Nearly 81,000 American service members remain missing after having served in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and other conflicts involving the U.S.
During an Sept. 15, 2023, event at the Pentagon to commemorate National POW/MIA Recognition Day, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks reassured the families of service members who never returned home that the Defense Department would never stop looking for them.
“We know that enduring the grief and uncertainty throughout the years is difficult,” Hicks said. “Please know that your missing family members are not forgotten. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency works tirelessly to find answers for you, year in and year out. And, each year, we gather on this National POW/MIA Recognition Day to assure you that we remember them and that we will not give up on our mission to account for them.”
According to DPAA, in fiscal year 2023, the agency recovered the remains of 127 service members: 88 from World War II, 35 from Korea, and four from Vietnam.
Among those accounted for this year, Hicks said, is Army Air Corps 2nd Lt. Fred L. Brewer — a member of the Tuskegee Airmen. Hicks’ cousin was in attendance at the event.
“More than seven decades ago, Brewer departed Ramitelli Air Base in Italy to support bombers to their targets in Germany,” Hicks said. “On the way, his bomber group encountered heavy clouds. Lt. Brewer attempted a steep rise above them, but his engine stalled causing his plane to crash.”
Until last month, Hicks said, Brewer had been one of 26 Tuskegee Airmen whose whereabouts were unknown. Now that he has been recovered, she said, a rosette will be placed next to his name at the Florence American Cemetery in Italy to indicate that he has been accounted for.
The DPAA can’t do its work alone, Hicks said. Today, DPAA cooperates with 45 nations to locate missing service members around the world. In April 2021, one of those partners, South Korea, uncovered remains from a battle fought in 1951.
“The remains were carefully exhumed and sent to a lab for testing,” she said. “The following October, the ministry turned over those remains to DPAA. After DPAA sent the remains to its own lab for analysis, it was able to identify U.S. Army Sgt. Stanley Turba. Soon, his daughter, Sandra, will welcome him home — more than 72 years after he went missing in the Korean War.”
Right now, more that 1,200 service members are still missing from the Vietnam War, and Hicks said Vietnam has also been a good partner in helping recover remains.
“During the height of COVID-19, when restrictions prevented our DPAA team from traveling to Vietnam, [Vietnamese] teams — trained by DPAA — traveled to multiple sites looking for the remains of American personnel,” Hicks said.
In March 2021, she said, a team from Vietnam visited the crash site of a U.S. F-4 aircraft, and they recovered the remains of Air Force Col. Ernest DeSoto and Air Force Capt. Frederick Hall.
“Col. DeSoto was given a dignified burial in June, and Capt. Hall will finally be laid to rest next month, on October 10,” she said. “These are several of the many stories of those recovered and returned to their families — stories of sacrifice, hope and resolve. For you families of the missing, please know your strength motivates us each day as we do this work and follow through on our solemn and unwavering commitment to achieve the fullest accounting possible of our missing personnel.”
Retired Air Force Col. Michael Brazelton, a pilot and four-time Silver Star recipient, was held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam for nearly seven years. He was captured after being shot down on August 7, 1966, and was finally released on March 4, 1973.
Brazelton said that while the parents of those who have gone missing from the United States’ wars have mostly passed on, most have other family members who still feel the pain of their loss.
“Their brothers and sisters are my age, in their 70s and 80s,” he said. “Their children are in their 50s and 60s. But, still, at the very least, they want to know what happened to their loved ones. I cannot think of a more noble mission to determine what happened to our missing compatriots than to bring the remains home, if possible, or to provide information on when, where, and how unrecoverable friends met their fate.”