In December 1951, uniformed men arrived at my father’s home and told my grandfather that his son, Capt. Hugh Francis Larkin, was Missing in Action in Korea. Recently, Hugh’s daughter was told that he may have been alive in a Soviet prison camp in 1985.
On the surface, my grandfather, George Larkin, lived the most typical life of the second and third generation Irish Americans who were the foundation of New York City’s burgeoning middle class.
An IRS agent, he moved his family from the Bronx to the tree-lined streets of Bayside, received Holy Communion daily, and gave his children a Catholic education.
But Hugh’s disappearance was the third in a series of heart-wrenching tragedies that he endured. His first wife suffered an untimely death, leaving him a widower with two boys to raise alone. Later, his life mended, he married my grandmother and had two more children, my father and my aunt.
When America was drawn into World War II, his older sons answered the call and joined the Air Corps. In 1943, his eldest, Tom, was killed while piloting an engineering test flight in Georgia. Life had again returned to a form of normalcy when his second son vanished into the Korean sky.
Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo
Subscribe to one of our great value packages.
Hugh was a seasoned World War II pilot who stayed in the Air Force and was deployed during the undeclared Korean War. On December 5, 1951, his F-84E Thunderjet was shot down by two Soviet MiGs. He was last seen ejecting from his plane before it crashed into the East China Sea.
The conditions of the crash made it likely that he did not survive, but his body was never recovered. When the prisoners were exchanged in 1953, he was not among them.
In February 1954, the armistice signed and Korea divided, he was declared dead and the record was closed. The military determination did not dissuade my grandfather, or Hugh’s wife, Evelyn, both of whom continued to believe that he may have survived the parachute drop along the Korean coast.
In the years that followed, my grandfather never lost hope and searched for evidence of Hugh as part of the loose network of parents, wives, sons and daughters of the 8000 servicemen who went missing in Korea.
There were rumors of prison camps and stories of Americans secreted out of North Korea into the darkest quarters of the Communist Bloc, but no concrete evidence of Hugh’s true fate. My grandfather died never knowing what happened.
Evelyn continued the vigil and after she died, their children carried on, attending meetings, reaching out to veterans’ groups and government projects, and donating DNA.
In those sixty Decembers since Hugh’s plane was shot down, his remains have never been recovered and no definitive evidence of his death or capture was ever produced. The premise that American soldiers were left behind, prisoners of our worst enemies, is the antithesis of all we believe about this great nation. It undermines the fabric of our military tradition and draws question to a settled social contract.
Yet, the transfer of American POWs, particularly pilots, from Korea to the Soviet Union is now well documented and accepted fact. A 1993 Defense Department report noted that the proof of American POWs taken to Soviet prison camps “is so broad and convincing that we cannot dismiss it.”
The Soviets had long struggled with a technology gap and Stalin was determined to conquer it through reverse-engineering. They were set on developing implements of war and the F-86 was the most coveted prize in our aviation arsenal. North Korean and Chinese captors were directed to isolate Air Force POWs for Soviet interrogators while scores of Soviet teams scoured Korea for downed U.S. pilots and airmen to be pressed into technological servitude.
Accounts of the Soviet program swirled as the war drew to a close. The disproportionate number of pilots who went missing and whose remains were never recovered fueled suspicions.
By 1954, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had reports in hand that confirmed the transfer of American POWs to Siberia, but he was rebuffed by Soviet officials. Eisenhower, our greatest soldier-statesman since Washington, reportedly believed that only an all-out war would bring them back from the darkness of the gulag.
He opted against military action and the issue languished for decades – a cause without a champion – while the families pressed on, voiceless and ignored. All the while, stories filtered out of American POWs held behind the Iron Curtain.
In the early 1990s, the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs was formed and issued a series of detailed reports which left no doubt that Americans were taken to work camps and prisons and never released after the war. At the same time, North Korea repatriated remains of American servicemen and agreed to conduct joint field activities with the U.S.
Through these operations, and similar searches in the region, 174 sets of remains have been positively identified. In 2005, both of these programs effectively ended, blown by the political winds of the time.
There is reason for hope, however. The Russians recently agreed to return to the Joint Commission and there is also a bipartisan bill pending in Congress calling for the resumption of the North Korean joint field activities. The recent death of Kim Jong-il may present a new opportunity – perhaps the best since the end of the war – to establish a foothold in North Korea and gain access.
No proof has been revealed of living American POWs, but the work to uncover the details of this injustice – to shed light on this dark chapter – remains vital. These men gave all they had to this country. They left their families and went to foreign shores to battle the great menace of the time. We may never know whether my uncle was among the taken, but we owe a solemn duty to find out as much as we can about what really happened to these forgotten warriors of the Forgotten War.
Matthew Larkin is a partner in the Syracuse, NY, law firm of Hiscock & Barclay and is an occasional contributor to these pages.