As a boy, Albert Paffenroth Jr. walked to the edge of a fence around the runway at Johnson Air Force Base in Japan to watch his dad and other pilots lift into the sky in their B-26 bombers.
Almost 70 years later, Paffenroth is trying to bring his father home from the pilot’s last flight. Capt. Albert Paffenroth Sr. has been missing since he and two crewmates went down somewhere near Pyongyang in the early months of the Korean War.
Paffenroth Jr. is aging, and he knows North Korea’s adversarial relationship with the United States won’t help his efforts.
But he isn’t giving up.
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“I don’t think in my life they’re going to find him, but one day, they’ll identify him,” said Paffenroth, 71, of Tacoma. “There’s always hope.”
He’s joining about 200 other descendants and loved ones of missing military service members this weekend at a conference in Bellevue.
The gathering is sponsored by the Defense Department POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which is working to recover about 82,000 military service members who remain lost overseas since World War II.
At the conference, families will hear about the agency’s work and learn about advances in technology that might help identify remains with DNA.
They’ll also get one-on-one sessions for updates on their cases. The sessions are meant to spare Northwest families trips to Hawaii or to Washington, D.C., where the agency does most of its work.
Paffenroth Jr. knows the organization well. He’s been in touch with it since the late 1990s, when he and his youngest brother got serious about finding out what happened to their father.
Since then, they and their aunt have given the military blood samples that could be used to identify Capt. Paffenroth’s remains.
Paffenroth Jr. also has made friends with other children of missing troops. He’s close with the son of the navigator who died in his dad’s plane.
For a time, Paffenroth Jr. got to know the late Col. Frank Evans of Gig Harbor, who served in his father’s squadron in Japan. Evans even had a short video clip showing Capt. Paffenroth in 1949.
About 82,000 U.S. military service members are still missing, with about 7,800 from the Korean War
Paffenroth Jr.’s best lead came just last year, when information surfaced suggesting one of his father’s crewmates might have been in a North Korean prison during the war.
If true, that would have meant the crew survived whatever brought down their plane. It could have led to burial sites for prisoners of war and eventually to the identification of the pilot’s remains.
He traveled to Washington, D.C., for updates on the investigation, and his hopes soared.
But the tip did not pan out, and Paffenroth Jr. was back to the beginning of his quest. He takes heart in the recent discovery of lost cemeteries in the Central Pacific island of Tarawa, where about 40 bodies of Marines were found last year.
“This’ll never end,” he said. “There’s always new material.”
His father was a decorated pilot who joined the Air Force in 1943. Paffenroth Sr. flew more than 40 combat missions during World War II.
Paffenroth Jr. has his dad’s flight log. It shows a list of famous battles in the Pacific, including Corregidor in the Philippines.
After the war, the family moved to Japan. Capt. Paffenroth had a choice assignment at the air base during the American occupation of Japan’s mainland.
“It was prime duty, not much to do but be there,” Paffenroth Jr. said.
I don’t think in my life they’re going to find him, but one day, they’ll identify him. There’s always hope.
Albert Paffenroth Jr.
That plush assignment turned dangerous June 25, 1950, when communist forces pushed into the Korean Peninsula’s pro-Western south.
Capt. Paffenroth started flying soon after the invasion.
“I remember him coming and going and not understanding what was going on,” Paffenroth Jr. said.
Capt. Paffenroth had a 10-day break from the war a few weeks before his last mission. It was meant to give him a chance to hold his newborn son, the youngest of his four children. That was the last time the family was together.
On Oct. 19, 1950, Capt. Paffenroth took off from Iwakuni Air Base in Japan on a bombing run in bad weather. Aircraft flew about 30 minutes apart, hoping for breaks in clouds to hit their targets.
His plane disappeared on its return leg, coming down about 25 miles north of Pyongyang. No one knows whether it was shot down or had a mechanical problem.
Paffenroth Jr. was with his mom when two officers approached her at their home on Johnson Air Force Base.
“Mother said, ‘Oh, no,’ and what she worried about was true,” he remembered.
The family returned to the states. His mom, Lillian McCulley, remarried. Paffenroth Jr. served in the Air Force in the early 1960s and then had a long career at Boeing.
This weekend, he’s planning to take his son to the POW/MIA conference. It’ll provide some reassurance that someone will keep up the search for Capt. Paffenroth.
“I want him to understand about his grandfather,” Paffenroth Jr. said.