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Thousands of name errors possible in new Korean War remembrance wall, advocates fear

Next month, the Korean War Veterans Memorial on the National Mall will have a new focal point — a remembrance wall featuring the names of approximately 36,574 Americans who died supporting the war and more than 7,200 Koreans who died while augmenting the Army. Their names will be organized by rank and respective branch of service, demonstrating how the war’s burden fell unevenly across the military.

According to the National Park Service, work began in early March on the addition and additional renovations, which will cost approximately $22 million. The groundbreaking marks the completion of a years-long fundraising process that began when Congress passed the Korean War Veterans Memorial Wall of Remembrance Act in 2016. The non-profit Korean War Veterans Memorial Foundation successfully raised the money through private donations from American and South Korean citizens and corporations.

“The Korean War Veterans Memorial is one of the most visited monuments on the National Mall, with over four million visitors annually.” said KWVMF executive director James Fischer in an email to Military Times. “Completing the Wall of Remembrance will help educate these visitors about the costs of war and honor those who paid the ultimate price for freedom.”

Getting the money was step one. Now getting the names right is the task at hand. And advocates are questioning the accuracy of the Defense Casualty Analysis System database that the Defense Department used to provide the initial list of names to KWVMF.

The wall, which will include the names of those killed or reported missing between June 1950 and March 1954, will provide a sobering reminder of the war’s ferocity. More than five times as many Americans died in support of the Korean War than the approximately 7,056 who have died in support of the Global War on Terror.

DoD won’t release the current DCAS list it provided to KWVMF, so the best glimpse into the data comes from an archived, publicly available version of the list available through the National Archives and Records Administration website. Korean War veterans advocates are alarmed at the inaccuracies they are finding there.

From their home near Dallas, Hal and Ted Barker run the Korean War Project, a free-to-use online archive and database documenting those lost in Korea. The site represents more than four decades of research and effort to tell the stories of Korean War veterans such as their father.

The Barkers and KWP volunteer researchers estimate there are some 2,000 name discrepancies in the DCAS list publicly available through NARA, they told Military Times.

Some shouldn’t be there. Some should be there but aren’t. Others are grievously misspelled or misformatted.

Of particular issue, they explained, are Native American, Asian-American, Hawaiian, and Latino names.

And soon these errors could be cut into stone.

One glaring example is that of a Navy officer who died in…2013.

Included in error

“Killed in action…remains recovered.”

That’s what the NARA public version of the DCAS database has to say about Navy Lt. j.g. Edwin Nixon Jr., a carrier-based fighter pilot shot down during the Korean War. Nixon’s F9F Panther fighter went down in flames in March 1953, crash-landing in North Korea.

Contrary to what his fellow pilots reported, what the newspapers reported, and what the NARA DCAS archive says, Nixon survived the crash and became a prisoner of war.

He survived his ordeal and returned to his family in Seattle, eventually having three children and self-publishing a memoir, Killed In Action: Dead…Wrong!, about his experience.

Nixon is not the only person included on the list in error, either.

Another erroneous entry is that of Wilson Fielder Jr., Time magazine’s Hong Kong bureau chief who was killed while reporting near Taejon in July 1950.

NARA DCAS lists Fielder as “killed in action.” The Time correspondent had served as a Marine Corps officer during World War II, and was an inactive member of the Marine Corps Reserve at the time of his death, but was not serving at the time. As a result, DoD recorded his death as a battle casualty.

Other servicemembers in the NARA DCAS list “died from [various] accidents” outside the theater of operations, said Hal Barker, including some who were not supporting operations in Korea.

One such example is Navy Lt. j. g. Lawrence Frederick Emigholz Jr., who died in a 1952 accident while trying to land his fighter on the USS Wasp in the Mediterranean Sea, according to contemporaneous newspaper accounts. His remains were never recovered.

The NARA DCAS database states that Navy pilot “Lawerence Freder Emigholz Jr.” died in an accident aboard the USS James C. Owens, a Sumner-class destroyer that had no planes. His misspelled name appears in a mockup of the Wall of Remembrance presented to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts by the National Park Service on September 17, 2020.

But for each name erroneously included in the database, there are others not included.

Those left out

Air Force and Navy personnel who died in accidents are included — or not — haphazardly, explained Barker.

Some troops lost in air crashes outside of Korea are included in the NARA DCAS list, such as Air Force 1st Lt. Frank M. Lopes. He was a fighter pilot assigned to the 16th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron who boarded a C-47 transport flight on October 15, 1950 in an effort to get back to his unit in Japan after surviving an emergency landing of his damaged jet in Korea during a combat mission.

