NEW: Okeechobee family waits for body of GI who died in North Korea

Dec 08, 2017
Edith Hansel Hester, sitting in her home in Okeechobee, Fla., on Dec. 2, 2017, holds a photograph of her brother, Earl Hansell, who died in 1951 in a North Korean prisoner-of-war camp. (Eliot Kleinberg/The Palm Beach Post)

Edith Hansel Hester has a spot reserved for her in the family plot at Evergreen Cemetery in Okeechobee.

There’s a spot for her brother Earl as well. She’s been waiting for 66 years, and counting, for him to come home.

Earl Hansel as a sailor in World War II (family photo)

Earl Henry Hansel, 26, died in a North Korean prisoner of war camp in 1951. His remains still are there.

Tensions between the North Korean government and the United States suggest little likelihood that will change.

“North Korea has not returned any further remains to the United States, and the U.S. Government has suspended recovery efforts inside North Korea until North Korea’s actions indicate a willingness and ability to live up to its commitments,” the Defense Department’s Ken Hoffman said this month

Edith Hansel Hester, sitting in her home in Okeechobee, Fla., on Dec. 2, 2017, holds a photograph of her brother, Earl Hansell, who died in 1951 in a North Korean prisoner-of-war camp. (Eliot Kleinberg/The Palm Beach Post)

“He was a wonderful brother.” Earl Hansel’s sister, Edith Hester, now 96, said this month, rocking in her easy chair in the living room of her home in Okeechobee. Six decades after her family received a gold star, her voice still caught with emotion.

The military says the best opportunity to make a match came in in the early 1990s, when some remains were recovered.

“My sister and I had our DNA done,” Hester said. “That was the last that we knew about it.”

‘Under review’

Earl was one of six children of Henry Morgan Hansel and Lillian Driggers Hansel, but was the only boy among five daughters.

Earl Hansel, on far right, at Okeechobee High School, in the mid 1940s. (Family photo)

“Earl’s family lived in an area called ‘Bluefield,’ on the county line between St. Lucie and Okeechobee counties,” Okeechobee County historian Betty Chandler Williams wrote The Palm Beach Post. “All of the Hansel children attended school in Okeechobee.”

Earl Hansel served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He returned to civilian life after the war. But in the fall of 1950, when hostilities broke out on the Korean peninsula, he re-upped. He went to Korea in January 1951. A photo shows his parents seeing him off at the train station in nearby Sebring.

Earl Hansel with his parents at the Sebring train station as he headed off during the Korean War. (family photo)

“He really didn’t have to go. My dad begged him not to go,” Edith Hester said Dec. 2. “But he loved the military. And he wanted to go over there instead of they might come over here.”

The Defense Department’s official entry for the incident that led to Hansel’s capture reads:

“In mid-May 1951, the U.S. Army’s 38th Infantry Regiment was holding a defensive position on a hill crest between the Hongchong and Soyang rivers, in the central sector of the larger U.N. defensive line called the ‘No Name Line.’ Their position was strong, but on May 16 it came under attack from overwhelming numbers of Chinese and North Korean troops. The attack was slowed, but not stopped, by minefields, barbed wire, and heavy artillery fire. The enemy eventually began overrunning the area, forcing parts of the regiment to fall back to new positions.”

By May 18, the entry says, “enemy units were infiltrating to the rear of the regiment and some companies had to redeploy to face this threat from behind. The 38th Infantry ultimately held the line, but suffered many casualties during this massive attack.”

Earl Hansel (family photo)

The military says Hansel was captured May 19 “during intense combat as the 38th Infantry fought to hold its position. After his capture, he was transferred north with other prisoners to the Suan Mining Camp POW facility.”

“That was the last of the real big POW captures,” Ted Barker, who operates the online Korean War Project, said in November from Dallas. “Originally, they were looking in the range of 2,500 men.”

Palm Beach Post coverage: Bringing Tiny Home

He said the mining complex where Hansel died “was a transitory camp, and there was an intermediate camp on the way to the Yaly River ‘apex’ camps.”

Barker said the Chinese actually saved many American lives by taking over control of the stark labor camps from the North Koreans. But not Earl. He was one of 552 Floridians to die in that war.

At least three colleagues told the military they saw Hansel die, officially of malnutrition.

John H. Robinson of Belmont, N.C., said he believed Hansel died of dysentery. Silvester Badgett said Hansel died during a march between two POW camps. And Jesse Clay said Earl was buried at a school along with his dog tags. None of the men could be reached; databases suggest most or all have died.

On Dec, 1, 1953, five months after the armistice in Korea, the U.S. Defense Department notified the Hansels that their son had died two years earlier, on Aug. 3, 1951.

That “was the first word they had heard as to his fate,” since he was reported missing, a small Miami Daily News story said on Dec. 2.

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency has been trying to recover and identify fallen members of the military since 1995; it was that agency that made the firm identification which allowed the return for burial of West Palm Beach World War II hero Richard “Tiny” Sowell.

But the military says investigators “have not been able to access the area to search for his (Hansel) burial site and his remains have not been identified among those returned to U.S. custody.” It officially lists Hansel’s case as “under review.”

‘Courts of the Missing’

“The Agency is well aware of Corporal Earl Henry Hansel’s case,” DPAA spokesman Lt. Col. Ken Hoffman said from Hawaii in an email.

Hoffman said the military conducted numerous recovery missions in North Korea from 1996 to 2005. But North Korea provided the Americans access to locations other than the Suan area.

Hoffman did say North Korea did recovery work on their own in the Suan area, and from 1990 to 1994 turned over to the United States 97 containers of remains, most of which came out of the two Suan POW camps. He said the U.S. has made 58 identifications so far.

Earl Hansel’s name on the courts of the missing at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu. (Supplied)

But North Korea just turned over boxes and boxes of commingled bones.

While the military has recovered more than 4,900 sets of remains, “there was no forensic work done by the North Koreans,” the Korean War Project’s Barker said from Texas. He said remains of American soldiers were mixed not only with each other but also with remains of civilians, making the Americans’ job even tougher.

Edith Hansel Hester said her mother worried the family would end up with someone else’s remains. She said her mother had died by the time that she and her sister, who’s still living, gave DNA samples. The DPAA’s Hoffman confirmed Hansel’s family provided those samples and that none matched any remains.

The Palm Beach Post submitted an inquiry to the North Korean government via the Swedish Embassy in Washington, D.C.; that nation represents U.S. interests in Pyongyang. But that embassy directed questions to the DPAA, as did the U.S. State Department.

Henry Hansel died in 1961, and Lillian in 1977.

At the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, the “courts of the missing” lists the name of Earl Henry Hansel.

He also is listed at the Veterans Memorial Park and Walls of Honor in Okeechobee. It’s about a mile from the home where his sister waits for him.