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More than 60 years later, DNA testing bring fallen loved one's remains home, allows military burial

6:59 AM, May 29, 2012   |    comments
Cpl. Robert Wax of Detroit was killed in the Korean War in 1950. His remains were recovered but weren't ID'd until November 2011 (Family photo)
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(DETROIT FREE PRESS) -- For more than 60 years, he was a soldier without a name.

Killed in the early days of American fighting in Korea, in a battle known as Bloody Gulch, he was a white male, 5-foot-8, between 19 and 21 years old.

The military said he died sometime between Aug. 10-13, 1950, and listed his remains as Unknown X-88.

But now, thanks to some old technology in this age of DNA testing, Unknown X-88 has a name and will have a proper military burial.

"It actually comes down to a chest X ray," said Penelope Clute, a niece of the soldier now confirmed as Cpl. Robert Isaac Wax of Detroit, Serial No. 16210827.

And now, after another Memorial Day to honor America's war dead, Wax's family is preparing for a long overdue funeral for one of their own.

"In the call that told me about identifying him, they told me he's entitled to a full-honors military funeral, with a 21-gun salute, the horse-drawn caisson, the whole thing," said Clute, of Plattsburg, N.Y. "He'll be buried at Arlington National Cemetery June 20."

Wax's journey to that hallowed ground began on Detroit's west side, where he grew up the youngest of four children.

"The big thing I remember was he was into magic," said Wax's cousin, Harvey Wax, 75, of Ann Arbor. "He kind of turned me onto it when I was a kid. He would have the tricks that he'd get from the magic store. He'd show me how to do it."

Cpl. Wax could amuse his younger cousins for hours, making coins disappear with some sleight of hand.

His mother, Marcie Lindsay Wax, was a Catholic nurse who died in 1970, never knowing that her son's remains had been found.

His father, John (Jack) Wax, was a Jewish doctor who ran a medical practice out of the family home on Clarendon, just south of Grand River.

When reports of the Holocaust emerged from Europe, Jack Wax joined the Medical Corps, Clute said. He died in a 1944 military plane crash along China's border with Burma and is buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.

After Cpl. Wax was identified, his family received a lengthy military file detailing his service and the efforts to identify his remains. When Wax enlisted in the Army on June 3, 1946, he was 5-feet-9, weighed 160 pounds and had brown hair and gray eyes. His boots were size 9C.

He was part of the 555th Field Artillery Battalion, 24th Infantry Division that left Camp Stoneman, Calif., on July 12, 1950, and landed Aug. 1 in Korea.

A report on Wax's death shows his unit, dubbed the Triple Nickel, was supporting the 5th Regimental Combat Team near Pongnam-Ni, in what is now South Korea, on Aug. 11, 1950.

"Unknown to the American forces, a regiment of North Koreans had moved within striking distance," the report says. "Shortly after dawn, the enemy attacked the artillery positions with infantry, self-propelled guns and tanks. The Triple Nickel was overwhelmed."

Wax's unit fought back, but its 105mm shells had "only limited effect" on the advancing tanks.

"By 9 a.m., the enemy had overrun the battalion," the report says.

The survivors were forced to destroy their artillery pieces and flee to the nearby hills. The Triple Nickel lost 180 members in the initial assault and 120 more as they tried to regroup.

"Cpl. Wax was killed by enemy fire during the opening phase of this moving battle," the report says. "His remains were never recovered and may have been expediently buried by enemy forces."

When American forces retook the area about six weeks later, they recovered the remains of nine unidentified men and later buried them in a cemetery at Masan, South Korea.

But in early 1951, the U.S. military consolidated some cemeteries and shipped the remains to Kokura, Japan. Investigators examined them in February 1952, February 1954 and again in April 1955 when a military review board "declared the X-88 remains to be unidentifiable."

In a mix of tragedy and irony, the remains were then transferred to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, where Wax's father had been buried 11 years earlier. Harvey Wax traveled to Hawaii years later and visited his uncle's grave, never knowing his cousin was buried nearby.

The remains of Unknown X-88 lay in that cemetery, section U, grave 421, for the next 56 years.

In January 2009, Cpl. Wax's nephew, John Downs, 64, of Raleigh, N.C., received a call from a Korean War veteran who said he was working to identify unknown remains.

"I thought it was a scam, but he gave me an 800 number to call," Downs said.

It was almost a year before his call was returned. The military asked for DNA samples, which Downs and Clute provided by swabbing the insides of their cheeks. That, however, was not helpful, possibly because of embalming chemicals used in the 1950s.

In October 2011, military investigators thought they had a match. Of the nine unknowns from Bloody Gulch, four could be eliminated based on 1950s-era profiles of the remains. Dental records eliminated four others. That left one possibility: Cpl. Wax.

The X rays from Wax's enlistment files were matched to the skeletal remains.

Carl Stephen, an anthropologist who compared X rays in November 2011, finally concluded "based on numerous items of concordance of the left and right clavicles and C4-T3 vertebrae," that the remains matched Wax's chest X ray.

On Jan. 17, Thomas Holland, scientific director for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii, issued a report concluding the remains were those of Cpl. Wax.

"What surprised us most was that they had his remains," Downs said. "Our family story was that he had been destroyed in the attack. There were no remains. To find out that they had a whole skeletal set was really awfully surprising."

Contact John Wisely: 313-222-6825 or jwisely@freepress.com


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