Forty-two years after dying from starvation at a North Korean prisoner-of-war camp, his remains were shipped to the United States in a box.
The man inside of that box had no name, no identifying characteristics. He was now referred to simply as box No. 13; one of 33 containers shipped from North Korea to Hawaii in 1993 filled with decomposed servicemen who lost their lives in the Korean War.
About five weeks ago, a name replaced a number when Rodney Chinn received a phone call from Fort Knox military base in Kentucky. His father, Army Master Sgt. Leonard K. Chinn, had been identified through an intricate sequence of DNA and anthropological analyses completed by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
“I was just so happy; it’s going to be a closing finally after 67 years now,” said Rodney Chinn, accompanied by his wife, Helena, inside of their Columbus home. “Now my mother and father will be together again.”
Sergeant Chinn is officially being laid to rest with his wife, Irene, Sept. 19 during a funeral ceremony in Silver Creek, the town Rodney and his mother moved to from Washington after Chinn went missing in 1950.
Irene is buried in a casket, and Chinn’s cremated ashes will be placed in a vault directly above her in the same plot.
“Rodney had the initiative to think to bury his mother lower in case this would ever happen, in case this dream would come true,” Helena said.
Chinn’s body was officially accounted for on July 12, according to information released from the Accounting Agency. Chinn, 34, of Idaho Falls, Idaho; was a member of Company D, 2nd Engineer Combat Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division at the time of his capture, which happened while fighting off persistent Chinese attacks in North Korea.
After reportedly being captured on Dec. 1, 1950, Chinn was held at several prisoner-of-war camps before being marched northwest to POW Camp 5 Complex in North Korea where he reportedly died April 5, 1951. North Korean documents turned over with some of the recovered boxes indicated that some of the recovered remains were collected from the vicinity where POWs from Chinn’s unit were believed to have died.
Today, 7,683 Americans remain unaccounted for from the Korean War, according to released information from the Recovery Agency. However, modern technology is allowing for more and more identifications to be made.
Rodney, now 71, was 3 at the time of his father’s disappearance. He really only has one memory of his father, and he said he's honestly unsure if it’s a memory he formed or one that grew and developed from a story his mother told.
He recalled swallowing a penny, and then Chinn dangling him by his feet and smacking him on the back to dislodge the airway obstruction. Much like an anxious child turning a piggy bank upside down and giving it a good whack to reveal its contents, the penny popped out of his mouth.
“It’s something that’s stayed with me all these years,” he said.
Although he never knew his father personally, he was well aware of the type of man Chinn was. He saw the numerous military recognitions and the Silver Star awarded to the sergeant from his valiant World War II service, where he saved the lives of six wounded infantrymen who had fallen under enemy fire.
“With complete disregard for his personal safety, Sergeant Chinn voluntarily advanced over an area which was exposed to enemy fire on six separate occasions and, unassisted, evacuated a wounded man to safety on each trip,” a newspaper clipping Rodney filed away reads.
At Chinn’s funeral, Geneva Wood, the lone surviving sibling of 12, is prepared to give a speech letting people know the type of person her brother was, Rodney said.
Although Helena didn’t, of course, know him personally, she has no doubt that Chinn would have been an engaging, loving father.
“I just wish I would have known him,” she said. “From his character and the things I know about him, I think that if he would have been here … he would have been a really special person. Someone who would have been involved with his family; gone to (ball) games, had family dinners and Christmas celebrations. You always think of the ‘what ifs,’ and I think that would have been important (to him).”
Today, Chinn’s remains are scheduled to arrive shortly after 11 a.m. at Omaha’s Eppley Airfield. This time, the body isn’t being transported in a nondescript box, but rather a proper casket. Rodney will be waiting with additional family members when the plane’s wheels touch down on the Tarmac.
A small, military service will take place at Eppley, Rodney said, and then the body is being transported to McKown Funeral Home in Columbus. Inside of the casket, he said, is a full military uniform which will be presented to Rodney and his family. Chinn’s remains are being cremated sometime next week prior to the funeral service in Silver Creek.
Rodney said he hopes in the future to have the uniform, an American flag and Chinn’s assortment of war medals showcased at a museum – he thinks that’s the best way to have his father’s memory preserved.
Recently, one of Rodney and Helena’s four grandchildren, 5-year-old Shea Oates of Merritt Island, Florida; visited her grandparents’ house and spent some time looking at pictures and medals spread out across the dining room table.
“It was really neat because at first, she couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to go over to another country and fight and die,” Helena said. “And so we explained to her a little about what war means, and why people are willing to (sacrifice)."
Helena said Shea’s face lit up as she started wrapping her mind around who the man in the pictures in front of her was.
She now knows that’s her great-grandfather, Army Master Sgt. Leonard K. Chinn, and that he’s finally home.
Sam Pimper is the news editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at Sam.Pimper@lee.net.