What happened to Hoover Jones? The question loomed over Ida Dickens’ life for nearly seven decades. When she last saw her younger brother, he was waving from the back of a taxicab, a lanky 18-year-old farm boy headed to Korea, a country he knew nothing about.
Hoover had enlisted as an infantryman in one of America’s last segregated units, even though he had never handled a weapon, let alone fired a shot in anger. In his mind, joining the military was a chance for a better life, an escape from the bitter racism of central North Carolina, Ida says. But he soon found himself in a poorly trained unit struggling with equipment that would fall to pieces in numbing subzero temperatures. In a Nov. 17, 1950, letter that Hoover wrote his mother from inside his foxhole, he described “very cold days” and the hope that he would be on his way home by Christmas.
Nine days later, Hoover vanished from a frozen battlefield. The U.S. Army believed he had been killed in a surprise attack, but his commanders couldn’t say for certain. His body was never found. No one saw him die.
Ida, now 92 years old, tried to move on with her life. She married, and subsequently buried, two husbands. She became a mother, then a grandmother and then a great-grandmother. She watched her small tobacco town sluggishly move away from the Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation.
But one part of her, the part holding onto Hoover, remained stuck, unresolved. For all these years, in the back of her mind, Ida thought that maybe, just maybe, Hoover was still alive. Perhaps he was being held captive in a prison camp or living with amnesia somewhere in Asia.
And then one windy, gray morning last September, when Ida was hurriedly packing her bags to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Florence’s landfall, the phone rang. It was the Army. After 68 years, they finally found him. Ida’s knees buckled and her breath froze. “I almost fell over,” she told TIME.
How Hoover Jones came home is a story of military detective work and cutting-edge science. It involves teams of geneticists, forensic anthropologists and archival researchers. It is also a story about the persistence of history.
The war Hoover went off to fight never ended. A cease-fire signed in July 1953 left North and South Korea facing off across the heavily armed 38th parallel. Tens of thousands of Korean families remain divided, and the U.S. stations 28,500 troops in South Korea in case the cold war once again turns hot.
Over the decades, North Korea has used the remains of some of the 5,300 Americans who are still missing from the war as bargaining chips in its confrontations with the West. After North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump met last June in Singapore, Kim handed over 55 boxes of unidentified remains from the Korean War while conceding little on his growing nuclear-weapons arsenal, which is at the center of the dispute.
As the two leaders prepared for a second summit beginning Feb. 27 in Hanoi, Trump said the return of those remains could represent a step toward ending the war. “A lot was done in the first summit,” Trump said in the White House Rose Garden on Feb. 15. Once in Vietnam, he added, “we hope we’re going to be very much equally as successful.” Kim has said he wants Trump to sign a declaration ending the war, and a U.S. envoy has been negotiating terms with his North Korean counterpart. Few experts believe Kim will give up his nuclear weapons, which the U.S. has said is a precondition for a deal.
But unseen behind the high-profile theatrics, armies of American experts are making the most of hope. U.S. Defense Department officials have met face-to-face with North Korean Army officials about conducting joint recovery missions inside North Korea. Pentagon scientists in Hawaii have positively identified three soldiers through X-ray matches, historical data and DNA testing.
One brittle bone among 710 others made the difference for Ida and her two surviving sisters Elizabeth, 95, and Thelma, 88. The return of troop remains often gets lost in the larger debate over whether Trump will ever successfully compel North Korea to curtail its growing missile and nuclear arsenal. Yet the discovery of Hoover’s, along with those of two other soldiers, has forever changed the lives of their families.
Several years ago, Hoover’s family decided they needed a place to mourn him. Without a funeral or ceremony, they emplaced a tombstone behind Swift Creek Baptist Church in Whitakers, N.C., marked IN MEMORY OF W HOOVER JONES. The grave below has always been empty. In August, the Jones family plans to bury Hoover with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. It will be the first time in well more than a half-century that Ida will know where she can find her brother.
For thousands of other elderly relatives of still missing Korean War veterans, however, hope and time are running out.
