MISSOULA — Lucille Walker called him “Jay” for short. For many years, she didn’t know her brother’s real name was Luther. She was just 16 when she last saw him.
That was the winter of 1948, the holiday season, she believes. They were wearing coats – she knows that much for sure.
“I remember a lot of things,” Walker said on Tuesday. “My brother was a good guy. He loved kids. I try to think about it, and I can’t remember ever having one argument with him.”
Walker’s brother, Cpl. Luther Jesse James, is coming home 62 years after the U.S. Army listed him as MIA during the Korean War. His remains will arrive Wednesday in Spokane and his burial is set for Saturday in Hamilton.
Receiving her brother more than six decades after she last saw him fills Walker with emotion. She still remembers that day in 1950 when her mother called to tell her the news.
James, originally of Kansas, had gone missing near Hagaru-ri on the banks of the Chosin Reservoir during a fighting withdrawal. It was a lifetime ago, it now seems to Walker, who’s 80 years old.
“They said he was just missing to start with,” Walker recalled. “But when North Korea released its POWs, there were guys who’d been with my brother, and they had witnessed his death.
“They said he died from no medical care and starvation. I always hoped that maybe he’d found a girl over there he liked and stayed. But he would never have done that. He loved his mother too much.”
Between 1991 and 1994, North Korea turned over to the United States around 208 boxes of remains once believed to contain around 200 American service members. But scientists working with the POW-Missing Personnel Office quickly realized that the boxes contained many more — as many as 400 service members.
The commingled remains — fragments of men who had died at different times and in separate locations — would take years to sort through. A nurse from Missoula arrived at Walker’s home in Victor a decade ago to collect blood, lending DNA to the DOD’s team of sleuths.
Maj. Carie Parker, an Air Force spokesperson with the POW-Missing Personnel Office in Washington, D.C., said scientists turned to forensic identification tools, such as radiograph and mitochondrial DNA, to separate the commingled remains and make a positive identification.
More than 7,900 U.S. service members remain unaccounted for from the Korean War. Of those, 28 have a Montana home of record, and none of them have ever been accounted for. Around 18 Montanans remain unaccounted for from the Vietnam War. Just four have been identified and interred.
“When North Korea shipped my brother’s remains over, they were in three different boxes,” Walker said. “It took them a while to figure it all out. It was a great day when they confirmed it. I just never did think it would happen.”
Laura Walker, the wife of James’ nephew, Randall Walker, said DOD representatives sat down with the family three weeks ago to explain the events surrounding James’ disappearance.
It happened on Dec. 2, 1950, when James was assigned to the 31st Regimental Combat Team. He was serving with “Task Force Faith” under the command of Lt. Col. Faith.
As the DOD tells it, the task force was advancing along the eastern banks of the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea. After coming under attack, the unit began a fighting withdrawal.
That’s when James went missing. It was later reported that he’d died from starvation and a lack of medical care while a POW in North Korea.
“There was a lady from Kentucky, and they brought a gentleman over from Fort Harrison,” said Laura Walker. “They told us what happened that day. It’s been a pretty amazing experience, what the military has gone through to identify him.”