By Jason Nark, Philadelphia Inquirer
When Walter Wilkins roots through his memories, the decades between boyhood and old age, one lasting image of his older brother appears. He sees Paul walking away, up a mountain road in rural Pennsylvania.
Walter, 86, doesn’t remember if that’s the day Paul left Bellwood, Blair County, to go fight in the forgotten war in Korea. He can’t recall if Paul said goodbye to the siblings with whom he shared a shanty and raised hell in those hills. But Walter never saw his brother again, so the memory’s framed, forever, in his mind.
“He was beautiful,” Walter said in at a diner just outside of Buffalo in May. “Just beautiful.”
In 1950, the Army said Paul Wilkins went “missing in action,” and a protracted, ambiguous grief rolled over the Wilkins family like a fog. But the unknown left room for hope. What if Paul jumped ship? What if he avoided bullets and shrapnel, outrunning death and duty to forge some new life far from home?
That was just a dream, Walter said, something to shake the reality that Paul was surely dead. One by one, Walter buried siblings who never saw that fog lift, and a mother, Margaret, who died with a gaping hole in her heart.
“I often wonder if us mothers whose sons are missing and never accounted for, if we’ll ever know for sure what did happen or where they are. I still hope and pray these boys will turn up someday and come home,” Margaret wrote in a letter to the Army on May 5, 1953.
Now, more than 70 years after Paul went missing, Walter and his extended family have a clearer picture of his last days. The Army’s never-ending quest to bring soldiers home, in Paul’s case, was accomplished through both physical labor, including digging through foxholes and excavating coffins, and modern advancements in science.
A grave would be dug in Bellwood.
“My brother’s coming home,” Walter said.
From Bellwood to Korea to Hawaii
Paul Wilkins enlisted in the U.S. Army on June 8, 1948, in Altoona after graduating from Bellwood-Antis High School. He was 17. After training at Fort Dix, N.J., he shipped off to Japan in 1949. Paul was a rifleman in Baker Company, 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division. In early July of 1950, when the first battles of the Korean War were erupting along the border between the Republic of Korea (South) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North), Paul, a private first class at the time, was called into action.
Paul’s division, according to the U.S. Department of Defense, was tasked with defending South Korea from a North Korean offensive. Most of the fighting took place near Choch’iwan, South Korea, and, according to an Army memorandum, the enemy had “superior forces,” breaking Paul’s division into smaller groups and eventually overrunning them.
“He was not seen after this action,” the Army wrote.
Paul was listed as missing in action on July 11, 1950. He was 19.
“I wish to emphasize that every effort is exerted continuously to clear up the status of our personnel. Under battle conditions this is a difficult task as you must readily realize,” Army Maj. Gen. Edward Witsell wrote in a letter to Margaret in November 1950. “Permit me to extend to you my heartfelt sympathy during this period of uncertainty.”
In the few short months between Paul’s disappearance and that letter, Margaret lost a second son, Cpl. Joseph Wilkins, to injuries while serving in Korea. Joseph, a World War II veteran, was 24. Walter, upon learning of his brothers’ deaths, wanted to join the Army, too. He wanted revenge. But he was just 15 and his mother wouldn’t sign the waiver needed to enlist.
“I never really got a chance to know either one of them,” Walter said.
The Army declared a presumptive finding of death for Paul on Dec. 31, 1953, and urged Margaret Wilkins to find “sustaining comfort” in the realization that her son made a “supreme sacrifice.” The Army posthumously promoted Paul from private first class to corporal.
As Witsell had said to Margaret in 1950, however, the Army didn’t like leaving soldiers unaccounted for. According to a lengthy report compiled for the Wilkins family, a team of five soldiers from the 392nd Quartermaster Company searched through the Choch’iwan region two years after the battles there, excavating 368 foxholes and fighting positions. They recovered 13 sets of remains, none of them Paul.
Through the years, the Army kept in touch with Margaret, asking her for dental records or whether he had any fractures. They sent her photographs of rings and other jewelry, to see if any of it belonged to her son.
“He had really nice teeth,” Margaret wrote back.
Paul, it turned out, had already been found, shortly after the July 1950 battle. He was referred to as “Unknown X-113″ and buried at the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Taejon, South Korea, then moved to a mortuary in Japan where anthropologists still failed to identify him. In 1956, Paul and hundreds of other Korean War casualties were reinterred at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl Crater in Honolulu. That same year, Paul was declared non-recoverable.
In 1984, Walter’s son, Craig Wilkins, honeymooned in Hawaii and visited the courts of the missing at the Punchbowl. He saw his Uncle Paul’s name, etched on a wall there, one of 8,210 Americans missing from the Korean War. No one knew he was buried nearby.
“It was the first name we saw,” Craig said in May at his home in Akron, N.Y.
Paul remained in Hawaii for decades more, known only as “Unknown X-113.″ Margaret died in 1974.
A small act, but a powerful one
Old caskets buried for a half-century aren’t easy to open, and Jennie Jin has seen hundreds of them come through the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency Laboratory at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii. She leads the Korean War Identification Project.
Some caskets are rusted shut, she said, and call for a chainsaw. When they are opened, there’s almost always a green Army blanket and skeletonized remains underneath. The bones are usually in good condition, she said.
