“Until They are Home” is one of the most sacred vows of the United States military. But as hard as the military tries to bring back and honor the fallen from war-torn countries, many families will never find out what happened to their loved ones.

By RIMSIE McCONIGA
rmcconiga@leavenworthtimes.com

“Until They are Home” is one of the most sacred vows of the United States military. But as hard as the military tries to bring back and honor the fallen from war-torn countries, many families will never find out what happened to their loved ones.
Without their loved ones’ bodies to honor with a service and burial, closure for these families is difficult and many times elusive.  
Sophia Hicks and her family know first-hand the pain that comes with hearing the acronym M.I.A.
Sophia has spent her whole life trying to locate her father, Sgt. First Class Hershel Tate, who went missing in action in Korea in 1950.

Even Sophia’s recent diagnosis and treatment for lung cancer hasn’t slowed down her search to find her father.
Hershel had joined the Civilian Conservation Corps when he was a young teen after his dad died. The CCC was part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. It was a work relief program that provided manual labor jobs to help families during the Great Depression.
Even at his young age, Hershel was determined to support his mom and feed his five siblings.
A few years later, he joined the Army and was sent to France during World War II. There, he was shot in the back but survived. He finished his military service, returned to Tennessee, married Ruby King and had two children.

A talented musician who sang and played guitar, Hershel and a friend, George Morgan, played at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, and had the opportunity to make a record, “This World’s Not My Home, I’m Only Passing Through,” which Sophia still has and treasures.
Hershel continued to work at a sawmill and when he was invited to play again at the Opry, Ruby objected.
“My mom threw a fit because she couldn’t go with him,” Sophia said. “He would go to the honky tonks and play to earn extra money. My mom would find out where he was at and go down there and beat the tar out of him and take his guitar away and break it over his head.”

When he began working in the coal mines, he realized he wouldn’t be able to make enough money to support his kids, mom and siblings, so he decided to rejoin the Army in 1948 and soon ended up in Korea.
In 1951, Ruby received a letter from the Department of the Army that he was missing in action since July 20, 1950, during an attack by enemy tanks and infantrymen. No body and no dog tags were found to verify that he was dead. The letter said that opposing forces were not allowing inspections of prison camps and Hershel’s name did not appear on the list provided by opposing forces giving the names of American service personnel supposedly being held as prisoners of war.
The family held out hope that he would return. Every time someone knocked on the door, Ruby thought it was Hershel.

“We were told since it was winter time and the weather was so bad they couldn’t dig holes to put the bodies in so they buried all the bodies in a ditch and they filled it up with gravel and that’s what they’re still doing. They just keep putting gravel over it,” says Sophia. “Dad was captured and taken to a prison camp and about two weeks after he got there he died of malnutrition. For years I used to call people in Washington, D.C., to talk about my dad. I was pretty young when I started and they would always say, ‘If we hear anything we’ll let you know.’ I just kept trying. My mom told me to stay out of it because she was scared and afraid I’d come up missing. She was afraid of the government due to the war. Finally she just threw her hands up and said if you go missing we’ll  never see you again, but if that’s what you want just go ahead.”
Ruby blamed Sophia for her dad going back into the military and his subsequent capture because he was determined to take good care of his kids.

“He said his daughter wasn’t going to be raised having nothing,” says Sophia. “I think that’s why she had so much anger for me because when I was born, he said if he couldn’t find a good paying job he would go back into the military. We lived in a shack and he said he was going to do better by his kids. My mom was angry and mean and would beat us kids and we would think we weren’t going to make it. My dad’s people wouldn’t come around to check on us kids because they were afraid. My mom thought they were trying to take her kids away and was going to shoot them.”
Hershel’s only surviving sibling, Mary Ellen Ferrell, was 9 years younger than Hershel, but she remembers him well.

