Bill Sowles intently viewed a 37-year-old film showing a darkly handsome American prisoner of war scowling at his communist captors in the Korean War. It is, he believes, his dad, Willy. And if it is, there is a chance he is still alive.
Korean War POWs and MIAs were long overlooked as attention focused on missing GIs in Vietnam. Now Sowles and a growing group of American families and politicians have been energized by recently declassified files that suggest that hundreds of Korean War soldiers who were presumed dead may have been imprisoned in the gulags of Siberia and slave-labor camps in China.
If the bizarre accounts are true, the oldest soldiers would be in their 80s, but the youngest would be only 58, if still alive.
According to American Red Cross spokeswoman Donna Schneider in Seattle, the agency knows of 12 reported sightings of American POWs in Siberia, some as recently as the 1970s. The information has been forwarded to the International Red Cross in Geneva, Switzerland, which is contacting sources in the Soviet Union and China as part of a tracing effort.
The Pentagon and State Department have dismissed the live-sighting reports as not being “verifiable,” either in the years immediately after the war or today.
Lt. Cmdr. Ned Lundquist, a Department of Defense spokesman, said that while the reports “may at one time have been believed . . . there is no reason to think any Americans are currently being held as a result of the Korean War anywhere in the world.”
Nevertheless, the International Red Cross recently reopened the case of Willy Sowles, as well as those of a handful of other soldiers who disappeared in the Korean War. Sowles was written off by the military as dead in 1953, the year the war ended. He had been reported missing in action behind enemy lines in 1950. Today he would be 72.
The Sowles case is of particular interest because of the film, and because of the circumstances of his disappearance. Nobody saw him fall as he fought the advancing Chinese Army near the North Korean town of Kunu-ri. Nor did Sowles appear on any list of buried or imprisoned soldiers later provided by the communists. He was one of several-hundred men, including many from his own medical company, who simply vanished.
The film, recovered from the North Koreans by U.S. intelligence agents in 1953, surfaced on Seattle TV station KIRO last year following a two-year investigation by reporter Mark Sauter. Sauter sifted through Korean War archives that gradually are being declassified, in part because of media requests under the Freedom of Information Act.
FBI photo analysis experts are studying the film at the request of Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) to determine whether it is, indeed, Sowles.
Dr. Michael Charney of Colorado State University, an expert on identifying Vietnam-era remains, studied the film for the family and says his initial measurements of facial matching points, compared to old family snapshots, indicate that the POW “is probably Willy Sowles.”
Besides the film, dozens of other declassified documents show that reported live sightings of Americans in communist hands persisted even after Operation Big Switch in 1953, when all POWs were supposed to have been turned over to the United States by the communists.
“We feel it is beyond a shadow of a doubt that American POWs went to Siberia, probably on trains through China,” Schneider said. “That the International Red Cross decided so quickly to conduct a search for Sowles and others is really unusual.”
In 1954, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles confidentially messaged top U.S. diplomats, stating that more reports had surfaced “which support earlier indications that American Prisoners of War (from) Korea had been transported into (the) Soviet Union and are now in Soviet custody.”
Later in 1954, Maj. Gen. Robert N. Young, Army assistant chief of staff, wrote in a secret memo that “a plan has been formed by use of clandestine systems to obtain recovery of one or more such (POWs) to establish the case beyond doubt before the world that such persons exist.”
It is not known what became of that clandestine search. In documents now being declassified, huge sections are blacked out or dozens of pages have been removed and remain secret. Moreover, a massive investigation of live sightings by the Air Force, known as Project American, “cannot be found in the files,” according to the Department of Defense.
The congressional POW/MIA task force met last month with the Defense Intelligence Agency to receive files on reported live sightings, but the DIA turned over no documents, said an aide to Rep. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.).
“The task force has issued a formal resolution of inquiry to compel the DIA to turn over these documents to us, and we believe there are a great deal of documents,” Smith’s aide said. “We are asking: What’s in there that they don’t want congressional leaders to see?”
Reluctance on the part of military and State Department officials to release decades-old information on POW and MIA sightings has fueled support in Congress for the so-called Truth Bill, House Resolution 3603.
The bill would declassify hundreds of crates of intelligence reports, enemy documents, photographs and personal letters of men who disappeared during World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars.
As more and more once-secret documents are released, some former military officials have stepped forward, claiming that Korean War soldiers were abandoned in prison to resolve a standoff with the communists, who vehemently denied all sightings in Siberia and China when the reports began surfacing in the early 1950s.
“It’s long overdue to tell Americans what happened and wash this bad odor clean,” said retired Air Force Lt. Col. O. Delk Simpson, a top intelligence officer.
Simpson contends that hundreds of American POWs, including many blacks, were seen by a Polish refugee at Manchouli on the China-Soviet border as they boarded Soviet trains bound for Siberia in 1951 and 1952.
“This Polish refugee was working on the railroad in Manchouli and was standing just a few feet away from these American soldiers. He heard them speaking English and was close enough to draw their Air Force insignia for me,” Simpson said in a phone interview from Florida.
“This young man had everything to lose in bringing me this information, and didn’t even ask for a pack of cigarettes in return,” Simpson said. " . . . Some of those people in the State Department who are denying this evidence have forgotten they are Americans.”
Simpson’s report has been explained by the Defense Department as a probable sighting of French colonial troops being returned to their various countries through Siberia, a theory Simpson rejects.
Far more recent sightings were claimed by a staff member of a communist embassy based in Algiers, who reported that nine crewmen from a plane shot down in the Sea of Japan in 1953 were seen in August of 1973 in a Soviet slave-labor camp at Gandala.
The unnamed embassy official related the sighting to the Rev. Paul Lindstrom, an Illinois school superintendent, while Lindstrom was in Algiers in 1975 to help U.S. families get information on Vietnam POWs. In 1979, Lindstrom met with a Soviet dissident who served time in Gandala prison.
“He told me that at Gandala he had spoken to two American men from the downed flight as recently as 1975,” Lindstrom said. “It’s incredible the way the State Department can take this information and then become revisionists and say there’s no evidence any of our men are over there.”
Zygmunt Nagorski Jr., director of the Foreign News Agency in New York in the 1950s, said his foreign reporters had an extensive “source network” of truck drivers and other working-class Soviets employed at or near prisons in Molotov, Khabarovsk, Chita, Omsk, Chermoz and elsewhere.
Nagorski said his sources saw up to 2,000 imprisoned U.S. serviceman forced into hard labor or technical jobs after the Korean War. He wrote of their plight for Esquire Magazine in 1953.
In a phone interview from New York, Nagorski claimed that American POWs in Siberia still numbered about 1,000 when he lost contact with his sources in the late 1950s.
“If any are still alive, they would be worn out by a very difficult life,” Nagorski said. Meanwhile, Bill Sowles has written to a pro- glasnost magazine in Moscow pleading for help in tracing his father. The letter reportedly has been forwarded to the KGB and to Memorial, a Soviet group dedicated to uncovering atrocities from the Stalin era.
Evelyn Johnson, mother of Bill and wife of Willy Sowles, never accepted the Pentagon’s presumption that Sowles and hundreds of other soldiers must have died in communist hands. She held no funeral for her Roman Catholic husband.
“I still have a recurring dream of Willy, appearing alive and so young in front of me as I answer the doorbell,” Johnson said. “But the dream changed recently, and now I’m looking out a car window and there’s Willy, easily recognizable except for the two white streaks in his hair.”