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Maryland

Local soldier's bones return from Korea: '66 years and I'm getting him back'

Army Cpl. David J. Wishon Jr., 18, of Baltimore, went missing during the Korean War. He will be buried Friday in Arlington National Cemetery. Courtesy photo

The porcelain cheeks of the doll are still glossy, the pursed lips still pink, the glass eyes still blue after all these years.

The doll was a Christmas gift in 1942 to Celia "Joy" Gray from her older brother, whom she called "Buddy." The Army would call him Cpl. David Wishon Jr.

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Only now, at age 82, had Gray considered parting with her childhood doll, returning it to her brother. That's because Wishon's remains, missing since the Korean War, are finally coming home for burial.

"We get to open the casket one time," she said this week.

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Wishon, from Baltimore, was 18 when he went missing in Korea three weeks before Christmas 1950. He was declared dead in 1953.

On Friday, his recently identified remains are to be interred at Arlington National Cemetery. It will be the latest burial in an exhaustive two-decade effort to identify Americans missing in Korea, a feat of forensic research that is still astounding to Gray.

"Oh, what a story how they found my brother's bones, not dust, as I thought," she wrote in remarks for his funeral. "[They] showed me how they put his remaining bones together, piece by piece, nine bones in all so far. They may find more, plus small fragments, tooth enamel, bone dust and sediment. The Army took my two sisters' DNA and was able to match it to my brother, Buddy. ... What a story!"

More than 7,800 Americans remain missing from the Korean War, and more than 80,000 from all conflicts, according to the Department of Defense agency behind the homecoming effort.

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency employs more than 700 workers, some at labs around the world. Its researchers have identified hundreds of Americans missing in the Korean War and other conflicts stretching back to the World War II.

In Korea, the effort began in the early 1990s. North Korea returned about 200 boxes of bones, all jumbled together, now believed to hold the remains of at least 600 Americans. Researchers are collecting DNA from recovered remains and from surviving family members to make matches.

Gray's phone rang in August.

"Sixty-six years and I'm getting him back," she said Wednesday night at her Essex home.

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The walls are covered with photos of smiling children, cases of albums and shelves of statuettes, dolls and Christmas snowmen. And in the china cabinet, behind glass doors, sits the porcelain doll.

"One time I was going to hock it," said her husband, William Gray Jr., with a laugh.

She grinned.

"I would have killed you."

Gray's brother bought the doll with his pay as a golf caddy. They were two years apart and had a close relationship. When she was young and couldn't walk — perhaps because of polio — it was Buddy who taught her to roll up her dress and step forward, one leg, then the other. It was Buddy right there, ready to catch her.

Then it was Buddy graduating from Kenwood High School in the late 1940s and going to war in Medical Company, 31st Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division.

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In January 1951, the letter came from a major general: Her brother was missing.

"My mom did not tell me for a little while because me and my brother were so close," Gray said. "She didn't know what would happen to me; she was scared."

For years, Gray's mother would leave the door of the family home unlocked, just in case her son returned.

His infantry division had endured four nights and three days of attack by the Chinese People's Volunteer Forces, according to a Department of Defense account.

By December 1950, the soldiers on the east side of the Chosin Reservoir were short on supplies. Commanders decided to fight their way south, and they loaded the wounded on trucks. Their convoy encountered blown bridges, road blocks, endless attacks. The few survivors scattered.

Three years later, the major general wrote again.

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"The Department of the Army has entertained hope that he survived and that information would be received dispelling the uncertainty surrounding his absence," he wrote. "The Army must terminate such absence by a presumptive finding of death."

Cpl. David Wishon Jr. was declared dead December 1953, the week after Christmas.

"It tore my mom up. It tore her to pieces," Gray said. "He was the only boy, and he was everything to us."

North Korea returned boxes of bones between 1990 and 1994. American researchers uncovered more bones in 2000. From both searches came the nine bones of her brother. His bottom jaw, with four teeth, matched military dental records.

His remains are to be buried with full military honors.

But the porcelain doll, Gray finally decided, won't go with him.

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It will stay in the china cabinet of her Essex home, a reminder of her big brother, missing nearly 66 years, who finally came home.

tprudente@baltsun.com


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