Vice President Mike Pence and the commander of U.S. forces in Asia, Adm. Phil Davidson, led a solemn ceremony on Wednesday in Hawaii formally marking the arrival from North Korea of dozens of presumed U.S. war dead.
Sixty-five years have now passed since an armistice brought an unofficial end to the Korean war, a conflict that killed millions, including 36,000 American soldiers. Despite the passage of time, there are 7,699 U.S. service members still listed as unaccounted for. According to statistics quoted by the Associated Press, about 5,300 of these are believed to have died on North Korean soil. The remainder include those who died in South Korea but have not been recovered; those who died in air crashes at sea or on ships at sea, as well as a number who are believed to have been taken to China.
A U.S. military plane made a rare trip into North Korea last week to retrieve 55 cases thought to contain remains of U.S. soldiers or those of allied forces who fought alongside Americans. However, it will still take long months — perhaps years — for the complex task of identifying the remains to take place.
This isn’t the first time that such efforts have been undertaken.
A series of U.S.-North Korea recovery efforts between 1996 and 2005 yielded 229 caskets of remains, but only 153 of them have been identified, underscoring just how challenging the process is.
Further complicating matters is the fact that North Korea only provided one “dog tag” with the 55 boxes it handed over last week. These tags, usually made from corrosion-resistant metal, are generally the easiest way to identify a fallen or wounded soldier. In the absence of these tags, other methods, including dental records and DNA samples provided by relatives, will be used.
For the family members and friends who after all these years are still waiting to recover the remains of these fallen heroes, the news is an important, albeit small, step in the right direction.
President Trump and his administration deserve much credit for putting this issue on the front burner. A compelling argument can be made that even if nothing else were to have come out of the recent historic summit between the president and the North Korea dictator, that meeting was worth it just to get these remains home.
Vice President Pence, himself a son of a Korean war veteran, vowed at the ceremony on Wednesday that “today is just the beginning. Our work will not be complete until all our fallen heroes are accounted for and home.”
These young men made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, and they — and their families — deserve that every effort be expended to bring their remains back to American shores for burial.
As news of these efforts on behalf of the remains of the deceased make headlines, it hopefully will also bring to the forefront the fate of those individuals who did merit a proper burial at the time of their death, but whose final resting places are in dreadful condition.
As we have noted in the past in these pages, hundreds — perhaps thousands — of Jewish cemeteries throughout the world, particularly in Eastern Europe, are in terrible condition. In some cases, apartment buildings and other structures have been built right on top of the cemetery; others have been turned into cow pastures and picnic areas.
Even here in the greater New York area, which hosts the largest population of Jews in the Diaspora, some local cemeteries — such as Baron Hirsch Cemetery on Staten Island — are critically overgrown. Visitors have described traversing that particular cemetery “like trying to walk through a forest with some matzeivos in it.”
Visits to the Grove Street cemetery in Newark, N.J., in which some 10,000 Jews are believed to be buried, is considered to be downright dangerous. Other than the one day a year during Aseres Yemei Teshuvah — dubbed “Cemetery Day” — when the police are out in force, visitors are actually warned against even trying to enter the grounds.
In many situations, great-grandchildren or grandnephews and grandnieces of the niftarim live within driving distance, yet it never occurred to these descendants to try to locate the grave of a relative they never knew and only vaguely heard about.
In some cases, all it takes is a trip to the kever and then applying some pressure on the cemetery caretakers. In other cases, with the landsmanshaft that originally owned the plot no longer in existence and no funds put away for regular maintenance, funds have to be raised to clean up the site. It all begins with some research and concrete actions.
In recent years, the possibility of locating and restoring a kever of an ancestor buried in prewar Europe is becoming increasingly more feasible. While in many cities, especially in Eastern Europe, the cemeteries were totally destroyed, in other cities, gravestones still stand — although they are often terribly overgrown by the surrounding vegetation and in constant danger of being vandalized, as well as damaged by the elements.
We owe it to the niftarim — and to ourselves — to do all we can to try to protect their final resting places. Mere words will never suffice for us to fulfill our obligations.