Dare she even hope?
For 66 years, Susan Hall has waited for her father to return. Hope that he would return alive after his B-29 Superfortress bomber was shot down over North Korea has long since faded to thin, and then to nothing.
But with the return of 55 boxes of remains of U.S. service men who died during the Korean War, and possibly their allies, from North Korea two weeks ago, she can’t help but to grasp for at least a thread of wonder.
The odds that the remains of Air Force Capt. James Lowe Jr. are in one of those boxes tally up to slightly better than zero.
Lowe is one of 7,691 American servicemen who remain unaccounted for from the Korean War, and one of about 5,300 believed to have died in North Korea. The math alone cuts against hope.
“It would just be unbelievable,” said Hall, 77. “You just for so many years, you’re holding this and just wanting.”
But she can’t help but be lifted by the prospect that any of the thousands of families of MIAs might get an answer, even if she doesn’t.
Hall and her mother, Fran Lowe, before she died in 2007, refused to let the memory of their father and husband wither, or to give up hope that he might come home one day, even if only to be buried.
Yet when the news flashed that one outcome of President Donald Trump’s June 12 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would be the return of remains, Hall didn’t immediately leap to joy.
“Initially it was, I didn’t know how to feel. That’s strange I know,” she said. And then, “OK, this could be really going to happen, maybe they really are going to send them home this time. And then you think it would just be way too big of a miracle for Dad to be in that.”
In the case of Lowe, miracle might be even greater than in most cases. The circumstances of his death and whereabouts remain in a fog of mystery.
Lowe, 32, a Roanoke native, was a career military pilot flying his first mission in the war in September 1952. His task was to pilot his bomber with 11 crew members from Okinawa, Japan, almost due north about 900 miles to bomb a hydroelectric dam and power plant on the Yalu River, which forms the border between North Korea and China.
The bomber was shot out of the sky near its heavily fortified target. Initial accounts reported anti-aircraft guns on the ground struck it, triggering a mid-air explosion. But several years ago, during a thaw in relations with Russia, Hall and her mother visited Washington, D.C., and were permitted to ask questions of Russian military leaders. That led to the release of documents indicating that the plane was shot down by a Russian fighter jet.
Most accounts indicate only one known survivor of the crew, who was taken prisoner and later returned to the U.S. But some accounts say witnesses saw two parachutes bloom in the sky after the explosion.
And then there’s the strange phone call Hall’s mother received soon after the war from a man who said he was a missionary who had just returned from North Korea, where he met James Lowe in a prison camp and said he was about to be taken to Russia.
If that’s true, Lowe might not be in North Korea at all. If he survived, he might have been imprisoned elsewhere in North Korea and died there.
It seems most likely that he died in the crash, just south of the Yalu River.
“I want to say, ‘Right there by the river, that’s where the plane is. Go get it,’ ” Hall said.
Retrieving any remains, however, has been difficult. They are difficult to locate, and even then their return is complicated by perpetually strained relations with North Korea.
Since 1990, the remains of just 340 service members have been repatriated, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. The last were released in 2005.
And then there’s the difficulty in identifying them using service and dental records, radiographs and DNA testing. Hall and her father’s brother, now deceased, have both donated DNA samples the Defense Department keeps on file for comparison.
However slender the chance that James Lowe will make it back to Roanoke, a measure of hope endures. His family never fully recovered from his loss. Fran Lowe dated but never remarried.
Two years ago, Hall traveled with a delegation to South Korea where the nation lavished its thanks on American servicemen’s families for their sacrifices on behalf of the country more than six decades ago.
Hall still cries at the thought of the man who taught her to swim and play golf and play the piano. She was a “Dad’s girl.”
She annually returns to Washington for meetings of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, where families are briefed on the latest developments regarding discovery and identification of the missing from Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War.
Many families sign up for one-on-one updates with Pentagon officials, but after years of hearing no news and continued promises that they are still looking, Hall isn’t bothering with one this year.
But she was back in Washington for the annual meeting this week, where she expected those 55 boxes would be all the buzz.
So far, the only identifiable item in those boxes is a lone dogtag belonging to Master Sgt. Charles H. McDaniel, an Army medic. Hall hoped she would be there to see it presented to McDaniel’s sons this week. That happened a day before she arrived.
That anyone like her should be so fortunate pleased Hall.
“I think you just end up just being happy that there’s going to be 55 at least families that are going to have an answer,” she said. “And I can’t help but be excited for them.”
Hall has long fantasized about her father’s remains being identified and returned. It’s a dream a bit fraught with pain, because her mother and younger sister, who was just three when Lowe left for Korea, have since died and they wouldn’t be here to see the story find it’s end.
But a few days ago her son, Robert Preddy, pointed out something she admits a woman of deep Christian faith like her should have seen for herself: they’re all together in eternity and have been for years.
Here on earth, should his remains be found, Hall knows exactly what she will do.
“I’m not going to do anything but go get him, bring him back to Roanoke to home,” Hall said. There’s a gravesite next to her mother’s with a plaque on it marking it for Air Force Capt. James Lowe Jr., MIA, and that’s where he’ll finally land.
“It’s his place waiting on him,” she said.