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California Veteran Searches for Korean War MIAs

  • Jason Margolis

Military veteran Ron Broward is looking at a 53-year-old photograph that shows him standing next to a fellow U.S. Marine at an outpost in Korea. Mr. Broward was just 17 when he was sent to Korea as part of a unit that also included his brother's best friend, Jackson Rarrick.

"This is PFC (Private First Class) Rarrick and myself on my 18th birthday," he says. "He took out a bottle, a little mayonnaise jar, and he said, 'Open your hands.' So I opened my hands, and he poured into it dirt from where we lived. I touched something from home."

A few days later during that spring of 1951, the young Marines of the First Battalion, First Regiment, were overwhelmed by 140,000 Chinese soldiers at the battle of Horseshoe Ridge in South Korea. "When you get overrun," says Mr. Broward, "it's very chaotic…the people on top of you. So the best you can do is get your wounded out. That was the last time I saw him, myself."

More than 54,000 American soldiers died during the Korean War, and some 8,000 still remain listed as missing in action -- including PFC Rarrick. So Mr. Broward has made it his mission to locate and bring home his friend's remains and those of other soldiers missing in action.

Ron Broward, now 71, runs a successful business in Davis, California, and still looks the part of a tough Marine. Despite the passage of five decades, he says he still has not completed his military service…not until he brings his buddies home. So far, he has made nine trips to Korea, looking for clues and talking to elderly farmers to try to locate the remains of the soldiers with whom he served. "We owe it to them," says Mr. Broward. "They were youngsters. They never really had a chance. And it's our duty to bring them home."

The Korean War is often referred to in the United States as "the forgotten war" -- coming as it did between World War II and the highly controversial Vietnam War. But Ron Broward is determined to make sure that the war is not forgotten. Six years ago, he learned about a U.S. military program to help recover missing soldiers. He convinced military officials to conduct a search and recovery mission at Horseshoe Ridge, and he set out with a team of forensic experts to guide them where to look. After 18 days of excavation, they found skeletal remains of nine people, but were unable to positively identify any Marines. A second expedition yielded no further clues.

The program has only managed to identify 15 missing soldiers from Korea, compared with more than 700 from the Vietnam conflict. One problem has been the need for more family samples of mitochondrial DNA. Dr. Mark Leney, DNA manager at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii, says these DNA samples would make identifying remains much easier. "It's a type of DNA that individuals only inherit from their mothers," he says. "It's present in rather large quantities in remains. It preserves well and it's relatively easy for us to recover."

Dr. Leney says forensic experts can use a sample of this DNA from anyone on the mother's side of the family. But the military has samples for only four out of every 10 Korean War casualties…and it has been a challenge to gather more. "The war was so long ago," says Larry Greer of the military's Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office. "The U.S. government ceased contact with most of those families in the mid to late 1950s."

But Ron Broward is not giving up. He spends about three hours a day combing through stacks of documents. For example, he cross-references unmarked burial plots with the dates that unknown soldiers were evacuated from Korea. And he regularly meets with politicians and military officials, lobbying them to expand efforts to gather mitochondrial DNA.

Mr. Broward says he thinks his buddy's remains are either in an unmarked grave at the military cemetery in Hawaii, or buried under a rural farm road near the battleground at Horseshoe Ridge. He hopes the military will make one more trip to the old site. "I still think we'll find him," he says. "I know exactly where he was.