PANMUNJOM, KOREA, MAY 28 -- Thomas Gregory worked and waited a long time to witness today's Memorial Day ceremony in this truce border village. The Korean War veteran watched as North Korean officials, for the first time in 36 years, turned over the remains of some American soldiers to a U.S. delegation.
American observers saluted and placed their hands over their hearts as 12 North Koreans slowly passed five pine coffins over the border dividing North Korea and South Korea, into the white-gloved hands of a military honor guard.
Rep. G.V. "Sonny" Montgomery (D-Miss.), who headed the American delegation, promised a hero's welcome in the United States for the remains of the five soldiers and called today's ceremony "historic."
"We certainly hope this will open the door for more American remains to come back home for proper burial," said Montgomery, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. The five sets of remains will be flown to Hawaii for positive identification by forensic experts, he said.
For Gregory, who has lobbied intensively for the return of soldiers' remains from North Korea, today's ceremony was a watershed event.
"I felt a flood of emotion when I watched these guys cross that line," said Gregory, who heads the POW-MIA committee of the Chosin Few, a Korean War veterans organization. Gregory, wounded during the famous retreat from the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea, said after the ceremony that he planned to call relatives of the fallen soldiers.
"It will be an emotional call," Gregory said in a wavering voice. "I am going to say to them that I am very glad to have played a part in bringing their loved ones home."
Today's transfer of the remains was the first by North Korea since a year after the 1950-53 Korean War. The Pentagon lists 33,629 Americans killed during the conflict, nearly as many as during the much longer Vietnam War, and the remains of 8,172 of the dead are still unaccounted for in the rugged hills and tranquil rice paddies of North Korea.
North Korea found the remains returned today -- and two sets of dog tags and personal effects including shoes and jackets -- in 1987. But Pyongyang delayed a scheduled 1988 transfer of the remains because the United States had placed North Korea on a list of countries sponsoring terrorism. The two countries do not have diplomatic relations.
North Korea has one of the world's last hard-line Communist regimes, and it is coming under pressure from Moscow to open up to the rest of the world. North Korea's decision to return the remains is being seen as an effort to improve ties with Washington. Western diplomats said they do not expect the diplomatic overtures to herald any relaxation of repression at home.
Gregory, 58, said he hopes today's ceremony will mark a new era in which Americans reflect more on the Korean War and its unresolved legacies. The Korean conflict is often called America's "forgotten war," and until now, Korean veterans have been less vocal about soldiers missing in action than Vietnam veterans, though there are far more American MIAs in Korea than in Vietnam.
"You've got a lot of families out there who haven't spoken up before but will now," said Gregory. "You've also got a lot of veterans who haven't been active before but will now because they see that something can be done."
Two sets of the remains have been tentatively identified, as Army 1st Lt. Jack J. Saunders of Ogden, Utah, and Army Corp. Arthur L. Seaton of Chester, Pa. The other remains could take six months to identify, Montgomery said.