Family longs for answers after relative died in Korean War
Note to readers: As the family of Cpl. Donald Victor MacLean, who died in the Korean War, buries his remains Saturday, many other families are still awaiting that closure. Here is the story of one such area family.
ALGONQUIN – When Linda Thomson was a little girl, her grandmother would tell her stories about her Uncle Keith.
Ensign Keith Thomson, a pilot with the U.S. Navy, was adventurous, very smart and never had to study, her grandmother, Helen Rutledge, told her. His picture sat in a place of honor in her Macomb home.
He died before Linda Thomson was born.
“I was the oldest, so she showed me the picture, and I was always the one that felt her pain and her torment for not knowing what really happened to him,” said Thomson, who has lived in Algonquin for the past 23 years.
When the Navy contacted her a few years ago, she decided to find out what happened, first as a pursuit for her grandmother and later for herself as well.
Rutledge died in 1996, and Thomson’s father, Fred Thomson, died in 1988.
Linda Thomson and her brother, Jerry, went to Washington, D.C., and started attending meetings for the families of missing soldiers.
The number of family members attending these meetings has grown from 211 in 1996 to 1,001 in 2012, according to the Defense Department’s Missing Personnel Office.
This past year, the questions leveled by family members at these meetings have been much more direct, she said, adding that she thinks as the years wear on and immediate relatives die, the frustration and anger grows.
Nearly 8,000 military personnel are unaccounted for, according to the Defense Department’s Missing Personnel Office.
Through the meetings and other communication with the Joint MIA/POW Accounting Command, the Thomsons have received letters between her grandmother and military officials, as well as numerous reports, including debriefing statements taken from men who were prisoners with their uncle.
“I knew it would be the worst thing I read in my life,” Linda Thomson said. “[But] it helped me feel closer. You have this thing about wanting to be closer, closer to knowing.”
On July 25, 1950, the first official day of the Korean War, Ensign Keith Thomson was flying in a four-plane reconnaissance mission in the southwest corner of South Korea, according to a U.S. Navy report.
After locating four enemy trucks and bombing a bridge, his plane began to lose oil, apparently from being hit in the engine or its accessory section, the report said. Thomson headed toward the coast, eventually making a wheels-up emergency landing on a river sandbar.
Uninjured, he radioed back and continued to report in until the battery died, the report said. When a helicopter came to rescue him, he could not be found.
“He had completed his task with determination and skill of which he possessed an inordinate amount,” Thomson’s commanding officer, W.R. Pittman, wrote Rutledge after Thomson was declared missing in action.
“Mrs. Rutledge, your son was an excellent naval officer. He took extreme pride in his work and was an outstanding navy aviator. He was admired and loved by all the officers and men in this squadron.”
Thomson had been captured and was moved north to Seoul, Pyongyang and finally to Manp’o, according to multiple reports.
From there, in October 1950, a North Korean Army major known as “The Tiger” took command of more than 700 American servicemen, according to the Defense Department’s Missing Personnel Office.
About 100 people would die over the course of the 120-mile trek that became known as the Tiger Death March. Only 262 men would survive the nearly three years of imprisonment until the signing of armistice in August 1953.
One report given by Capt. Ralph E. Culbertson detailed the brutal conditions and executions along the march.
“We covered 38 kilometers in one day,” Culbertson said. “Rest periods were given twice a day. Food consisted of one or two rice, millet or corn balls a day. No hot soup. No chance to wash. Men were forced to carry one another. The sick and injured were carried until they died or were taken away from us and shot by the guards.”
Thomson died of malnutrition at the second village, Hanjang-ni, on the route in late December 1950 or January 1951, according to several witness statements.
The burial site at Hanjang-ni is located on a rising slope near its gravel road and is believed to be undisturbed, the Navy report said.
“I think what bothers me the most is how he was treated and he died and to not have any part of him back,” Linda Thomson said.