Norwich woman hopes relations with North Korea will bring brother's remains home

Anna Baton was a teenager when her mother received a telegram informing the family that her brother, Army Sgt. Alfred Devanno of Norwich, who went missing in action while fighting in the Korean War, was presumed dead.

More than 65 years later, his remains are still unaccounted for.

"I say a prayer every night that they find something to give us closure," Baton, 82, of Norwich, said.

After his historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un this month, President Donald Trump announced a commitment by both sides to recover the remains of American troops missing from the war, raising the possibility that the families of those still unaccounted for might finally get closure. The joint statement signed by Trump and Kim states, in part, "The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified."

"It's a great first step," said Kathy Shemeley, who founded the New Milford-based organization Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Connecticut Forget-Me-Nots with her husband Bill, who served as a combat medic in Vietnam. The group, around since the 1980s, advocates for the return of prisoners and war and those missing in action, and assists families with information.

Right after the Korean War, there was a "great deal of activity and action in terms of finding out what happened," but that waned, Shemeley said. "The more time that passes, it becomes difficult."

She also called attention to the 900 American troops who were alive at the end of the Korean War, and the many unanswered questions surrounding them.

Baton said she's not sure what to make of the announcement by Trump until more information is available, but she does hope it could lead to her brother's remains being recovered and identified, so the family can get some closure.

Sixty-five years after the war ended, 7,697 U.S. troops are still unaccounted for, about 5,300 of whom are located in North Korea, according the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. As of Dec. 13, 2017, the agency listed 77 Connecticut residents, most of whom served in the Army, as missing.

Since the war ended, there's been sporadic progress to recover the remains of Americans from North Korea, but tensions over the North Korea's nuclear program has stalled those efforts over the years.

Even with recovery, identification is a cumbersome process. Researchers, using military records and forensic identification tools, including DNA analysis, are still working to identify the more than 200 boxes of "heavily" commingled remains of U.S. service members that North Korea turned over between 1990 and 1994. A military official, in a 2016 interview with The Day, compared the process to piecing together a jigsaw puzzle.

Since 2011, the remains of at least three Connecticut residents who went missing during the Korean War have been identified and returned to their families, including recently, a Stonington soldier whose remains were returned to his family nearly 70 years after he was reported missing.

The man, Harry Harkness, an Army sergeant, went missing on Nov. 2, 1950. In 1996, his wife, after hearing about North Korea returning the remains, submitted DNA from her and from the couple's son. But it wasn't until earlier this year that Harkness' remains were returned to his family. He was buried in Michigan on March 17 next to his wife and son.

Baton and her brother, John submitted DNA about 15 to 20 years ago but it has not yet led to the identification of her brother Alfred's remains.  Her mother, who is deceased, "never gave up," she said, adding that she wouldn't let the family place a headstone for him.

Last fiscal year, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency accounted for 183 Americans, 42 of whom were missing from the Korean War. Since the start of this fiscal year on Oct. 1, 2017, the agency has identified 19 Americans who were missing from the Korean War.

Most Korean War veterans are in their mid to late 80s. If they were married when they went to war, in many cases, their spouses are now deceased, often left without answers.

"We're talking in many cases to nieces, great nieces, trying to find answers for the family," said Shemeley.

Families are turning to researchers and groups like hers to try and find answers.

If remains are returned en mass, universities and others will need to get involved, Shemeley said.

"We're talking decades of work at rate they're going," she said. "The process of identifications has to be set where everything is organized in such a way so we can trust the identification. How are they going to manage that?"

There've been cases of misidentification, she said, and people being identified without conclusive evidence.

For her part, Baton is hoping "before I pass that they would find something."

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