Korea and other communist camps. The film had been declassified by the government shortly before the broadcast, Bill Sowles said."I was absolutely thunderstruck," he said. "My first thought was, `Gee, this guy looks like Billy, my son.' Then the thunderbolt hit me and I realized, `My God, that's my dad.' "
Lewis W. Sowles, an Army sergeant, served in the 38th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Division, as an X-ray technician in the Korean War. He was believed to have been captured or killed at the battle of Kunui-Ri in North Korea by Communist Chinese forces. He was one of about 8,000 Americans missing in action in the 1950-53 conflict. He left behind a wife and three children who said they never believed he was dead.
Lewis Sowles was born in Salt Lake City on April 18, 1918, the son of Lewis William Sowles Sr. and Mary Sowles. He spent most of his younger years in Utah. Shortly after high school graduation in 1941, he entered the Utah National Guard. He was transferred to the Presidio in San Francisco shortly thereafter and married a childhood friend, Evelyn Irwin Johnson.
Lewis Sowles' brother, Dr. Richard Sowles, and two sisters, Susan Madsen and Patricia Karns, live in Utah. If he has survived, he is 72 years old.
"When I saw the picture I said, `That's Willy,' " Johnson said. "There is no doubt in my mind he is one of the missing men (shown in the special) and possibly still alive in Siberia."
Since seeing the footage, Bill Sowles has contacted government officials and the American Red Cross. He said the Red Cross took the case because it found the evidence compelling. And recently, Bill Sowles said the case was sent to the International Red Cross, which will contact North Korea, China, Romania and the Soviet Society of the Red Cross in an effort to track down his father's whereabouts or remains.
Donna Schneider, military and social service case worker for the Seattle King County Chapter of the American Red Cross, said to her knowledge the Red Cross has never conducted traces like this. But the organization considers this an exceptional case because of the evidence.
The International Red Cross does not have any legal authority in POW cases, Schneider said, but it can act as a "guardian advocate."
"There is no mistake the man (in the film) is Bill's father, and, regardless, there is evidence that hundreds of POWs could still be alive," Schneider said.
Bill Sowles believes his father is or was being held in a Siberian camp because of recently declassified information he has seen in which released POWs and others have given eyewitness accounts of large numbers of Americans in communist countries. He said he believes men like his father were detained because of their technical knowledge.
KIRO investigative reporter Mark Sauter has also obtained information that supports the existence of POWs in these countries. Bill Sowles said Sauter spoke with Lt. Gen. Eugene F. Tighe Jr., former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and Mel Giles, a former Korean War Army Intelligence officer, and both said they believe some of the POWs were sent to Siberia.
According to Sauter's report, Giles said special orders were given through his command that a train leaving North Korea to China and Siberia was not to be bombed because American POWs were aboard.
Bill Sowles also is working with Rep. John Miller and Sen. Slade Gorton, both R-Wash., to get his father's Army records released. The FBI conducted a photo forensics analysis of the film Sowles believes contains the picture of his father. He has not yet received verification from them.
Although Bill Sowles was only about 7 when his father disappeared, he said he still remembers him. He said his son Billy is the "spitting image of his grandfather." Bill Sowles said his father saved him from dying in a fire, and he remembers the comfort he gave him in the hospital.
Bill Sowles has been searching for information concerning his father for years. He said all through the '60s and '70s, he wrote the Army requesting his father's records. The only thing he ever received was a letter in 1976 about the battle during which his father was captured.
"One thing I have always known is how much he loved the army; the army was his life," Bill Sowles said.
Johnson said she wants to put her husband's memory to rest.
"I am in such a state of anger, disgust and rage that officials who could, did nothing and refused to do something," Johnson said. "I'm glad it's out, regardless of how it's affected me. It's dredged up thoughts and feelings I thought had died 40 years ago."
Bill Sowles said his family is prepared for anything. He said his father may have acquired a Soviet family. But both he and his mother expressed their desire to see him even if for a short period.
Johnson said she is single now, having remarried once since Lewis Sowles' disappearance, due to "family pressure." The Sowles' youngest son, David Lloyd Sowles, died recently, but their daughter, Gloria-Marie Iverson, is still alive and remembers her father.
When she first heard of her husband's disappearance, Johnson said, she had a recurring dream of finding him standing at the front door. She said last week she had another dream he came up to her in her car. She said he looked the same only he now had gray streaks in his hair and was thin and tan.
"I can't say if it's premonition or just my subconscious," she said.