It should’ve been just a 20-minute flight for the hulking C-17 cargo jet, but a direct route from Osan Air Base in South Korea to North Korea would cross the demilitarized zone, a heavily fortified cease-fire line that separates the two countries. Any plane breaching the DMZ could be perceived as part of a surprise attack and draw anti-aircraft fire. So despite Pyongyang’s assurances the flight would be allowed into northern airspace without incident, the U.S. Air Force was happy to take the long way around, high above the Sea of Japan.
When the C-17 crossed the North Korean coastline, the pilot lowered the ramp in the rear of the plane just enough so that Jennie Jin could see flashes of the mountainous countryside whistling by. A burst of cool air swept into the jet’s cavernous belly, catching her short black hair and tossing it into the air. Already apprehensive about the mission, Jin and her colleagues, three fellow scientists, found themselves gripped by a kinetic sense of being propelled at hundreds of miles an hour into the unknown.
It was July 27 and they were preparing to land at Kalma Airport to retrieve 55 boxes of soldiers’ remains. The four of them represented a little-known Defense Department unit called the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), whose job is to recover missing military personnel from past war zones. It’s a job that routinely takes each of them to far reaches of the globe, but not North Korea.
For them, gazing upon the country’s mountain ridges was to see the past as much as the present. For Jin, the moment was doubly powerful. Her -grandparents had escaped North Korea at the height of the Korean War by jumping aboard U.S. Navy warships when the 1st Marine Division withdrew from the bloody fighting around Chosin Reservoir. She was born in South Korea, and became an American citizen in 2014. Now here she was speeding toward the country her family had fled, jittery with excitement, tears welling in her eyes. The emotions were only amplified by the fact that she was five months pregnant. “The whole thing was surreal,” she said. “I was proud to be representing my country. I was also proud for my unborn daughter to be on this journey with me.”
Jin hadn’t anticipated being on this trip. When Trump and Kim met in Singapore, Jin and her husband watched the television coverage from 7,000 miles away at their home in Honolulu. It was only when Kim agreed to transfer Korean War remains that Jin knew her expertise as the leader of the Korean War Project would be needed. One month later, as the jet engines howled and the plane descended into Wonsan, Jin thought about her family and her time as a schoolgirl in Seoul reciting anti-communist propaganda. She thought about the military families back in the U.S. hoping for news about their long-lost soldiers. She hoped she could help.
Jin and the rest of the American contingent stepped into the summer sun. They were met by two scientists and some 20 North Korean soldiers in crisp olive green uniforms. The situation was tense, but it eased when Jin spoke to the soldiers in Korean. “I don’t think they expected that,” she said. Before long, they were asking her about life as a Korean in America, and whether she feared volcanoes in Hawaii.
The welcoming party ushered the Americans into the newly constructed airport, where spotless white walls and tan-speckled flooring gleamed under overhead fluorescent lights. The Pentagon team was led to the baggage claim area where they were told the U.S. soldier remains were temporarily stored. There, Jin saw five rows of 11 wooden boxes neatly lined up on the floor. Each box, about the size of an old storage trunk, had a number taped to the top: 1 through 55. Jin and the team observed a brief moment of silence before dropping to their knees to remove the lids on the boxes and inspect the remains.
It was a crucial moment. North Korea had a mixed record when it came to handing over remains. From 1990 to 1994, Pyongyang returned 208 sets to the U.S., but many appeared hastily thrown together with little identifying information. The situation improved in 1996 during a diplomatic thaw when Pyongyang allowed U.S. officials to conduct recovery operations on a few battlefields. That marked the first time U.S. troops had crossed the 38th parallel since the end of fighting in 1953. But that agreement ended in 2005 when tensions between the two countries worsened.
As Jin and the other scientists opened the boxes, they found piles of bone shards, buttons, belt buckles and other battlefield material. One box contained a weather-beaten dog tag and other bone fragments. Signs of care quickly emerged. The contents of each box were rolled in bubble wrap and the Koreans had recorded where everything had been unearthed. That would prove a key clue to whose bones were inside the boxes: the DPAA maintains detailed databases of the missing soldiers, the dates they disappeared and their last known locations.
The contents of Box No. 16, for instance, came from Ryongyeon-ri, a mountain village in western North Korea. It was the site of some of the harshest winter conditions that American forces ever fought in. It was also where the only racially segregated infantry regiment of the 8th Army, consisting of black soldiers led by white and black officers, had faced down a ferocious attack by Chinese forces that had intervened in a lightning offensive on North Korea’s behalf.
