The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

From the chaos of a decades-old war, two sons get a link to their father

A dog tag and medals belonging to Army Master Sgt. Charles Hobert McDaniel displayed Wednesday in Arlington.
A dog tag and medals belonging to Army Master Sgt. Charles Hobert McDaniel displayed Wednesday in Arlington. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Retired Army chaplain Charles Hobert McDaniel Jr. took a breath to compose himself before he started to talk about his father’s banged-up dog tag.

The tag, which had two holes in it and a chunk missing, had come from a battlefield near a place called Unsan in North Korea where his father, Army Master Sgt. Charles Hobert McDaniel Sr., was killed in 1950.

McDaniel Jr., 71, and his younger brother, Larry, 70, had little if any memory of their father, and the small piece of metal imprinted with “McDANIEL, CHARLES H.” was a precious link to him.

Almost 68 years after Sgt. McDaniel, a World War II veteran and Army medic, vanished in the disastrous fight with Chinese communist forces around Unsan, the Army on Wednesday gave his tattered dog tag to his sons.

It was one of the artifacts that came with the 55 boxes of remains returned to American authorities last month by the North Koreans, and the only one that could be connected to a specific soldier.

It was the first link to a family of a missing man from the Korean War to stem from the meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June, and the first of what the Pentagon and families of the missing hope will be many more.

The Pentagon handed over McDaniel’s dog tag after a briefing in an Arlington, Va., hotel on the effort to sort out the remains in the boxes and begin the arduous process of identification.

Officials do not know whether the remains in the box with the dog tag are those of Sgt. McDaniel.

“This is my father,” McDaniel Jr. said after holding up the dog tag. “I’m his oldest son. . . . This is my brother, Larry.”

“It’s a very mixed moment for us,” he said. “We didn’t expect this. . . . We were contacted by the Department of the Army, [which] said: ‘We found one dog tag. It was your father’s.’ ”

He said they knew the whereabouts of his father’s remains were uncertain, but “at least we have this.”

The brothers — Charles, of Indianapolis, and Larry, from Jacksonville, Fla., — related a family story lighted by only dim memories.

Sgt. McDaniel, a farmer’s son from Indiana, had joined the Army before World War II and served in combat in Europe.

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He was with the 1st Cavalry Division and part of the occupation of Japan after the war. The family was living there when he was sent to Korea after the war broke out.

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency said Sgt. McDaniel was with the medical company of the 8th Cavalry Regiment’s 3rd Battalion when it was attacked by the Chinese in early November 1950.

The regiment was surrounded, and the bulk of the 3rd Battalion was trapped, according to an account of the battle on the 1st Cavalry Division Association’s website.

Fighting was hand-to-hand in many cases.

After a rescue force was beaten back, some men tried to escape in small groups.

“At approximately 1600 hours on the afternoon of 6 November, the action of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry, as an organized force came to an end,” the association’s account says.

“It died gallantly,” it says. “. . . More than 600 officers and men were lost at Unsan, most of them from the 3rd Battalion.”

The Pentagon said an eyewitness and fellow medic interviewed later said he believed Sgt. McDaniel had been killed in action inside the battalion’s perimeter.

Larry McDaniel, a retired college football coach who was 2 years old at the time, said he remembers nothing of those times.

Charles, who was 3, has only distant memories of being at sea on a ship, leaving Japan. “Because there were so many casualties, they put the widows and families on a troopship and brought them back to Hawaii,” he said. The family went home to southern Indiana. “That’s the kind of thing that I remember.”

Even so, when he was called at home last Thursday and told of the dog tag, “I sat there and I cried for a while,” he said.

Larry McDaniel said: “I have no memory of my father. . . . I’m proud that my father was extremely patriotic and loved the country enough that he was able to dedicate his entire life for . . .[it] without hesi­ta­tion.”

“I guess you generate your image of what you think about your father,” he said.

The event, at the Renaissance Arlington Capital View Hotel, came as the Pentagon holds its annual meetings Thursday for other families of Korean War and Cold War MIAs.

Initial forensic examination suggested that the remains obtained from North Korea were probably those of American service members, the U.S. military said. But experts say positive identification of all the remains could take years.

John Byrd, the DPAA’s laboratory director, said Wednesday that McDaniel’s dog tag was in a plastic bag beside another plastic bag containing bone fragments inside one of the 55 boxes.

Most of the remains in the boxes were bone fragments, he said. He said the North Koreans told the Americans that the fragments were “co-mingled,” meaning the remains of more than one person might be in one box.

The bones must be sorted out and DNA extracted to help the process of identification, Byrd said. And that DNA must then be compared with DNA taken from a potential family member to see if it matches.

Other artifacts, such as boots, canteens, mess kits and a steel helmet, were with the remains. But it is unlikely any of them will ever be associated with a specific soldier, the Pentagon officials said.

As a demonstration at the briefing Wednesday, Timothy. P. McMahon, director of DNA operations for the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, swabbed the inside of Larry McDaniel’s mouth for a DNA sample.

The Pentagon estimates that nearly 7,700 U.S. troops are unaccounted for from the war; among them are 5,300 believed to have been killed north of the 38th parallel, which largely follows the boundary between North and South Korea.

Most died on the battlefield and were buried in shallow graves or in cemeteries that were intended to be temporary. But some also perished in prisoner-of-war camps run by North Korea or China, experts say.

The process of finding and repatriating their remains has long been hampered by North Korea’s reluctance to allow U.S. military investigators unrestricted access to battle sites and by the North’s desire to wring as much political capital and money out of the process of returning the remains as possible.

U.S. Consul General Angela Kerwin has said that no money was paid to North Korea for the remains. But the United States says it has given the North Koreans “compensation” for the costs of the recovery in the past.

Paul Sonne, Simon Denyer and Min Joo Kim contributed to this report.