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Coming home: Decades after going MIA during Korean War, a Utah soldier will finally be laid to rest

SHARE Coming home: Decades after going MIA during Korean War, a Utah soldier will finally be laid to rest

Lt. Jack J. Saunders is finally coming home.

Some 60 years after he died in a Korean Prisoner of War Camp, his mortal remains will be brought back and laid to rest in an Ogden cemetery.

"It finally makes him seem like a real person," says daughter Kim Padelsky, who was only 3 when her father left for the war and has no real memories of him. "All I know is what other people have told me."

Those reminders are rather sketchy. "I was told he was a fun-loving person, a joker who had a bunch of idiot friends, that he was always happy, that he was meticulous in appearance, that he was kind of a fussy eater."

She also has a few letters, written while her father was at training camps before being sent to war.

"He was really mushy about my mom," she says.

At the end of April, Padelsky and a group of her family and supporters will go to Hickam Field in Hawaii, where the lab that has identified her father's remains is located.

"I get to tour the lab," she said. "And then it is treated like a present-day death. There will be a military ceremony there and here."

Jack Saunders "gave his life for his country like any other soldier," says Larry Greer, director of public affairs for the Department of Defense's POW/Missing Personnel Office, based in Arlington, Va. "He is entitled to a full military burial, in the cemetery of choice. The Army provides the casket, and local military units provide the support."

Saunders will be buried in the Aultorest Memorial Park in Ogden on April 30, next to the grave of his wife, LaRelle.

"She remarried three times," says Padelsky, "but I think he was her true love. She was never as happy."

LaRelle died last November, shortly after the family had been notified that Saunders' remains had been conclusively identified. "They were sure enough to come see us in October," Padelsky says. "Mom was still with us enough to understand. She knew he had died, but I think she was still relieved that he was finally coming home. I really think that's when she let go."

For Saunders' sister, Helen Palmer, now in her 90s, the news was also a relief. "All we ever had was 'Missing in Action.' This has been a long time coming. It's just an unbelievable thing."

Of all the horrific things that happen in war, "Missing In Action" may be one of the hardest to bear, enveloping both tragedy and uncertainty. A few of those listed as MIA come back alive; many never come back at all.

The POW/MPO currently has more than 80,000 case files, says Greer. The majority of those — 74,000 — come from World War II. There are still 8,000 missing from the Korean War and 1,698 from the Vietnam War.

"We also have 125 missing from the Cold War," says Greer. "A lot of people don't think about that."

Although current conflicts don't come under the direction of his office, he also knows that one soldier is listed as missing in Afghanistan and one in Iraq.

"Our hope is that in 10 to 20 years, we will have every one accounted for," says Greer. "We would like to work ourselves out of a job."

It is a formidable challenge, he admits, but one that is constantly being worked on by about 600 members of a worldwide team.

Under its charter, the POW/MPO must share all information it gathers with respective families. Representatives go to cities across the country on a regular basis to meet with relatives, to discuss what has been done, what the next steps are in each case.

New technologies and advances in forensic study have helped in recent years, but identification can still be a long, drawn-out process.

When remains are recovered, several chains on evidence are followed: mitochrondrial DNA, dental records, eye-witness accounts, recovered artifacts.

"We rarely get a clear-cut identification right off," says Greer. And tracking down things like DNA can take time. Samples must be taken from certain relatives; the necessary identifiers are not passed down, so offspring don't qualify.

"Families scatter; names change. Tracking down the correct DNA donors sometimes takes a long time," says Greer. "We've often used genealogists and records from the Mormon Church to help us dig out family members. We've solved a number of cases with their help."

Many who work in the office are veterans; Greer served in the Air Force for 27 years and has been with the agency since 1995.

"To a person, we all feel a sense of obligation to those who went before us, who paid a greater sacrifice than we did," Greer says. "If we can help achieve some measure of closure, we take satisfaction from that."

Different families have different reactions, he says. "Some see it as a great load off their shoulders; for others, it is a painful reminder, another blow of sadness. But most see it as some kind of closure."

Jack J. Saunders was born at his grandmother's home in Clearfield, on Feb. 5, 1924. "He was premature," remembers his sister, Palmer, who was 5 years old at the time. There was also an older brother, Delroy, who was 12 years older than Jack.

