Mark Sauter

When 1st Lt. Gilbert Lamour Ashley – nicknamed “Coogs” after movie star Jackie Coogan – disappeared in January 1953 with more than a dozen crewmates when their B-29 bomber was shot down over North Korea, a military inventory of his personal belongings turned up seashells, Ray-Ban sunglasses and copies of the “Confessions of St. Augustine” and W. Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage.” The 30-year-old veteran of two wars liked to compose verse in his spare time. Ashley could scarcely have predicted that the travails and plot twists in his favorite books would be rivaled by his own fate and that of others among the almost 8,000 Americans still unaccounted for today from the Korean War, sixty years after the fighting stopped.

When most Americans think of pressing issues with Beijing, Moscow and Pyongyang, topics such as Syria, cybersecurity, nuclear weapons and trade come to mind. But for many families across the United States, the most important issue is one rarely discussed by the government and media: the fate of American servicemen who never returned home, dead or alive, from Korean battlefields and Korean War-era prisons in North Korea, China and the former Soviet Union. Most of them are known or suspected to have perished in captivity or combat, but many others, like 1st Lt. Ashley, were last reported by name alive in communist hands but never returned or accounted for. US intelligence tracked hundreds of other Americans – their exact identities unknown to this day - in prison camps and prison train shipments from which no one returned. A “substantial number” were believed still alive in enemy hands the year after the war, according to a previously classified request by the US Air Force Chief of Staff for CIA covert action to rescue them.

Many of their families have never given up. They are fighting for answers in still-classified US government files; demanding the return and identification of remains; and even seeking the investigation and repatriation of any American prisoners still alive, a real if diminishing possibility based on numerous live sightings inside North Korea (and the Soviet Union) long after the end of hostilities. 

The Korean War (1950-3) was the first major conflict of the Cold War, a proxy war that pitted United Nations forces, mostly American and South Korean, against Communist North Koreans, Chinese and Soviets. The Soviets helped plan a sophisticated POW system administered by their Chinese allies and – according to declassified records and former Soviet officers – shipped dozens to hundreds of Americans to the Soviet Gulag, along with captured US technology. Other GIs last seen in North Korean and Chinese hands also disappeared. 

The war ended with a truce, not a peace treaty, and today’s headlines leave no doubt about the continuing conflict between North Korea and the United States. As a result, battlefield and prison graves in the North are not accessible to US search teams. Meanwhile, Beijing and Moscow, while claiming varying degrees of cooperation, stonewall US requests for access and information. This May, for example, Beijing once again declined an American request for the files on Sgt. Richard Desautels, a GI secretly taken to China during the war. The US-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs was established with much fanfare in 1992 by the presidents of the United States and the Russian Federation, George H. W. Bush and Boris Yeltsin, to determine the fates of both nations’ unaccounted-for service personnel from World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, Afghanistan, and the Vietnam War. Few noticed when it was effectively shut down by Moscow years ago, then put in bureaucratic limbo by the Obama Administration after the Russians returned to the table. Before current tensions shut down remains recovery operations in North Korea, Pyongyang baited America on the POW issue, first admitting, then denying, it had surviving prisoners, charging millions of dollars for access to remains and then in some cases salting battlefield recovery sites with bones from other locations, apparently including a secret warehouse of American skeletal remains. 

While America’s adversaries bear most blame for the situation, US government efforts to account for the missing from Korea have been widely criticized by family members and outside evaluators. To be sure, many individuals in the various Pentagon POW/MIA offices make personal sacrifices and even risk their safety to recover the remains of the missing, but as a whole, the organizations are riddled with incompetence, redundancy and bureaucratic clock-watching. The Defense Department’s primary remains recovery unit was called “dysfunctional,” wasteful and worse in two recent evaluations made public this summer, generating Congressional ire and an ongoing review by Pentagon top brass. 