“I was 15 the last time I ever saw him when he was leaving to go to Korea,” she said. “I remember how he tried to take some wood and wire and make a guitar when he was young. He could play all sorts of instruments. He was always buying me things when I was little. He bought me a tiny kerosene lamp once.”
Mary Ellen says that when Hershel was captured, he was put in a hole in the ground with many other POWs.
“They were kept in the hole with only light clothing in a very harsh winter,” she said. “Guards would throw food into the hole and the strongest men took the food and ate it. The hole was like a grave. My brother and another POW made a pact that if one of them died and the other one was released, the survivor would travel to the deceased one’s home to comfort their family.”
Hershel’s fellow POW honored the pact. When he was released from the camp, the former 6-foot-4, 280-pound soldier weighed 80 pounds. After a year’s recovery, he travelled to Hershel’s mom’s and siblings’ homes to speak to them about their loved one.

Decades later, he pulled out a pistol and began shooting at highway patrolmen in Tennessee. When captured, he was convinced he was still in Korea. He spent the remainder of his life in a mental institution.
Sophia was a baby when Hershel rejoined the service so she didn’t remember him. Her mom wouldn’t talk very much  about Hershel, but other family members told her about her dad and she soon began to feel as though she knew him very well.

“Dad was a person who liked jokes. That’s where I get it from because people say I can sure pull some stunts,” says Sophia. “I never heard anybody say anything bad about him. He loved his family. He worked hard and made sure to take care of not only his wife and kids, but his mom and brothers and sisters. Everyone said he was so kind and would give you the shirt off his back.”
Sophia’s daughter Angie Meister says, “There was a general store in town and you could put things on a tab and my grandfather would go in there and pay all the tabs for all his family members. My mom is the same way. Growing up, I had friends whose parents would kick them out and my mom would fix a big pot of beans to feed them. Nobody went hungry. Her genes are from her dad.”
One of Angie’s displaced friends ended up living with Sophia and the family for three years.   
“My mom really believed in her heart that he was going to come home. Mom also was worried that he may have stayed in Korea because he had met another woman,”  says Sophia.
When Sophia married a serviceman and moved to Fort Leavenworth, she continued her search for her dad.
Angie worked for the 35th Infantry on Fort Leavenworth in the mid-1990s. One day she spoke to a chaplain and told him about the long and ongoing family search for her grandfather.

“He immediately said, ‘Angie, let me see what I can do for you’ and five minutes later someone from Washington, D.C., called me,” says Angie. “They ended up calling my mom and sending her out to Washington. The chaplain was instrumental in getting this started. He wanted to help mom find some kind of closure. We hoped this case was misplaced and since some of them were still over there working in the prisons and other places we were hoping our grandpa could still be alive, in our heart.”

“A few months later, we had a meeting at the Kansas City airport,” says Sophia. “They had the military guys fly in. They do that every so often with the records and you can meet them and find out things. So when I got there they had my dad’s records. They explained to me that they had regular meetings in D.C. that I could come to. I was always trying to get ahold of someone who could tell me something.”
The military officials showed Sophia a government document saying that an American prisoner of war released by the communists had witnessed Hershel’s death due to malnutrition on Jan. 12, 1951, in a POW camp. Three other released soldiers also said his body was placed in a ravine with many other soldiers. So, after about 45 years, Sophia finally found out that her father was dead. But she still hopes to one day bring his body home.
Sophia has travelled to Washington, D.C., about 10 times for the special service the government hosts each year for family members of soldiers missing in action.
Hershel’s family still keeps his picture on the walls in their homes after 67 years and they still find it hard to accept that he won’t be coming home.
Government officials have told the family that it is more than likely that they will never get Hershel’s body back.
“My dad’s brother and sister and I all took DNA tests in case they located my dad’s body,” says Sophia.
Sophia also found out that her dad had been captured during a battle and was part of a group of 750 military and civilian internees called the Tiger Group, named for the ferocious nature of the North Korean guard commander. They endured a forced march of more than 100 miles over difficult terrain to a POW camp known as The Apex. Hershel made it to the first village, but when they proceeded to the second village, the harsh winter took its toll and starvation, exposure and pneumonia took the lives of many of the men. By the time Hershel got to the second village, he was suffering from severe malnutrition.
There are 7, 800 soldiers still missing from the Korean War. About 5,400 of them were lost in North Korea. Hershel’s body is in North Korea near the Demilitarized Zone.