Jack grew into a healthy young man. "We used to fight, like all kids do. We had to grow up to really appreciate each other," says Palmer. She remembers him being comical, "and he liked to draw and carve things out of wood."

The family moved to Logan when Jack was in high school. DonNell Balls was a classmate of both him and his future wife, LaRelle Rich. "I remember that he was an excellent artist, and she was a vocalist with a beautiful voice. He was also in ROTC there."

They graduated from high school in 1942, and Saunders went to serve in World War II. "He was tall, 6 feet 4 inches, and slender," says Palmer. "He went to Africa and Sicily. He was with Mark Clark's 5th Army."

An undated newspaper clipping tells of one experience: "Somewhere in Sicily, an International News photographer caught four young American Soldiers, two of them from Utah, sight-seeing on foot. Observing the battered and bullet-scarred buildings of the captured town were Private Richard Thurman, son of Mr. and Mrs. Sam D. Thurman of 1120 Penrose drive, and Private First Class Jack Saunders of Ogden."

"He loved Italy," Palmer remembers. "But there were bad times, too. He told me that once he marched across country for 28 days straight without taking off his shoes. When they finally got to a place where they could take a shower, he had to literally peel his stockings off his feet."

After the war, he came home to marry LaRelle in 1946 and enrolled in school at Weber State and then at the University of Utah, where he was working on a pre-medical course of study.

"They didn't have a lot of money," says Padelsky, "so to get more money for school, he enlisted in the Army Reserves. When the Korean War broke out, he was called back into action."

Saunders was sent for training to Fort Sill, Okla., and then Fort Lewis, Washington. "Mom and I were going to move up there," Padelsky says, "but before we got there, he was sent to Korea."

That was in the summer of 1950. Saunders was attached to the B Battery 15th Field Artillery Battalion and assigned as a spotter, which involved flying a small plane over enemy-occupied territory. For that service, he was awarded the Air Medal with Three Oak Leaf Clusters. It was actually pinned on 3-year-old Kim, in a ceremony at Fort Douglas in the fall of 1951. "I think they thought it would make a better picture to have a child there," she says.

Saunders was scheduled to come home in March or April of 1951. "He was telling me he was looking forward to coming back," LaRelle told a newspaper reporter later on. "He didn't particularly like it over there. I guess nobody did."

On Feb. 13, his unit was overrun by Chinese forces near Hoengsong in what is now South Korea. There was heavy fighting, and at its end, Saunders was unaccounted for.

On Sept. 27, 1951, letters from Major General Wm. E. Bergin, Adjutant General of the Army, came to both LaRelle and to Jack's parents, Mr. and Mrs. John K. Saunders, who were living in Ogden at the time.

"First Lieutenant Saunders became missing in action on 13 February 1951 while his unit was breaking a roadblock in the vicinity of Hoensong, South Korea. He has not been located since that date," the letters said. "The Department of the Army is mindful of the anguish you have so long endured and you may rest assured that, without any further request on your part, you will be advised promptly if any additional information concerning your loved one is received. ... You have my heartfelt sympathy in your anxiety and it is my earnest hope that the fortitude which has sustained you in the past will continue through this distressing period of uncertainty."

Families were asked to contact the Army if they heard from any soldiers who might contact them with information about their loved ones. They were given instructions on how to write letters to prisoners of war, in hope that they might get through.

On Oct. 17, LaRelle wrote to let Bergin know that she had talked with a "Glen A. Rigby, who was missing the 12th of February and who was a prisoner of the Chinese and released and made his way back to the UN lines. He informed me that he had been in a prison camp with my husband and he saw him the last time during the latter part of April. ... He mentioned that my husband is going as a P.F.C. instead of an officer. ..."

A response from Maj. Gen. K.B. Bush thanked her for the information but also noted that "Unofficial information has been received in numerous cases which indicates that personnel officially reported as missing in action are prisoners. However, as the opposing forces are not observing the provisions of the Geneva Convention by reporting prisoners through the International Red Cross, the official status in such cases cannot be changed until the report that they are prisoners can be confirmed."

