DPAA In The News

News 2 | May 31, 2022

Naming the Unknown Soldier: How agency helped identify local men killed in action (via The Dayton Daily News)

By Thomas Gnau, Dayton Daily News

On May 21, nearly 72 years after his death in battle, U.S. Army Pfc. Chauncey William Sharp, a native of the village of Osborn, finally came home.

Sharp was buried three times in seven decades — the first time in South Korea, the second time in Hawaii. The third burial was May 21, when he was laid to rest at Dayton National Cemetery — this time forever.

Sharp was brought home due to the work of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, the only Department of Defense office devoted solely to finding and accounting for prisoners of war and those deemed missing in action.

The Osborn native was a member of Company C, 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, in the Korean War. He was killed in action on the Korean peninsula on July 24, 1950, less than two months before his 18th birthday, when his unit sustained heavy casualties while trying to hold fast against an advancing North Korean army near Hwanggon, South Korea.

Members of Sharp’s unit — newly arrived in Korea — were deployed to block the North Koreans. And they did, for nearly a week.

But at a high cost. The North Koreans were able to advance through sheer numbers, capturing Hwanggan and forcing American troops south.

Historical accounts list 221 wounded, 49 missing and 53 killed among U.S. forces.

Sharp was among the missing. Initially in the aftermath, the Army said Sharp body was not recovered. No remains were found that could be identified as his.

The military declared the Ohio native non-recoverable in January 1956, even though the Army had, in fact, unknowingly recovered his remains from the battlefield years earlier.

But it took about 70 years to put the right name on those remains.

“Unknown X-8 Taejon”

In 2017, the Army called relatives of Beavercreek resident Mary Anne Hopkins, 59, Sharp’s niece.

Those Army representatives had unexpected news: Investigators with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency were getting closer to identifying a soldier they believed might have been Sharp.

But those researchers needed DNA samples from family members for confirmation. Joseph Douglas Hopkins, 59, Mary’s husband, said his wife’s family obliged with a pair of samples — and then moved on.

“It just kind of disappeared,” he recalled. “We didn’t hear much (from the Army); we didn’t hear anything.”

It took decades of Army digging simply to get to that point.

Nearly three months after the battle that took Sharp’s life, in October 1950, a graves registration team from Sharp’s Army unit investigating the battle area found several sets of remains, including one the team designated as “Unknown X-8 Taejon.”

Despite several attempts, X-8 could not be identified, the Army recounted. The remains were transported with other unidentified Korean War remains and buried as unknown soldiers or simply ”unknowns” at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, also known as the “Punchbowl,” in Honolulu, Hawaii.

There matters stood until further research into casualties from the Hwanggon area. X-8 was disinterred Aug. 17, 2017, and transferred to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency Laboratory at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii for analysis.

Then success: On Dec. 22, 2020, Sharp was identified using anthropological and mitochondrial DNA analysis, thanks in part to FRS (“family reference samples”) or DNA samples from two relatives of Sharp.

Army Sgt. 1st Class Sean Everette, a spokesman for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, said the decades of painstaking work to identify unknown soldiers begins with historical researchers, who pore through unit records, eye-witness accounts of battles, recollections and more.

Investigation teams visit battlefields, plane crash sites and interview still-living eyewitnesses. Archaeological digs can be part of the work.

If those investigators believe a service member was recovered and perhaps buried as an unknown, they may recommend that the Army disinter them for analysis.

Hickam Air Base lab in Hawaii receives cases from the Pacific. Another lab in Nebraska oversees most cases from Europe. A “very small” materials lab at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is also sometimes involved, Everette said.

In Hawaii and Nebraska, forensic analysis continues. Teeth and bones can be examined and compared to any records the Army may have.

“It absolutely can be challenging,” he said.

Doug Lantry, an historian at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, admires the work the agency does.

“It’s good and necessary work,” Lantry said. “It’s very valuable work to provide closure for these families. Even so many years later, decades and decades later, it’s good work to do.”

