Berkshire MIA families among thousands still awaiting word on Korean War losses
The odds are long, but one of the 55 boxes of remains flown from South Korea to Hawaii last week could be on a journey that ends in Berkshire County.
Of the 7,700 members of the military still listed as missing in action in the Korean War, 190 hailed from Massachusetts. And at least four of those men went to war from the Berkshires: Michael William Flaherty and William Henry Moss of North Adams, Robert Gordon Russell of Adams and Albert Mintz of Sheffield.
More than half a century ago, through war and its aftermath, families of servicemen missing in action on the Korean Peninsula hung on every word about what might have become of them. Some local families got bad news, as missing-in-action cases turned into confirmed instances of death in combat, or while being held captive.
That's what befell members of the Smith and O'Boyle families of Pittsfield, who eventually learned that their relatives succumbed to disease while prisoners of war.
But other families waited — and wait still.
Jim Clark, Pittsfield's director of veterans services, identified three of the four MIA service members who went to Korea from the Berkshires by comparing a list maintained by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in Hawaii, a government service, with a list of personnel from all branches of the military from Berkshire County believed to have been killed while serving in Korea.
The Eagle identified Mintz as among the missing by finding his name in its archives from the 1950s and then on the official Defense Department tally.
Clark said he plans to keep searching for names.
"It may be difficult, but worth the effort," he said. "We still have many living Korean War vets in the area, and I think this is just as important to them as it is to the families, especially in regards to the warrior ethos of leaving no man behind."
Asked whether he thinks too much time has passed for families waiting for word after this distant war, Clark said no.
"Honestly, I don't think there is such a thing as too much time," he said. "Families want closure, even in the smallest form."
A wife waits
At her parents' home in Cheshire, Robert G. Russell's wife, Marjorie, waited as she cared for their 9-month-old daughter, Jean Marie, and worked a job at the General Electric Co. The family had been told only that Russell, an Army corporal, went missing April 25, 1951.
That December, his name appeared on a list of 11,599 prisoners released by North Korea, an event that made front pages of newspapers across the country, after the U.S. military worked frantically to feed verified names to The Associated Press.
"We are so thankful. But we only hope it is true," Russell's mother-in-law told J. Howard Buffum Jr. of the North Adams Transcript. Their hopes crashed the very next day, when it was learned the AP had made an error in Boston; Russell was not on the prisoner list.
Russell was born in Herkimer, N.Y., but had been living on Prospect Street in Cheshire when he went to war. He was 20 when he went missing.
It might have been true that Russell was, at the time, being held captive, roughly two years after graduating from Adams High School and leaving a job at the Berkshire Woolen Mill.
But the trail ended there. It's unclear whether any Russell descendant is still aware of his MIA status and monitoring the case.
Stephen R. Roy, director of veterans services for Adams and other northern Berkshires communities, said no one has been in touch with his office about the recent release of remains, almost all of which will require DNA tests conducted at the Pentagon's facility in Hawaii.
"Those are the most troubling," Roy said of MIA cases. "There's just not a lot of closure on those."
Though missing service members are presumed dead, Roy said the possibility of identifying and repatriating their remains is important.
"It means a lot to me. It's a huge thing," he said of the recent release from North Korea. "To see if this is a true gesture of hopeful cooperation. These countries have been at each other's throats for so long. If someone comes home, that's a good day."
Though far from home, Flaherty made local news in North Adams by being the first member of the military from his city to be injured while fighting in Korea. He had been wounded in his right leg Sept. 13, 1950, and was sent to a hospital in Japan to recover. In a letter home, he wrote that he had received a "gash in which you could put your hand." By November, he was back with his unit.
A family member reached by the Transcript said the first letter they received from Flaherty after his convalescence reported that he was about to see action again.
"We're moving up," he wrote.
Flaherty's unit, the Second Division Engineers, was blowing up bridges in an effort to slow the advance of Chinese troops from the north.
The conflict that President Harry S. Truman termed a "police action" had begun in June 1950, when North Korean troops attacked across the 38th parallel.
In response, U.S. forces led a coalition under the United Nations flag to pursue the forces back into North Korea and nearly to its order with China. By late 1950, China, then and now North Korea's key ally, had mustered an enormous force that was chasing the international troops south.
Of the 7,700 service members who remain unaccounted for, 5,300 are believed to have perished in North Korea. As many as 1,200 Marines remain missing after fierce fighting around the Chosin Reservoir. In all, more than 36,000 U.S. troops died in the Korean War, until an armistice was signed 65 years ago this summer; a peace treaty was never reached.