The box contained a collection of cream-colored bones, including an intact femur. It immediately caught the eye of one of the scientists, Veronica Keyes. The bone was long, slender and flat. To a trained forensic anthropologist like Keyes, who has spent her career examining bones, it was more than enough information to make an educated guess: It belonged to a tall, thin black man.
Keyes placed the femur back into the box and continued systematically examining each of the other boxes. But on the inside, she felt a rush of adrenaline. Box No. 16 contained a colossal clue.
After just three hours on the ground in Wonsan, Keyes, Jin and the rest of the Americans prepared to head back to South Korea. They strapped the 55 boxes of remains to the floor of the C-17’s cargo hold and buckled into their seats for a 40-minute flight. The boxes would be shrouded in blue and white U.N. flags before they landed, a protocol acknowledging that the Korean War had started in June 1950 as a U.N. police action after the North invaded the South.
After the plane landed, the scientists participated in a solemn ceremony at Osan Air Base, and then Keyes raced to her hotel room and flipped open her computer. Keyes isn’t your typical Pentagon employee. She has a tongue ring, tattoos and speaks Chinese, German and a bit of Mongolian. Before she joined, she was happy combing through archaeological sites, like the Xiongnu tombs in Mongolia or Tell es-Sweyhat along the Euphrates River in Syria.
But Keyes developed a passion for solving military mysteries. Among her most powerful tools: a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet that itemizes missing soldiers by age, height, weight and other distinguishing factors, such as dental work or broken bones. As she sat in her hotel room enveloped in the digital glow of her laptop screen she began methodically narrowing the identification criteria to include only black men, over 6 ft. tall, weighing less than 200 lb., who had gone missing near the village of Ryongyeon-ri. When she was done, just three soldiers were left. She scribbled the names on the hotel notepad. One appeared the best match: Army Private William Hoover Jones.
“It looked promising,” recalls Keyes’ boss, John Byrd, lab director for the DPAA, whom Keyes had rushed to inform of her breakthrough. “But a good hunch is never enough. We let science answer who these guys are.” All 55 boxes were flown to the agency’s headquarters at Joint Base Pearl Harbor–Hickam, located near Honolulu, for analysis and identification. The 136,497-sq.-ft. facility is the largest forensic anthropology laboratory in the world. One step inside envelops you in a clinical shrine to death.
There, 60 medical tables are lined up in precise rows, holding pieces of blackened skeletons lying -faceup. Each table represents what’s left of a soldier recovered from a shallow grave or temporary cemetery on a long-forgotten North Korean battlefield. Some present a collection of vertebrae, flanked by thin arm bones, topped with toothless skulls. Others have only a rib, leg and feet bones, all in various states of decay. The temperature is controlled 24/7, and the airflow is filtered. Floor-to-ceiling windows set an incongruously verdant backdrop of swaying palm trees and tropical hills stretching into the distance.
The remains provide a glimpse into the horror of the Korean War. It was a grinding conflict, under-appreciated in the U.S. and over-shadowed by World War II and the Vietnam War. Death in Korea was pervasive. More than 33,000 Americans were killed in action from 1950 to 1953. Nearly 2 million North Koreans, or 20% of the total population, lost their lives or were wounded. South Korea took 1 million casualties. Byrd notes a disembodied skull with a bullet hole punched through its left side. “These men went through pure hell,” he said, leaning closer to examine it. “This guy looks like he had a lot of dental work. He should be an easy ID.” Dental records are the gold standard for identification. Byrd calls it the “holy grail,” and his team has a computerized index of records for comparison. Chest X-rays also help. Collarbones are nearly as personalized as a thumbprint, and during the war the military checked the men’s chests for signs of tuberculosis, so if Byrd’s team finds a collarbone, they’re in luck.
The lab uses DNA in about three-quarters of its cases. They cut postage stamp–size samples in bones and Tic Tac–size wedges from teeth and send them to Timothy P. McMahon, director of DNA operations for the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System in Dover, Del., for testing. If his team can extract DNA, he compares it to reference samples provided by living family members who have had their cheeks swabbed over the past few decades. In 1995, the DNA bank had family references for just 71 of the 8,100 missing service members in the Korean War. The database now has references for 7,437 service members, representing 92% of the missing.