Since the 1990s, DNA has been collected from service members as they enlist. Previously, though, that wasn’t the case. DNA didn’t become useful in forensic investigations until the late 1980s.

Everette said the military takes all evidence, along with any circumstantial evidence it has, in an effort to arrive at an identity.

All the services employ genealogists to track down family members, he said. They will ask if prospective family members are willing to offer DNA reference samples to retain on file, to be used only in the effort to identify lost service members. The samples are not used for any other reason, he said.

In some cases, the military stays in touch with a family for years as work continues, he said.

With members from all military branches and a good number of civilians, the agency’s sole purpose is to account for soldiers and sailors missing in action, Everette said.

“The better those technologies get, I won’t say the easier it gets, because it’s never easy. But the better chance we have to identify service members,” he said.

‘The Army was getting frustrated, I think’

One of 10 children, Sharp was only 15 when he enlisted. He was bored with school and lied about his age to get into the Army, Joseph Hopkins said.

His headstone in Dayton reflects his correct birthdate, Oct. 13, 1932, not the birth date he gave the Army. He enlisted in July 1948, weeks shy of his 16th birthday.

Hopkins shared the Army’s explanation of Sharp’s cause of death, but he asked that the Dayton Daily News not report it.

“The injuries he sustained were such that there were no dental records,” he said.

The Army called the Sharp/Hopkins family again in 2020. By then, Sharp’s sister, Mary Anne Hopkins’ mother, was in her mid-80s. She recalled her brother and his enlistment, but some of her memories were fading, Joseph Hopkins said.

At first, Sharp’s sister, Betty Foust, did not know what to make of the Army’s overtures. She thought perhaps a scam was being attempted.

“At first, she did not believe them,” said Mary Anne Hopkins, Sharp’s niece. “She was afraid there were going to be costs involved. She just thought it was a scam.”

“The Army was getting frustrated, I think,” Joseph Hopkins said. “They wouldn’t tell you that.”

Everette said reactions from families of service members run the gamut, from skepticism to joy. Sometimes family members believe a scam of some kind is being attempted, he acknowledged. Sometimes the Army has to physically send someone to a family member’s house for a face-to-face explanation, he said.

“Most of all, they’re glad to have a service member back home,” Everette said.

The family asked colleagues to let South Korean military liaison officers know about Sharp’s May 21 funeral. And in fact, Korean veterans were there, four officers at the graveside services, with flowers, condolences and respectful attention.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine attended a memorial for Sharp at The Church at Eastmont in Dayton.

“They were really good about coming,” Joseph Hopkins said. “Very respectful. They obviously had a great appreciation for the people who were there to protect not only our freedom but theirs.”

“We’re talking about people who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom,” he added. “And we take that seriously.”

Mary Anne Hopkins called the overall experience “amazing.”

The Courts of the Missing

Sharp’s name is recorded on the Courts of the Missing at the Punchbowl, along with the others who are still missing from the Korean War, the Army said A rosette will be placed next to his name to indicate he has been identified.

His military decorations include: the Purple Heart, Army Good Conduct Medal, Army of Occupation Medal (Japan), National Defense Service Medal, Korean Service Medal, Presidential Unit Citation, Combat Infantryman’s Badge, United Nations Service Medal, Republic of Korea/Korean War Service Medal and the Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation.

By no means was Sharp alone. Cpl. Charles Hiltibran, who also died during the Korean War, was scheduled to be interred Saturday in Urbana’s Oak Dale Cemetery.

Hiltibran was reported missing in action on Dec. 2, 1950, when his unit was attacked by enemy forces near the Chosin Reservoir, North Korea, the Army said. He was identified last year.

Fonda Bock, a spokeswoman for the Army Human Resources Command, said at least 22 of these agency-identified burials were or are scheduled between April 29 and May 28. The number is likely higher because not every family wants the Army to publicize their relative’s identification, she said.

In fiscal year 2021, 142 service members nationwide, from World War II, Korea and Vietnam, were identified.

Seventy-seven soldiers have been identified so far in fiscal 2022, Everette said.

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