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67 years later, missing soldier home at last

A Transportation Security Administration honor guard awaits as the plane bearing the remains of Cpl. Donald Baer taxis to the gate Thursday at the Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee, Wisc. Michael Sears / Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel 1 / 2
Cpl. Donald Baer2 / 2

Janet Baril knows a lot about her brother Donald Baer's time in the U.S. Army before and during the Korean War.

She knows what unit he was in: K Company, 3rd Battalion, 34th Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division. She knows his prewar assignment: guarding the ammunition dump at Camp Mower, Sasebo, Japan. She knows what day he went to Korea: July 2, 1950.

She does not know what it's like to have a conversation with Donald, because she was 18 months old when he enlisted in the army. Baer's unit was defending the airport and main road into Taejon, now known as Daejeon, when he went missing July 20, just over two weeks after he arrived in the country. He was 20 years old.

Baer, who grew up in Brainerd, was missing in action and presumed dead for more than 60 years until September, when the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced they had positively identified his remains. It took 15 years of research and advocacy by Baril and the rest of the family before a positive match could be made. The situation required her to be a historian and an investigator at the same time—all to find out the fate of a man she never really met.

"I really did not know him, but I certainly felt the loss that my parents and older siblings did throughout the years," Baril said.

The search

As Baril tells it, the search for Baer's remains began in 2001, when she heard a National Public Radio story about the Department of Defense asking families of missing soldiers to submit DNA so the remains of their missing relative could be identified.

The family submitted DNA to what was then the Defense Prisoner of War Missing Personnel Office, or DPMO. While the the Baer family was still searching, the DPMO merged with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, JPAC, to form a new agency, the DPAA. It's one of the many bureaucratic hurdles the Baers had to surmount.

But submitting DNA prompted Baril to go online to find out more information—and find it she did. It turned out the Army had classified Baer not only as missing in action, but as a prisoner of war as well. She also discovered the DPMO hosted events called "family updates"—information sessions when the families of missing soldiers could meet with DPMO officials and find out more about the recovery process.

Baril lives in Marion, Ill., but she still traveled across the country to the annual update in Washington, D.C. It gave her the chance to connect with other families of missing soldiers—including John Zimmerlee, the son of a Korean War pilot. Zimmerlee helped her track down Army forensic files declassified in 2010. It was these files that proved the breakthrough to finding Baer's resting place.

Baril struggled with the official theory that Baer died as a POW in the infamous Apex prisoner of war camps at Hanjang-ni, North Korea, on the Yalu River. If that were true, then Baril's search was pointless, because the territory remains in North Korean hands to this day.

But by tracking down Korean War veterans who served alongside her brother, Baril found out first, Baer was not present at the Apex camp, and then, he died in the Battle of Taejon in South Korea, before the POW march to the North Korean camp took place. There was still hope she could find her brother. But her journey to find those veterans simply established where Baer wasn't—it hadn't established where he was.

Found in the Punch Bowl

Based on the records Baril and Zimmerlee found, it turned out the Army's graves registration unit came across five bodies near Taejon seven months after the battle. One was identified, and the remaining four were buried in Tanggok, South Korea.

In 1954, after the war ended and a massive recovery effort was underway to find American dead, the four unknown bodies were taken to the mortuary in Kokura, Japan, where they were doused with formaldehyde as a preservative. They remained unidentified, however, and they were reinterred in 1956 at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii—known colloquially as "the Punch Bowl."

Near the bodies, a helmet was found with Donald Baer's name written on it. Remnants of clothing could also be traced back to Baer.

For two years, Baril lobbied for the particular unknown set of remains, or "x-file," to be exhumed for testing.

Baer's remains were disinterred Aug. 14 and positively identified Aug 24.

"To identify Baer's remains, scientists from DPAA used dental, anthropological and chest radiograph comparison analysis, which matched his records, as well as circumstantial evidence," the agency said in a release.

Baril was notified Sept. 28 her brother was found.

"We're amazed and overjoyed that he's coming home," Baril said, the emotion showing in her voice.

Thursday, an honor flight carrying his casket landed in Wisconsin, where he will be interred in a cemetery near Racine along with his brother and father on Saturday, Nov. 11—Veterans Day.

There are still hundreds more remains at the Punch Bowl waiting to be identified, Baril said—and it's usually the families that reach out to the military, not the other way around.

In the obituary she wrote for her brother, Baril called for all of the Punch Bowl remains to be exhumed and analyzed.

"The DPAA now has the means to identify these remains by DNA and/or Radiograph comparison," the obituary read. "Please write your congressmen to ask for disinterment of all these remains and have them identified."

"Help us return all these men in USA possession to their families --they have remained as UNKNOWNS far too long!!!"

According to the DPAA, 7,716 U.S. soldiers are still unaccounted for from the Korean War.