The Saturday before Veterans Day, on a glorious autumn day when Boiseans were honoring veterans with a festive parade, Jorja Reyburn wasn’t there. Instead, she was in a quiet meeting room with officials from the Department of Defense who were reporting their painfully slow progress to families of service members who have never returned from war.
From World War II through the Cold War, 82,423 service members are still missing in action. One of those is Reyburn’s father, 1st Lt. James Elliott, who raised his hand to go to Korea. He’s been missing for 67 years.
“I just feel like he knows that we’re keeping up the good fight,” Reyburn says. “And I think he’d be proud that we haven’t given up on him. And, of course, we never will.”
A POW/MIA flag flies out front of Reyburn’s Star home. Inside, she’s turned the dining room into a memorial for her father to keep him present in her mind and in her life. A quilt in memory of her father hangs in red, white and blue on the wall next to photos and her nephew’s sketch of Elliott. On the table, a 6-inch tall binder is crammed with detailed information she’s gathered and supporting documents are piled neatly in stacks beside.
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“I was hoping we would have resolved this in my mom’s lifetime,” Reyburn says. But her mother died in 2015, and Reyburn made a promise to her. Her daughters and her nephews are on notice about their responsibilities as well when the time comes to pass on the search.
“I’m hoping. I mean, my oldest grandchild is 30 years old. And my dad was 29 when he went missing. It’s just something our family will keep up with until — until he’s home.”
• • •
As soon as he turned 18 in 1939, Elliott joined the National Guard. He then joined the Army in 1944. Although he went AWOL from a hospital in an attempt to join his unit shipping overseas, an appendectomy kept him stateside. “Thank God he was sent back to the hospital,” Reyburn says, “or we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Elliott met Reyburn’s mother after he was discharged from service in Southern California, but he missed the military life and re-enlisted in 1946.
“Then the war broke out and my dad was one of the first to sign up,” she said. “… That’s just how he was.”
Elliott called home the night he was shipping out — as he and his wife had arranged — but Reyburn’s mother was in the hospital with, coincidentally, her own appendectomy. In the days before phones were ubiquitous, he tried at the hospital but missed her.
“They never spoke again,” Reyburn says.
Elliott landed in Korea on Aug. 9 and was reported missing Aug. 27, 1950.
• • •
Reyburn’s mother happened to have taken a photo of Reyburn and her brother riding their tricycles one day. On it, she’s written: “Sept. 10, 1950. Date of telegram.” Reyburn was only 2 years old and has no memories of her father.
“And not only did I not know my dad,” she said, “but my brother and I were never told what happened to our dad. We just knew we didn’t have a dad, for whatever reason. We had pictures of our dad, but we didn’t know what the association was.”
Back then, she says, single-parent families were unusual and kids at school would tease them. Then her mother remarried, so she had a different last name than them, and kids teased them about that, too. When Reyburn took her First Communion, however, the communion certificate said “status of father: defunct.”
“I was 9 years old. … I got the dictionary out and I looked it up,” she said. “It said ‘no longer exists.’ I thought, wow, but I never asked my mother. I just accepted the fact.”
Later, after Reyburn’s stepfather died, she talked with her mother.
“She said, ‘Well, back in those days, people just didn’t talk about it,’ ” Reyburn said.
• • •
And then came the internet. One day in the 1990s, Reyburn sat down and typed her father’s name on a computer — and she got results. His name showed up in the National Archives.
“I felt like I’d won the lottery,” she says. “(The search) just kind of takes on a life of its own. One thing leads to another and I would spend literally hours …”
She pauses. “I think it’s love (that keeps me looking). And I made the promise to my mom that I would keep up the search.”
She wipes away tears and holds up a bumper sticker to express her emotions: “When one American is not worth the effort to be found, we as Americans have lost.”
• • •
First Lt. Elliott was involved in the battle of Naktong Bulge, along the Naktong River in Korea. Reyburn has detailed maps and points to Hill 409 where her father volunteered for night patrol. Five men were killed that night. Three bodies were recovered; two were not.