For example, after all these years the Pentagon and individual military services still don’t have a common, accurate and updated list of the statuses (POW/MIA/KIA) of the missing. Declassified records reveal the US at one point after the war demanded the communists account for men already returned alive to the American side, and later pushed for an accounting of GIs known killed on the battlefield while failing to ask about prisoners last confirmed alive in enemy hands. Despite all this, and many angry exchanges with family members, the faulty lists have still not been fully corrected.  In a related challenge, thousands of Korean War records that could answer critical questions about many specific POW/MIA cases continue to be withheld from family members and researchers – kept classified despite being over 50-years-old. Meanwhile, the Pentagon has recovered and identified the remains of only about 250 of the nearly 8,000 unaccounted for, even failing to process scores or even hundreds of remains already in US hands that experts say could be identified (many unidentified remains are buried in Hawaii). The process is not just glacial but expensive; flawed procedures could push the costs of recovering and identifying each new set of remains to over $2 million, according to a recent internal government study.

As to whether some might still be alive, South Korea reports hundreds of its POWs – captured at the same time and in some cases alongside missing Americans – are still alive in North Korea (dozens have escaped in recent years, proving the notion). But the US government makes little real effort to get to the bottom of numerous reports of GIs held in the North after the Korean and even Vietnam Wars (American captives were reportedly traded by North Vietnam to its allies in Pyongyang.)

Unknown is whether any of these live-sighting reports concern “Coogs” Ashley or his crew, but there is no doubt he and other Americans were alive in North Korean hands at the end of the war. Ashley’s plane was about to bomb a North Korean supply yard when it was shot down by enemy fighters. Three of 14 men from the aircraft would come home during prisoner exchanges at the end of the war, but the story of the rest of the crew – which involves everything from a female spy to a daring rescue operation – demonstrates the complex and disturbing fates of American POWs in North Korea.

After the B-29 was downed, CCRAK, a joint military/CIA special operations and intelligence unit, ordered its operatives in North Korean territory to rescue the crew if possible. A guerilla band of US-trained Koreans - codenamed “Green Dragon” - soon reported it had ambushed a Communist truck and rescued five American prisoners: 1st Lt. Ashley; Airman Hidemaro Ishida; 1st Lt. Arthur Olsen, 2nd Lt. John Shaddick and 1st Lt. Harold Turner. Using a URC-4 radio in their possession, “all five were personally contacted” by US forces, resulting in “positive identification,” according to declassified military records. To this day, these men are called the “Ashley Five.”

From their forested mountain hideout, the guerillas who “rescued” the Ashley Five began requesting additional resources. CCRAK responded by dropping in more guerillas and equipment. Plans were then developed to recover the Americans via a “snatch pick-up” operation. The men – probably one at a time – would be attached to a line hoisted above a flat area. A C-47 cargo plane, used for special operations in Korea, would fly low, dangling a rope with a hook at the end. The hook would catch the line, yanking the attached man off the ground and into the air, where he would be pulled inside the plane. A harrowing method, it was useful when a helicopter or ground extraction was not possible.

In late May, “(t)he aircraft, with dangling ropes, approached the Americans flying at a low altitude. When it almost reached the site where the captives were standing, a terrific barrage of machine gun and antiaircraft gun fire was directed at the aircraft. The aircraft swooped up and flew away,” a friendly witness later informed US intelligence. (The image below is from a training extraction.)

Back at CCRAK, the ambush provided more evidence for officers who suspected Green Dragon had been compromised by the North Koreans. A major break in the operation literally walked into the hands of US Air Force intelligence in the form of a young, female North Korean spy who had just surrendered. The terrified woman spoke at first with a “mask-like expression devoid of expression other than fear,” according to a declassified intelligence report. Then she opened up, offering a flashy smile and plenty of information. She seemed smart and went on to pass two polygraph exams concerning her report. 

The woman divulged a “complex charade” involving the Ashley Five. The US aviators thought they were being protected by friendly guerillas, but were really pawns in a communist special operation designed to lure American resources.  