DonNell Balls remembers talking to LaRelle at that time. "It was devastating to her. It broke her heart."

A Newsweek magazine cover of Dec. 17, 1951, shows two American POWs starring glumly at the camera. One of them is Jack Saunders. It was a propaganda photo, one of several sent out by the Chinese to show the treatment of prisoners but used by the magazine to contrast the treatment of American and Communist POWS.

"Ignoring the Geneva Convention, the Reds have never reported the names or numbers of the prisoners they hold, let alone permitted the International Red Cross to inspect their POW camps or transmit food and medicines," wrote the magazine. "But a Red newsman's remark last week, that 'you can expect less than half the missing to turn up prisoners,' jibed with General Ridgway's guess that, of the 10,988 missing Americans, 6,000 were atrocity victims. How the surviving U.S. POW's are treated is tipped off by the dreary faces in these dreary Red propaganda photos."

The U.S. Army thinks that by this time, Saunders was already dead, a victim of maltreatment and malnutrition. His official death certificate now lists April 30, 1951, as his date of death. But it was not until 1953 that his "missing" status was officially changed to "presumed dead."

It would be much, much later that his remains were returned.

"The Armistice of 1953 specified that each side would return POWS and return sick, wounded and dead soldiers," says Greer. "And they did return some."

But despite repeated requests, the North Koreans were not exactly forthcoming about finding and returning all the bodies of those killed during the war.

Finally, between 1991 and 1994, they turned over to the United Nations Command 208 boxes alleged to contain remains of U.S. soldiers.

The two boxes that eventually were found to contains remains of Saunders were among 31 boxes turned over in 1993, says Greer. But, he says, "you can't imagine what a jumbled mess they were, filled with fragmented bones, the occasional dog tag or other identification media. As many as seven different individuals were co-mingled in some boxes."

So far, out of the 208 boxes, 35 servicemen have been positively identified. Saunders is one of them. They were able to match DNA with samples from his sister Helen, as well from a nephew. They were able to match teeth to Saunders' dental records.

"That coincided with information obtained from fellow POWS and eyewitnesses and also fell in line with information provided by the North Koreans when they turned the boxes over," says Greer. "We are able to say with certainty that these remains belong to Jack Saunders."

Even now, they do not have a complete body, he says, "but we have enough."

In 1994, because of the extreme difficulty of sorting out the remains, the Army asked the Koreans to put a moratorium on returning remains.

"We were able to negotiate a joint operation, where we have our own people on the ground over there and are able to document things more completely," says Greer.

The first U.S. excavations took place in the summer of 1996. Between then and 2005, 235 sets of remains have been recovered, "and the rate of identification is much higher. Even so, we rarely find clear-cut identification. It all takes a long time," says Greer.

Over the years, there have been a number of false hopes that Saunders was at last coming home. A Deseret News article in 1988 noted that North Koreans had the body of Saunders, (who was reported as a Cedar City resident), but refused to release it because of "discontent with the U.S. sanctions imposed after the North's alleged bombing of a South Korean jetliner in November."

Another story in May of 1990 reported that Saunders' remains were believed to be one of "five bodies that the North Korean government has agreed to turn over to an American delegation on the eve of the Memorial Day holiday." But again, nothing came of it.

So, to have that chapter of her life finally come to a close means a lot to Padelsky.

"I'm glad we can finally lay him to rest here," she says. "It's been all this time, and we've all moved on. But it's still been in the back of my mind, that he was out there somewhere, that there was no place where we could go to visit. I was really stunned when they first called."

Over the years, they got letters from the Army saying "we haven't forgotten you," says Padelsky. "Over my life, I've thought a lot that maybe someday he would come back."

For Palmer, too, it marks a very special occasion. "I can imagine that he was not buried in a nice place there. How they found any bones at all is amazing. I never thought this miracle would happen. And I feel like it is a miracle. Nothing came of those earlier attempts, and you sure wonder why it took so long."

She hopes that people who hear about the event may appreciate what families of servicemen often have to deal with. "Young people today have no idea what we went through in these wars."

Jack J. Saunders made the ultimate sacrifice for his country, and 60 years later, he's coming home.

Email: carma@desnews.com