There are theories. One is that Elliott was killed that night and his body was taken, first to a temporary cemetery nearby and later to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl Crater in Honolulu.
That’s what her brother firmly believes, and that their father was misidentified or his dog tags lost. There is evidence that supports this: Reyburn, her mother and brother interviewed two servicemen. One witnessed their father’s body being placed on a tank, removed from the battlefield and taken to the temporary cemetery. The second serviceman kept a handwritten pocket notebook that records Elliott as killed that night. Not all of the names in his notebook are accurate — but enough of them to give his account great credibility in Reyburn’s eyes.
The military, however, believes the North Koreans took his uniform and that his body hasn’t been recovered yet. Reyburn doesn’t buy that.
Another, more painful, theory: A prisoner of war returnee gave an official report that says he saw Elliott at a POW camp in North Korea. Officials have told Reyburn that wouldn’t have been possible, that no one could survive a march that long and that arduous. She gets out the maps again. It’s a long way.
“But here is another soldier (that I’ve learned about) that went missing in South Korea on Sept 6, right around the time that my dad did. … He died while captured as a POW, so he survived the march. If he survived the march, why couldn’t my dad survive the march?”
That’s not the story Reyburn wants to believe — she’s learned way more than she wants to know about the horrors of the Korean War. But knowing anything with some sense of certainty would be better than nothing.
• • •
In 2015, Reyburn and her brother went to South Korea as part of the Korea Revisit Program, where American soldiers, killed or missing, and their families, were honored by South Korea.
“It was absolutely incredible,” she says. “They are so thankful for their freedom.”
Reyburn and her brother went to the area where their father went missing for a ceremony along the Naktong River. The South Koreans presented them with a pair of wreaths decorated with ribbons naming their father. Reyburn brought one of the wreaths home, but the other, they placed in the river’s current along with some of their mother’s ashes.
“Sunny Lee, our guide, told us it was a Korean custom that when you put a wreath in the river like that, that the souls are reunited,” Reyburn says. “And it was just a beautiful ceremony.”
This January, Reyburn and her husband will host two cadets from the Korea Army Academy. They couldn’t be more excited and proud. It’s part of a new program called Heroes Remembered and they’ll take the cadets to the VA Medical Center, the Veterans Home and the VFW so they can personally thank as many Korean War veterans as possible. “We’re going to show them Boise,” Reyburn says. “And tell them all about our dad.”
• • •
On the Saturday before Veterans Day, Reyburn and her brother got a glimmer of hope, the first they’ve ever had: Some unidentified remains are going to be tested to see if they’re a match.
They’re cautiously optimistic.
She’s also questioning some smudges on her father’s Deceased Personnel File. It looks like information has been erased — or at least it’s illegible — under the headings “cemetery, plot, row and grave.” A historian with the disinterment program has promised to search for the original records. Although, Reyburn notes, the wheels of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency turn excruciatingly slowly. (The agency, in fact, has been taken to task by Congress for inefficiency and expense.)
She’s become a de facto CSI detective, following tiny leads, checking and cross-checking names, places, dates. When she and her brother interviewed two men who served with her father, they recorded their interviews, double-checked their stories, and submitted the evidence to the accounting agency.
“I know a lot of people are probably wondering why I get so emotional after so many years,” she says. “I mean, I’m 69 years old. I never really knew my father.”
Reyburn hunts for an analogy. Like, if, say, one of your relatives went to the store and vanished.
“You would always hope that that person would come back, or you would always wonder what in the world happened to that person,” she says. “And you would never give up the search.
“That’s how I feel about my dad. You can never give up on love.”
Who are still missing?
Korean War: 7,717 service members still missing; 23 of whom are from Idaho. Two have already been accounted for, including Cpl. Charles Crofts, who was identified on June 16, 2016, and Sgt. 1st Class Richard Cushman, who was identified April 12, 2017.
Vietnam War: 1,602 service members still missing; seven are from Idaho.
Cold War: 126 service members still missing; one is from Idaho.
World War II: 72,978 service members missing; 333 are from Idaho.