After the 55 new boxes were sorted in Hawaii, the team indexed 710 bones and fragments. Byrd estimated that likely represented about 120 service members. The forensic team cataloged every bone and box into the database, making the DNA cuts and sending them to Dover. Two boxes in particular took priority: Box No. 14 with the bubble-wrapped dog tag, and Box No. 16 with the large femur. Both yielded DNA hits. The first was Charles H. McDaniel, a 32-year-old Army master sergeant from Vernon, Ind. The second was William Hoover Jones, a 19-year-old Army private first class from Nash County, N.C.
Shafts of light streamed through the trees into Elizabeth Jones Ohree’s home, where more than a dozen family members had assembled to hear about the fate of a man lost to war. Most of them, born over the seven decades since his disappearance, had never met him and only knew the stories.
Hoover was tall, 6 ft. 4 in., thin and handsome. He always wore a tie, even with his hand-me-down shirts and overalls. And you could never find him without a comb in his pocket. He was self-conscious about a slight scar on his nose—an old baseball injury—but that didn’t diminish the attention paid him by girls at Swift Creek High School. The seventh of eight children, he was the “knee baby,” as the family called him—the one on the knee, next to the baby—and his mother’s favorite. His surviving siblings—Elizabeth, Ida, and Thelma—are all in agreement on that. It was the only explanation as to why Hoover was able to get out of work on the farm in Nash County.
After school, his brothers and sisters toiled harvesting tobacco, picking cotton and shaking out peanuts. Hoover, meanwhile, would be riding Bonnie, his father’s brown horse, into town for one reason or another. “He got away with a lot of things,” Elizabeth said. “He had a wonderful sense of humor. He could make a dog laugh.”
Elizabeth spent her life trying to make sense of the scraps of information the military provided to her mother about Hoover. The way she saw it, as his big sister, she had a responsibility to get to the bottom of what happened to him. She had been hopeful for his future in 1950 when he appeared wearing his newly pressed Army uniform at Spaulding Middle School, where she taught sixth grade. They embraced and said goodbye. Yet sadness swept over her when Hoover turned to leave. She would never see him again.
The memories came back in waves, pushed ahead before the soldiers who walked up Elizabeth’s driveway Oct. 18 under the towering oak trees, past the manicured lawn, to her long red brick house. Army Captain Hugo Romero and Sergeant Major Shaun Herron had made the 90-minute drive northeast from Fort Bragg. Jim Bell, a retired Army lieut. colonel, flew in from Fort Knox, Ky., and took the lead in presenting the newfound information to the family assembled Elizabeth’s living room.
Casualty Assistance Officers (CAOs) are responsible for notifying family members when a service member has died, answering questions about the member’s death. It’s a tough job, especially when the family has waited as long as Hoover’s, so the Army compiled a 66-page booklet covering his whole story, including how they had definitively identified him.
Keyes’ guess had been correct back in Korea. Hoover was almost entirely confined to Box No. 16. They found a lower jaw; left collarbone; left and right legs; most of his right and left arms; pelvic bone; five lower vertebrae; six teeth; and 6 g of bone particles and dust. DNA from the right femur matched swabs that of Hoover’s sister Thelma and now deceased brother Horace had taken years earlier, leaving a 1 in 601 quintillion chance it was someone else. The teeth matched dental records. The “shapes and densities” across the left collarbone matched Hoover’s chest X-ray from June 5, 1950, according to a medical-examiner report reviewed by TIME.
And then there was the history. Pentagon researchers placed Hoover’s unit, Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Infantry, 25th Infantry Division, 8th U.S. Army in the area of Ryongyeon-ri for the Battle of Chongchon River in November 1950. General Douglas MacArthur was attempting to end the war by pushing north on the last North Korean stronghold near the Yalu River, which forms Korea’s border with China. MacArthur had promised the troops would be “home by Christmas.” In letters home, Hoover attempted to put a brave face for his family as it neared the holiday season. “I am really seeing some of the world now,” he wrote on Nov. 2, 1950. “The people in Korea raise a lot of rice and work ox. And they dress like people at home a hundred years ago.”
