Sometime during Veterans Day, Ray Roberts, 62, will pause, as he always does on Nov. 11, to think about Robert Lee Roberts, the older brother he barely remembers but can never forget.
"The last time I remember seeing him, he was in the kitchen talking to our mother by the cooking stove," Ray Roberts said. "I think he was home on furlough, or maybe he was just out of basic training. I was only about 5; I didn't understand what was going on. But then he left and he never came back."
Pfc. Robert Lee Roberts went missing in action with the U.S. Army's 15th Infantry Division, fighting in the Korean War on Sept. 7, 1951.
His body was never found. Ray Roberts, who lives in Irvine, has his brother's picture; his Purple Heart, which the Army sent home; and a map of Korea showing the area where his brother was lost. But 57 years later, the family still doesn't know what happened to him.
Robert Lee Roberts is just one of more than 1,400 Kentuckians still listed as missing in action from former wars. According to the Pentagon and the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs, the total includes about 1,250 missing from World War II, 203 from the Korean War, 14 from Vietnam, and five lost during the Cold War.
On this Veterans Day, their families can only wonder what their fate was.
People can go missing in battle in many different ways. Pilots are shot down over enemy territory; sailors are lost at sea. In the chaos of ground combat, soldiers might fall in rugged territory, unnoticed by comrades, and be left behind. When the fighting moves on, local residents might bury the unidentified bodies in makeshift graves, leaving them to be forgotten. Eventually, families receive word that their loved ones are missing without a trace.
"The tragedy is that you have these families still in the dark after 40, 50, even 60 years," says Marty Pinkston, deputy commissioner of the state veterans affairs department. "All they really know is that a young man went off to war when he was 18, 20 years old, and never returned. They know absolutely nothing about what became of him."
The overall number of Americans still missing in action from former wars is little short of staggering. More than 77,000 are listed as missing from World War II, 8,100 from the Korean War, 1,800 from Vietnam, and at least 120 from the Cold War.
But they have not been forgotten. The U.S. military's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, or JPAC, now has forensic crews combing old battlegrounds in many parts of the world, searching for the remains of missing Americans.
The odds of finding and identifying individuals lost in battles decades ago admittedly are long. But the search goes on because seemingly miraculous finds sometimes do happen.
Two years ago, for example, the remains of Pvt. Francis Lupo of Cincinnati were found in France and identified, 88 years after he went missing in battle during World War I. Lupo, who had Kentucky relatives, later was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. He could be the longest-missing U.S. soldier ever identified.
"The families of these missing individuals go through some very raw emotions," said Johnie Webb, a civilian deputy to the commander of JPAC, based in Hawaii. "They live with the uncertainty of not knowing what happened to their loved one. And they never have the opportunity to bring their loved one's remains home.
"They have no final resting place where they can go on special occasions, whether it's Memorial Day or Veterans Day, to pay their respects to this person they lost in war. So it means so much to them when their loved ones are found."
Those with relatives missing in action aren't the only ones waiting for word. Across the country, many families whose members fought in war are thirsty for information about what their loved ones did or how they died.
William Beigel, a California-based researcher, gets requests from a few hundred people each year, including many Kentuckians, seeking such information. Often, the requests come from individuals born long after the war ended.
"They will say something like 'I had a great uncle who was shot down in World War II, and we never heard any more about him,'" Beigel said. "Or they will say, 'Everybody in the family who knew the story is gone. Can you find out how he died?'"
Often Beigel can find out, using research skills he developed a decade ago uncovering the war service of a member of his own family.
Individuals whose Kentucky loved ones have been recovered from distant battlefields say the experience is almost too emotionally difficult to describe.
"I totally fell apart," Kentucky native Howard C. Enoch III said recently, after seeing the remains of his father, Army Lt. Howard C. "Cliff" Enoch Jr, of Western Kentucky, laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. "I said to myself, if only my mother had lived to see this. It would have meant so much to her."
Cliff Enoch, a fighter pilot from Crittenden County, was shot down over Germany in 1945 and was missing in action for 63 years. This summer, however, the Pentagon announced that his remains had been found and identified.
Howard Enoch III, who now lives in Massachusetts, was born about three weeks after his father's death.
"There was a hole in my life ... such that sometimes you wondered if you really ever had a father," Enoch said. "Now, to finally know how he died and sacrificed for our country, I'm so very proud of him."
Larry Williams of Lubbock, Texas, still gets emotional recalling his uncle, Army Cpl. Charles Anderson Williams of Carlisle, who went missing in action during brutal fighting around North Korea's Chosin Reservoir on Nov. 27, 1950. His remains finally were found and identified in 2003; he was buried at Carlisle in 2004.
"I'll never forget it," Larry Williams said. "My Dad, Thomas L. Williams of Louisville, had never called me at work before, that I can recall. But he called me that morning and said, 'Larry, they found my brother.' After 53 years, I'm sure he was in shock."
DNA powerful tool
Forensic experts were able to identify the remains of both Charles Anderson Williams and Howard C. Enoch Jr. by comparing their DNA with DNA samples provided by members of each man's family. DNA matching is the most powerful tool yet available for determining the identities of remains left on battlefields from long ago.
Experts use samples of mitochondrial DNA, which is passed along only through the mother's side of a family. As a result, only certain family members can be potential DNA donors. A father's DNA, for example, cannot be used to identify his son. But DNA from the mother, sister, brother, nephew or niece can.
Since 2001, the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs has been focusing on getting DNA samples from the families of all 203 Kentuckians still missing from the Korean War. To date, they have collected samples for 162 of those men. But that still leaves 41.
The department is trying to find family members of those 41 men and secure DNA samples so that if remains are ever found they can be identified. But after 58 years, tracing individual family members is a struggle. And Marty Pinkston, the department's deputy commissioner, says the search is fast becoming a race against time. As family members die off, he says, the pool of potential DNA donors gets ever smaller.
A few years ago, Ray Roberts gave the military a sample of his DNA in hopes that his brother Robert Lee Roberts can be identified if and when his remains are found in Korea. But so far no remains have been discovered, and Ray Roberts and his five remaining brothers and sisters can only wait and hope.
"We really don't know much of anything about what happened to him, and that's pretty hard," Ray Roberts said. "My mother died in 1995, thinking that he might still be alive somewhere. She really never did get over it."
Ray Roberts recalls that his brother, who was 21 when he disappeared, was a "holiness preacher; he preached anywhere he could find a church." He also remembers that his brother volunteered for the Army and was the only family member who ever served in the military. Many other details, however, have faded away over 57 years.
"There's really not much trace of him," he said. "But I think about him all the time."