With missile sites and mine fields in the area of the mass grave, the likelihood of locating the body is slim. U.S. search and recovery teams used to operate in North Korea, but ceased in 2005 due to safety concerns when diplomatic relations between the two countries grew tense and negotiations failed to stop North Korea’s missile program. Joint North Korean and U.S. search teams had recovered 229 sets of remains prior to 2005. But many people claimed that North Korea was involved in the search only to get exorbitant amounts of money from the U.S. for the bodies. It was even derogatorily referred to as “bones for bucks.”
“The North Koreans were getting paid for the bodies and the longer they waited, the more money they made,” says Sophia. “They were getting paid a lot for each body, so they would get a couple of bodies out and close the hole up. Now, it’s not worth taking the chance that search and rescue people might get injured or killed trying to retrieve the bodies.”

The family and the Department of Veterans Affairs have arranged for a full military service at 1:30 p.m. Friday at Leavenworth National Cemetery. Sophia’s granddaughter, Brittany Raney, works at the VA and helped arrange the memorial and sent the letter for approval. The public is invited to attend the service.
“It’s taken my mom 67 years to get him the respect that he deserves and should have had a long time ago,” says Angie as she breaks down crying. “When we went to the VA recently to arrange his service, they had just put his tombstone up and my mom was finally able to put flowers on it and touch it after all these years. It’s just nice that he’s finally being recognized and the people at the cemetery were wonderful to us. The Leavenworth and Fort Leavenworth community helped my mom immensely. So many people helped her get information. We consider this as home because we are so thankful that friends and even strangers helped us so much to find information. That chaplain’s one phone call opened the door for us. We were originally from Tennessee because that’s where our people are, but Leavenworth is our home. When we go back to visit Tennessee, we can’t wait to get back here, because this is our home. Mom could have chosen anywhere to have the service, but she picked the VA because that’s where he belongs, with the other veterans.”
To many people’s surprise, there is a memorial for American service members who fought in the Korean War in Busan, South Korea.

Angie’s neighbor, Allen Lechner, worked for a military contractor and often went to South Korea. He took photos of the War Memorial of Korea and photographed Hershel’s name.
“The South Koreans said they wouldn’t have their freedom if it hadn’t been for the United States, so they put up the memorial wall with all the names of soldiers killed and missing listed under the state they were from,” says Angie.

Allen and his wife, Dianne, even put together a remembrance book with some photographs for Angie and Sophia. Allen also brought back a small piece of the fence from the DMZ in the Korean War for Sophia.
Sophia knows she could have arranged this ceremony years ago but she wanted to wait until his body was returned. When she went though cancer treatment, she knew she needed to go ahead and find closure.
Although the family still holds out hope that Hershel’s body will one day be found and returned, they have accepted Sophia’s decision to put up a gravestone and honor his life with the military service which will include a 21-gun salute, Taps, Patriot Riders, VFW and American Legion members.

A former Hallmark employee, Sophia has received a lot of help from Dave Buehler, Hallmark production manager and Navy captain, who asked her if he could present her with the flag at the ceremony, and Glen Matney, a Hallmark retiree and chaplain who will officiate at the service.
For Sophia and Angie, the upcoming military ceremony will be the culmination of decades of waiting, hoping and dead-end attempts to bring their loved one’s body back home.

His body will remain in North Korea until – and if – the ongoing hostilities between North Korea and the U.S. can someday be resolved.

But for Hershel Tate’s family, the technicalities of not being able to retrieve his earthly remains will not hinder their unbreakable bond with him as Taps is played at his service.