Herald Journal, July 11, 2005
Remains of Winsted man's relative returned from North Korea
By Ryan Gueningsman
A Winsted man and his family have finally put a 55-year-old family mystery behind them following years of research and years of hope that one day, a missing family member would return home.
Glen Strom of Winsted had a second cousin, Cpl. John O. Strom, who went missing during the Korean War in 1950 and, up until 2002, had never been accounted for, never shown up on any prisoner of war (POW) or missing in action (MIA) rosters, and seemed to have disappeared without a trace while fighting in the United States Army.
Growing up, Glen heard the story countless times about his father’s first cousin, Cpl. Strom, who, at age 17, went off to serve in the military in early 1950.
“We had a total of 15 people uncles that served in World War II from my family, and all of them came home,” Glen said. “So, John is the first and only POW or MIA we’ve ever had in my family with all these vets. We grew up hearing about John, but didn’t really know what his demise was.”
Cpl. Strom’s father, also named John, would have dreams about his son coming home up until the day he died, Glen said. “It’s kind of weird because there is that song ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home,’ and that’s just what it was.”
Glen’s mother, Leona Strom, being a family history buff, contacted the United States Army, trying to find out more information about Cpl. Strom in the late 1990s.
Leona was put in touch with the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office in Washington, D.C., and began putting the story together.
“This branch is strictly set up for MIA recovery and POW return,” Glen said. “She heard about the initiative to try to match up remains that had been found in North Korea by using DNA testing.”
Several of Glen’s family members submitted DNA samples, and to the entire family’s disbelief, an almost exact match was found. From there, the Strom family slowly learned where Cpl. Strom had been for the past 50-plus years.
In 1989, a North Korean farmer was putting in a new shed on the mountain-side of his farm and came across human remains.
“Out of respect, he reburied them and marked him this time,” Glen said. “Our relationship with North Korea is not good they’re very skeptical of us. For that farmer to do that that really took a lot on his part.”
In 2002, North Korean and United States governments negotiated the return of these remains to the United States. At that time, the remains were exhumed and an archeological search of the area was done. Moving right along with the speed of government, it was not until early this year that the DNA test was proven to be a near-exact match.
“They returned him home here June 28, and we buried him with full honors June 29,” Glen said. “We could have buried him at Arlington, but we opted to have him buried with his parents because that is the one thing that haunted them until their death.”
Found near the spot Cpl. Strom was originally discovered was another surprise one of his dog tags embedded into the side of a tree.
“Some soldier, in haste, buried John and attempted to mark where to find him by probably embedding that dog tag into that tree,” Glen said. “The second dog tag is missing in all probability, the solder, or soldiers, who buried him were either killed, lost his dog tag, or were taken captive and the dog tag was taken from them.”
Cpl. Strom’s recovered dog tag was eventually returned to his sister, Dorothy Friskop.
“Even in near death, they treated him with honor,” Glen said. “And this farmer, who we don’t even know his name, thought enough of another human being’s grave site to not just dispose of the remains, but rather treated them with respect. That would be something to ever be able to communicate with that farmer.”
While attending Cpl. Strom’s funeral, Glen had the opportunity to speak with a solider who was in Cpl. Strom’s division, who told him the horrifying tale of the unit.
“He explained that they fought to the death and to the point of hand-to-hand combat,” Glen said. “They kept running out of ammo, so they’d take dead men’s weapons, and there was very few of them that actually escaped being killed or captured.”
“He was in one of the hugest defensive battles of North Korea. The United States came into South Korea and pushed the Koreans all the way to the Chinese border,” Glen said. “There were three divisions there that came under attack by a quarter of a million Chinese.”
Two of the three divisions escaped with minimal loss of life or injury. The third division, Cpl. Strom’s, was not so lucky.
“They were surrounded,” Glen said. “There were about 660 men, out of 1,000 in that unit, killed or MIA or POW and he never showed up on any of these rosters that were released.”
The Department of Defense said Cpl. Strom’s unit, the 1st Battalion, 8th Calvary Regiment, came under attack by Chinese communist forces on Nov. 1, 1950, near the village of Unsan.
His battalion evacuated, and fighting continued for several days. By Nov. 4, those men who escaped went to friendly lines south of the Kuryong River, but more than 380 soldiers of the regiment were unaccounted for.
There are about 88,000 Americans who are listed as missing in action, including about 8,100 missing due to the Korean War, according to the defense department.
There were more than 200 people that attended Cpl. Strom’s funeral people from the Fergus Falls High School, where Cpl. Strom went to school, active and retired military, and countless others.
“It was very impressive,” Glen said. “It was very touching but at the same time, it was a very joyous time for our family and for some of these vets to see him come home. It came at such a unique time, a week before the Fourth of July, and we’re at war right now,” Glen said. “We have plenty of neighbors from our area that are over there fighting for our country no one’s going to forget if something should happen.”
“This is a person I’ve never met, but yet, he’s part of our American history and sacrifice, and he’s a part of our family, even though he’s been deceased for 50-some years,” Glen said. “He’d be 72 years old if he were still alive today.”
Reflecting on the recent unique events surrounding Cpl. Strom’s return home, Glen said the minister who presided at the service said it best when he commented, “this will be the only time I probably ever preside over a funeral for someone who died before I was born.”