Family finally gets official word on Korean War vet's fate

  • Published
  • By Donna Miles
  • American Forces Press Service
More than a half-century after North Korean fighter jets shot down Capt. Troy Cope's F-86 Sabre over Dandong, China, his family finally has official word of what happened to him and is preparing to bury him this May.

Chris Cope, who was born too late to ever know his uncle, calls this homecoming an extraordinary example of the U.S. military's longstanding commitment to bringing its fallen servicemembers home so they can be returned to their families.

It is a promise Army Brig. Gen. W. Montague Winfield, head of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, says the nation will carry out "no matter how long it takes" or how challenging the circumstances.

In Captain Cope's case, that took decades of keen detective work, intense political negotiations, a month-long recovery operation, and state-of-the-art identification technology, all fueled by dogged determination.

Captain Cope took off from Kimpo Air Base, South Korea, on Sept. 16, 1952, as part of a fighter sweep to protect other U.S. air missions across North Korea. The flight headed north toward "MiG Alley," an area near the Yalu River that separates North Korea from China.

Captain Cope and his wingman, Capt. Karl Dittmer, encountered MiG-15 aircraft near Yalu and engaged in a ferocious aerial dogfight. Captain Dittmer was able to chase away several of the MiGs but lost radio and visual contact with Captain Cope in the dense clouds.

For the next 52 years, Captain Cope was listed as "missing in action," with U.S. efforts to get information about him from the Chinese and North Korean governments hitting a brick wall.

Mr. Cope said he never knew his uncle, but grew up hearing much about him from his family, particularly his father, Maj. Carl Cope, who served as a pilot during World War II.

"They never gave up hope of finding out what happened to him," Mr. Cope said.

Yet for many years, the family struggled with the difficulty of not knowing the missing Airman's fate and wondering if they ever would.

"To see what my dad and his brothers went through, I can tell you that the 'not knowing' portion is just devastating," Mr. Cope said.

In 1988, the family, fearing they might never find the closure they so desperately wanted, held a memorial service in Norfolk, Ark. Now, 17 years later, the family is again making plans to honor Captain Cope -- but this time with an actual burial at a military cemetery in Plano, Texas, on May 31.

A chance observation by an American tourist and increased cooperation between China and the United States on POW and MIA cases helped provided the break in DOoD's investigation of the case.

In 1995, a U.S. businessman traveling in Dandong, visited the military museum there and noticed a display that included Captain Cope's military dog tag, as well as those of two other U.S. servicemembers. The businessman copied the information and reported it to U.S. authorities.

Again, repeated inquiries to both the Chinese and North Korean governments came up with no new information.

But four years later, analysts working for the Defense POW/MIA Personnel Office discovered documents about Captain Cope's shootdown in archives in Podolsk, Russia. Their records search, possible through an agreement with the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs established in 1992, revealed extensive details about the case, said Norm Kass, who directs the office's Russia division.

Included were statements and drawings by the Russian pilots flying the MiG-15s for the North Koreans and detailed reports about the ground search carried out by Russian and Chinese officials at the crash site.

Now armed with enough information to launch a recovery mission, the U.S. government went to the Chinese and got the green light to move forward.

In May 2004, Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command officials sent a team of specialists to Dandong to excavate the site. There, they carried out a month-long mission, recovering human remains and aircraft parts at the crash site.

Mr. Cope flew to China to observe the first two weeks of the mission.

"This was just too significant not to be a part of," he said.

Mr. Cope said he was "elated" when the team began uncovering items they believed belonged to his uncle, including a size 8 boot heel. "There was no question in my mind that we had found (his) remains," he said.

But the military requires far more concrete evidence before making an official identification. They returned to Hawaii in July and went to work at the command's Central Identification Laboratory, which uses state-of-the-art techniques to help determine the identity of recovered remains.

In just over three months, the lab staff was able to positively identify Captain Cope, and Air Force officials notified the family.

Mr. Cope said the resolution of his uncle's case brings tremendous relief to his family and proof that the military lives up to its commitment to make every effort to bring a missing servicemember home.

He said there's "no question" that the military went the extra measure to resolve an extremely complicated, longstanding case.

As the family plans the funeral -- to be held just one day after Memorial Day and exactly one year after Mr. Cope observed the recovery operation in China

-- he said he plans to invite four other families of missing servicemembers to attend.

"During the funeral, we want to pay tribute to them," Mr. Cope said. He is hopeful his own family's story will give them hope that their loved ones' fates will also be resolved.

"This sends a message to never lose hope," he said.