Jin said the work, identifying unknown soldiers, is sacred and she doesn’t let her team lose sight of that.
“I printed out the pictures of guys we helped identify, and they are on the wall here. It’s a very small act, but it’s a powerful one,” Jin said in a video interview from Hawaii in April. “I always remind them that this is not a study sample. These are once-living individuals.”
In July 2018, historians and anthropologists with the DPAA, with the encouragement of missing veterans’ families, proposed a bold plan to help name those unidentified who were buried in the Punchbowl. That meant disinterring 652 sets of remains, including 53 recovered from Taejon. The disinterment was split up into seven phases. X-113 was disinterred on July 1, 2019.
“We are exhuming about eight caskets, every other week,” Jin said.
The bodies were often heavily treated with chemical preservatives, destroying most of the organic matter needed for DNA testing. Jin, who earned her doctorate in anthropology from Penn State, said her team uses a multipronged approach, however, to narrow down the pool of potential IDs. After World War II, every soldier who enlisted was X-rayed, Jin said, out of concern for tuberculosis, and her team is able X-ray the bones they exhume and compare clavicles.
Given where and when X-113 was found, Jin said they were able to narrow the potential IDs to 46.
Walter, Craig, and Paul’s now-late brother, Ben, all submitted DNA samples via a simple swab from the mouth. DNA samples were taken from X-113′s teeth.
Anthropologists who studied Paul’s bones determined he died from a “blast event.” Multiple bones were fractured, including ribs, vertebrae, his right scapula, and his right clavicle.
Time, Jin said, is their biggest enemy. Siblings of World War II and Korean War veterans are getting older. Her own grandfather, alive today at 94, fought in the Korean War for South Korea.
“We know how important it is to make those IDs for the living relatives,” she said, “for people who still remember this person.”
More than 7,000 remain unidentified.
Back at Bellwood
American flags were everywhere in Bellwood on June 26. They hung above the flowers on the front porches of bungalows and classic American Foursquares that line streets there.
Flags unfurled on backyard poles, stretched across alleyway fences and truck bumpers. There was one by the Bellwood-Antis High School football field, where Walter wreaked havoc for the Blue Devils.
Across the street, at the Logan Valley Cemetery, local Boy Scouts had staked hundreds of bright, new flags by veterans’ graves. Smaller flags were affixed to the back of Harley-Davidson motorcycles parked in a row on one of the cemetery’s lanes.
A few dozen bikers in leather vests each held a flag, too. They stood at attention while a black Lincoln hearse passed between them. Just before 11 a.m., an Army honor guard quietly removed the steel casket inside.
A flag was draped across it, with one single dog tag hung from the casket handle: “Wilkins. Paul W.”
“I am the resurrection and the life,” George W. Bailey Sr., a retired pastor, said as the sun first hit that flag.
Walter sat in a wheelchair by the casket. He almost didn’t make it back to Bellwood, as medical issues, including a broken bone in his back, made the five-hour drive south from Akron difficult. His sister, Virginia, suffers from dementia and could not attend.
Those health concerns prevented Walter from seeing his brother’s remains land at Pittsburgh International Airport days earlier. But Craig took hundreds of pictures on the tarmac as the flight from Honolulu touched down just before 3:30 p.m. Police and first responders stood at attention. Above them, a United Airlines employee stood alone by an open door, saluting.
The same honor guard was there to guide the long, white box from the plane’s cargo hold and into an airport funeral cart with the words “Never forgotten” etched onto it.
Back in Bellwood, it was a family reunion of sorts: cousins, children from a previous relationship, grandchildren, and old friends, all gathering there to greet Walter. Strangers had come too, setting up chairs on the outskirts of the cemetery.
Occasionally, Walter cried, but he also cracked a mischievous smile recalling a childhood in this Rockwellian town of 1,751.
Often, the adventures had a somber mission, like stealing coal from railroad box cars to heat their “shack.”
“Never got caught,” he said.
It was the dire financial situation in Bellwood that Walter believes pushed Paul to enlist. He left for Western New York himself in 1953, moving to Akron, a small town much like Bellwood, about 25 miles northeast of Buffalo. But Walter always kept a little of his Bellwood days in his blood, taking up skydiving and driving his 1946 Indian Scout motorcycle much too fast.
Craig, a musician, played acoustic guitar by his uncle’s casket, his booming voice singing, “Not just a name on a wall” by the Statler Brothers.
“We are so thankful and so blessed because this is closure,” he told the mourners before singing.
A bugler played “Taps” and the honor guard fired off a salute, the crack of their rifles echoing off Brush Mountain in the distance. Then two members of the honor guard slowly removed the flag, folding it tightly, 13 times, into a triangle. One of them knelt before Walter and placed it in his arms, and he sobbed for a second or two, the weight of that flag something no scale could measure.
Later, when everyone had left, Paul was lowered into a grave, beside his mother.
At a small gathering afterward at the United Veterans building on Main Street, Walter sipped on some Yuenglings and reminisced. A large mural of American wars and conflicts spread across a wall behind him. Around the corner, in the bar, a faded newspaper memorial for Paul and Joseph Wilkins was pinned up behind a glass case.
“Missing July 11, 1950,” was printed beneath Paul’s smiling face.
“Now he’s home,” Walter said. “Finally back home.”
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