The first sign of trouble came when U.S. intelligence analysts estimated that between 40,000 and 70,000 Chinese soldiers had crossed the Yalu, apparently to back North Korea. MacArthur thought China was bluffing. But Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong had secretly ordered 300,000 troops to enter the war on North Korean side. Battle-hardened from their civil war just one year earlier, the Chinese were brilliant guerrillas. They fought at night and kept the Americans off-balance, communicating maneuver orders by bugles over loudspeakers and firing off flares to make up for their lack of radios.
The Chinese used psychological warfare, capturing American soldiers on patrol and broadcasting their cries for help over the speakers at night. Even today, veterans of battles at Kunu-ri and Chongchon River remain haunted. “It was a nightmare,” said Charles Rangel, the Democratic former Congressman from New York, who was wounded in the battle as a private first class. “Flares fell out of the sky, the bugles, the loudspeakers … We were all terrified.”
Food was in short supply and temperatures plummeted to –20 degrees. The cold brought tears, which froze on the men’s faces. Soldiers, exhausted from the noise for nights on end, would fall asleep in their sleeping bags and freeze to death. The segregated units were particularly poorly supplied in cold-weather gear, especially insulated footwear, according to an Army history of the 24th Infantry Regiment. Some soldiers would attempt to take off their boots, and their toes would come off with them.
It had to be a hellscape for Hoover, who never encountered cold weather close to that, his sisters say. The Chinese used the cover of night on Nov. 25, 1950, to launch a surprise attack on the U.S. Army’s defensive lines. The mountainous terrain and cold weather made movement difficult and radio communications between American infantry units almost impossible, according to Army command reports now in the National Archives. The Chinese, seemingly unaffected by the communications blackout, attacked again the next night, ultimately breaking through the U.S. lines and splitting the regiment in two. “We were surrounded,” recalls Rangel, who was injured when mortar shrapnel tore through his back. “There was a lot of screaming. Chinese screaming, our troops screaming,” he says. “It was total confusion. As I’ve said before, I never had a bad day since November 1950.”
Chinese forces encircled Hoover’s unit on Nov. 26, according to Army documents filed at the time. By nightfall, the GIs were cut off from surrounding American units. Some of Easy Company’s wounded had been evacuated but the dead had to be left behind, frozen where they fought on the battlefield. Jones was reported missing in action, exactly one month after his 19th birthday. The Army notified his mother, Mary B. Jones, by telegram on Jan. 7, 1951. Though she lived to be 90, she never recovered from his disappearance, spending late afternoons motionless on her front porch, staring at the tobacco fields rustling in the wind.
The CAOs walked the family through the ill-fated battle and admitted to Elizabeth, Ida and Thelma that they couldn’t say for sure how Hoover died. He suffered two fractures to his right leg, which occurred while he was still alive. Whatever hit him, possibly a blunt instrument, like rifle butt, was heavy and likely came from behind. The officers provided the family with a Purple Heart and Army Good Conduct Medal.
The sisters decided to save the medals after Hoover is interred at Arlington in August. His remains will be sent from Hawaii in a dark walnut casket, which will be accompanied at all times by a military escort. He will be buried with his dress blue uniform. A chevron representing his rank as private first class will be stitched to his sleeve. A blue cord will be affixed to the right shoulder. His six medals and two citations will be pinned to his chest, along with the Combat Infantryman Badge, a three-inch silver pin featuring a rifle, wrapped by a wreath, against a blue background.
Before Hoover is lowered into the ground, seven soldiers will fire three volleys from their M-14 rifles for a 21-gun salute. A bugler will play taps. The six soldiers who carried Hoover to his grave site will remove the flag covering his casket and make 13 triangular folds. A presenting officer will kneel before Hoover’s eldest sister, Elizabeth, and hand the folded flag to her. Two others will be provided to Thelma and Ida. “This flag is presented on behalf of a grateful nation and the United States Army in appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service,” they will be told. The ceremony will conclude. Their brother will finally be laid to rest. And for Hoover Jones and his family, at least, the Korean War will at last be over.