The Flaherty family, who lived on Center Street, knew what it meant to send members to war. Flaherty's older brother, Francis, had fought in Europe in World War II, and a younger brother, Bernard, had been with occupying forces in Europe from 1945 to 1948, according to newspaper accounts. An uncle was a Navy officer.
When Flaherty enlisted in December 1948, training at Fort Dix in New Jersey and at Fort Lewis in Washington, it appeared that his service, like Bernard's, would coincide with peacetime.
But in 1950, he was shipped overseas and by December, he was missing in action. The next scrap of news stateside came when a Chinese radio broadcast monitored by the AP in San Francisco picked up Flaherty's name.
He was said by the Chinese to be a prisoner of war. His service records show that he died of dysentery — an intestinal infection that causes severe diarrhea. His parents, John and Alice, were never able to know exactly when they lost him. They received a telegram from the Department of Defense on Aug. 12, 1953, saying that he had died in captivity at age 29. His mother had continued to write to him since he had gone missing, hoping that a letter would get through, the Transcript reported.
Others would also find out that being a POW could be terminal.
Mintz, the 23-year-old son of Gus and Helena Mintz of Birch Street in Sheffield, had, like many, enlisted in peacetime, signing up with the Army's Third Division in 1948 and advancing to the rank of sergeant first class with the Army Medical Unit. He had been on the Korean Peninsula just a month when he was listed as missing either Oct. 27 or Nov. 27, 1950. Different records use both dates.
About a year later, Mintz's name turned up on the same list of prisoners of war, the same one that, for a time, sent hope through the Russell family.
Today, he is listed on the government's "PMKOR" tally — personnel missing-Korea.
The Mintz family waited until the end of 1953 until someone with the Department of the Army, Office of the Adjutant General, rolled a "Finding of Death of Missing Person" form into a typewriter and filled in blanks.
"For official purposes stated in said Act," the form read, referring to a 1942 law necessitated by World War II casualties, "death is presumed to have occurred on the 31st day of December 1953."
Coming off the official MIA rosters wasn't good news, though it did bring some sense of how servicemen met their ends.
In time, members of the O'Boyle family, on Pecks Road in Pittsfield, learned what became of James O'Boyle, a former athlete at St. Joseph Central High School in Pittsfield who had been reported missing as of May 18, 1951. He died of diphtheria in November that year, after being captured in an area known as Massacre Valley.
Word of his death did not come home to Pittsfield until more than a year and a half later, on July 9, 1953, when it was relayed to the U.S. military by prisoners who did manage to get free.
The same fate came to Roger B. Smith of Highland Avenue in Pittsfield, a rifleman in the same company as O'Boyle.
He was also reported missing May 18, 1951, and died in a prisoner of war camp, according to news accounts at the time. His family had to wait longer, though; his death was not reported publicly until Feb. 26, 1954, months after a war that was never officially declared came to a similarly obscure end.
The Eagle reviewed a copy of a Feb. 19, 1954, letter sent to Smith's family by the Department of the Army.
Smith died of dysentery, a news story said, "while in the hands of opposing forces." He had joined the Army in 1948 at age 17 and had been in Korea for five months.
A RAND Corp. study determined that as many as one-third of those held captive by North Korean forces died in custody — some 1,500 in a dozen different camps the group termed "fiendishly squalid."
Less is known about Moss, the Army sergeant said at first to be from River Street in North Adams who was listed as missing in action in a Dec. 19, 1951, article in The Berkshire Eagle. The Transcript later reported that Moss was from the Albany area and had lived only briefly with his grandmother.
The military could only guess about his date of death, figuring that it to be no later than March 11, 1954. Service papers list his grandmother, Elizabeth, as his next of kin.
What's not known
Three generations after the war came to an end, families of MIA continue to receive cautions from their own military alongside what might be described as a dribble of information.
The remains just sent to Hawaii will be analyzed to confirm that they are human, the government notes. They are believed to be among 200 sets of remains that have been in storage in North Korea for years but not returned because of breakdowns in talks between the two sides.
In December 1951, when the military released the names of more than 3,000 service members said to held as prisoners of war by North Korea, the announcement came with a caveat.
"No assurance as to accuracy can be given at this time," the military said.
The release of names by North Korea that year came amid truce talks; the release of the 55 remains last month followed renewed diplomatic contact between the U.S. government and North Korea.
The names released in 1951 represented roughly one-third of the 11,050 personnel listed at the time as missing in action. Western Union called in extra help to get telegrams sent to families.
Larry Parnass can be reached at email@example.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.
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