Armed with this information, on July 28, 1953, the day after the Armistice Agreement was signed ending the fighting and requiring both sides to return POWs under their control, US officials radioed Ashley:

“To Ashley: Request your captors to turn you into the nearest POW camp for exchange…Communists cannot plausibly deny you are alive and must arrange your exchange or be charged with violation of armistice.”

The response came in early August. The captors, still pretending to be friendly guerillas, stated: “Many agents were killed to rescue and guard the aviators. We were awaked from your deadly murderous action. We will not work anymore for you. Furthermore we resolved that in case you don’t give us an answer regarding this message by 1700 hours 4th August 53, we will self-surrender to NK after we (have killed) the five aviators in revenge.”

US officials with “intimate knowledge” of the Green Dragon operation declared that the Ashley Five were alive as of August 1953, according to previously secret US records.  The men were never returned by North Korea.

That same month, US POWs returning from communist prison camps in the “Big Switch” POW exchange brought news of another missing crewman from the Ashley bomber: 2nd Lt. Dewey Stopa. By the time Big Switch was over, 12 former prisoners had reported seeing or hearing about Stopa. After the crash, he had evaded capture for three days before North Korean troops caught him. They took his leather flying jacket and boots, replacing the footwear with a “thin pair of summer tennis shoes.” Wearing those, a defiant Stopa was marched into the North Korean winter, heading north for two days and one night before being placed in a cell with other Americans (some survived to return and tell the story).

By now, both of Stopa’s feet were frozen. Held at a location nicknamed “Pike’s Peak,” Stopa was kicked and beaten by guards when he proved unable to stand. Another American gave him a pair of a boots, but they were yanked off, exacerbating his injuries. Stopa grew delirious; his only medical care was an unidentified shot from a North Korean nurse. Despite the efforts of his fellow POWs, he died in captivity on March 3, 1953. But when both sides exchanged remains after the war during “Operation Glory,” Stopa’s body was not returned (as far as the US government can tell.) 

Decades later, during a trip to North Korea, the author spotted Stopa’s identification card (and those of other missing Americans) on display in Pyongyang’s Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, a monument to North Korea’s twisted history of the Korean War. This “trophy of war” raises the possibility that Stopa’s remains may be among those Pyongyang has reportedly stockpiled to sell to the United States – a grim bargaining chip from a desperate dictatorship.

Despite the presence of the ID card and uncontested reports from returned US POWs, the Pentagon’s flawed POW/MIA list still does not indicate Stopa was captured, instead listing him as KIA, which is supposed to designate men killed on the battlefield. We asked the US Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO), in charge of the list, how Stopa could be listed as KIA despite proof he was captured and held prisoner. The DPMO’s top Korean War expert replied: “Why he is carried as KIA, I do not know either.” Our research reveals scores of similar mistakes in the POW/MIA list, including men listed as MIA or KIA who were actually known to have been captured alive, never seen dead or dying, but not returned at war’s end.  The Pentagon’s blasé attitude about these errors and attempts by family members to correct them reflects the US government’s broader attitude toward the unaccounted for servicemen of Korea. As a retired senior government POW/MIA official told us: “You’re dealing with a blanket of apathy and everyone seems to be hiding beneath it.” 

Time is not on the side of families fighting for answers, be they sought in foreign countries, classified US records or even the government cemetery in Hawaii. Given the intransigence of the foreign nations involved and the lackadaisical performance of many in the US government, most POW/MIA relatives will die before getting their answers, as many already have. 

Mark Sauter is an investigative historian. This article is adapted from his new book American Trophies: How US POWs Were Surrendered to North Korea, China and Russia by Washington’s “Cynical Attitude,” co-authored by John Zimmerlee, a Korean War case expert and the son of a missing US aviator from the war. An AP article that incorporates the book’s findings can be found here.