The transport became lost over the ocean amid adverse weather after takeoff. Four hours later, the pilots radioed that fuel was running out, and the crew and its lone passenger, Lopes, would bail out. The aircraft wasn’t heard from again, and search teams failed to locate its wreckage, much less its crew and passengers.

Lopes remains listed as missing in action, and his name will appear on the Wall of Remembrance.

Many other troops who died in the numerous flights that crashed on their way to or from Korea won’t appear on the wall. That includes the 129 servicemembers who died in a C-124A crash near Tachikawa Air Base, Japan in June 1953.

Most of the troops onboard the Korea-bound plane were returning to their combat duties following a brief rest period in Japan. The plane went down in a watermelon field, where the only survivor died shortly after an airman passing by stopped and pulled him from the wreckage.

At the time, the crash was the deadliest air disaster on record, and it was the first plane crash to ever see more than a hundred lives lost.

Hal Barker says the inconsistencies are partially the fault of the services. “Each service had widely varying interpretations of [Theater] of Operations or never reduced their definition of theater to writing…and that is a problem,” he said.

The volunteer researchers of the Korean War Project have identified “at least 500” victims of accidents that took place over Japan, Okinawa, and on the seas between that are “missing from the official database,” said Barker.

But even some those who are indisputably qualified for inclusion on the Wall, such as the “Borinquineers” of Puerto Rico’s 65th Infantry Regiment, suffer from misspellings and misformattings in the NARA archive of the DCAS database.

Names misspelled and misformatted

“In accordance with their Latin culture, many [Puerto Rican] soldiers…use[d] both their paternal and maternal last names, usually hyphenated,” said Noemi Figueroa-Soulet, a documentary producer and advocate for Puerto Rican veterans, in a letter to KWVMF officials she shared with Military Times. “In some cases where two long surnames are used, either a surname or a first name is [shortened].”

She pointed to the NARA DCAS listing for Army Pvt. Nelson Galarza-Lebron, who died of wounds sustained in combat in October 1952. In his case, the database lists him as “Nelson G. Lebron,” which means “a family member looking for their loved one’s name would not be able to find it,” according to Figueroa-Soulet.

The Barkers said they have identified and worked to correct “approximately 280 Puerto Rican/Latino name issues” through years of coordination with Puerto Rican advocacy groups and people like Figueroa-Soulet.

“Three Medal of Honor recipients’ names are spelled incorrectly in the official database,” said Hal Barker. “A number of servicemen used assumed names, and many servicemen had their names changed by clerical error by the military.”

Fixing the list

The KWVMF is now working rapidly to identify and address errors in the initial DCAS list they received.

“The KWVMF notified DoD last week that they had made changes to that list and the department is reviewing those documents,” said Army Maj. César Santiago, a DoD spokesperson.

“Beginning in February 2020, we have worked diligently on the information we initially received from DMDC which, by law, is the authoritative source for the list of names for inclusion on the Wall of Remembrance,” said Fischer, executive director of the KWVMF, in an email to Military Times.

Fischer explained that KWVMF is working “on a potential list of names,” but “final confirmation for inclusion on the Wall of Remembrance must come from DoD.”

“We continue to extensively review our information to verify the proper spelling of Latino surnames, remove any truncating of name anomalies because of how the individual reporting database parameters may affect how a name is reported in a listing, and address any additional formatting issues,” he added.

Fischer’s statement to Military Times is a change from what another KWVMF official told Figueroa-Soulet in January, according to emails the documentary producer shared with Military Times. In response to a January letter from Figueroa-Soulet, KWVMF board secretary Michel Au Buchon said, “Although there may be inaccuracies [in Latino and other names], we are unable to change or deviate from this [DCAS] official record.”

“We are bound to…H.R. 1475, the Korean War Veterans Memorial Wall of Remembrance Act,” said Au Buchon in January, citing the legal requirement for DoD to provide the list of names.

Figueroa-Soulet is now encouraged by KWVMF’s recent commitment to correcting the names. “That is the right thing to do for those soldiers who served our country but never came back. But it leaves me wondering what sources they are using to correct these names and if the supposed corrections will be accurate.”

“The department has established procedures for the military service departments to update or correct errors in casualty records or in the Official Military Personnel File,” said Santiago, the DoD spokesperson.

“The official list for the Korean War Veterans Memorial will be available to the public once the [final] eligibility criteria is published,” said Santiago. “It is not available for public release at this time.”

Fischer and KWVMF did not immediately respond to questions seeking clarification on how they were working to correct the names, and what research and documentation requirements were required to do so.

“Nevertheless, I look forward to seeing the Wall of Remembrance with the correct names listed,” said Figueroa-Soulet, the documentary producer.

“It’s the least we can do for their families.”

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