By Michael Rank
LONDON – There can be no lonelier grave anywhere on Earth. Amid fields close to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, lie the remains of Flight Lieutenant Desmond Hinton, a British fighter pilot who flew for the United States Air Force as a member of United Nations forces in the Korean War.
Hinton is officially listed as missing in action (MIA), but his brother David, himself a retired Royal Air Force pilot, traced records of how and where Desmond died and managed to visit his grave in highly secretive North Korea.
“I was very close to my brother who was very much my role model and a father figure to me. I have never stopped missing him every single one of the 57 years since he died,” said David Hinton of Desmond, who was just 29 when he was shot down, leaving a widow and two small children.
David, now 77, is 12 years younger than Desmond, who had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in World War II for shooting down two Japanese Zero fighter aircraft over Burma (now Myanmar). Having survived that ordeal, Desmond Hinton was one of 41 RAF officers seconded to the USAF during the Korean War.
“A tour lasted about three months. They were short of replacements, so Desmond offered to do a second tour and it was on his second tour that he was shot down and killed,” said David. “There’s an old maxim in the armed forces, ‘Never volunteer,'” he added with a wry smile.
David discovered in RAF archives a graphic report of how his brother died on January 2, 1952.
F/Lt [Flight Lieutenant] DFW Hinton had been ordered to undertake an interdiction and reconnaissance mission in the area of Sunan-Pyongyang with three other aircraft from his unit … After making a bomb run on railroad tracks just north of Sunan, he called the other members of his flight saying he was hit and on fire.
The aircraft was then seen to crash into the ground and explode on impact. The remaining three aircraft flew over the wreckage of F/Lt Hinton’s aircraft for 15 minutes, but returned to their home base after seeing no evidence that F/Lt Hinton was alive. Sadly, F/Lt Hinton is still reported as missing.
From this account, David had a good idea of where his brother had gone down in his F84e Thunderjet, over the Sunan area of Pyongyang which is now the location of the city’s airport.
He managed to buy a US military map of North Korea, and contacted the Foreign Office in London in the hope that the recently opened British Embassy in Pyongyang would be willing to ask the North Koreans if they could provide any further evidence concerning his brother’s fate. The British ambassador David Slinn and his colleague Jim Warren were only too happy to help, and found the North Koreans surprisingly cooperative.
It turned out that despite the North Korean government’s reputation of being deeply xenophobic, the remains of Desmond Hinton, who was fighting for the hated “Yankee imperialists”, had been given a decent burial close to where his body fell to ground.
David was therefore determined to pay his respects to his brother at his grave and in 2004 embarked on a remarkable journey to North Korea, taking the train from Beijing to Pyongyang.
Despite bitterness still evident in North Korea over the Korean War, he was treated as an honored guest and enjoyed the rare distinction of being accompanied during his visit by a senior Korean People’s Army officer, Colonel Kwak Chol-hui, who is director of Negotiations for Remains at the armistice site at Panmunjom.
The grave consists simply of a mound of earth surrounded by a white picket fence, without any inscription. It lies close to a narrow footpath on a hillside 200 meters from the road, near the village of Kuso-ri and 2.5 kilometers east of Pyongyang airport.
David was told that not long before his visit, his brother’s remains had been moved about 50 meters to a more accessible location.
He was introduced at the grave to two witnesses to Desmond’s crash, a Mr Ri and Mr Han, local villagers who were only 13-years old at the time but appeared to have perfect recollections of the event. “They told how the aircraft passed directly over their houses at very low level and they were at the crashed aircraft within minutes,” David said.
He asked his hosts if they could dig up a piece of Desmond’s clothing, and was deeply moved when he was presented with part of his flying suit.
He would have loved to have been given Desmond’s identity disc too, but was told this had been taken by Chinese troops who were fighting with the North Koreans against the US and other forces.
David gave a short speech at the grave, thanking Colonel Kwak and the ambassador for making his visit possible, while the head of the village promised to tend the grave and paint the fence regularly.
As a former RAF officer, David was also anxious to fix the position of the grave. “I went to the memorial to the Great Leader Kim Il-sung near the village in sight of the grave and took a compass bearing. The grave bears 160 degrees, 500 meters from the obelisk,” he noted in his diary.
He was also taken to the demilitarized zone at Panmunjom, where Colonel Kwak hosted a formal lunch and told him that Dear Leader Kim Jong-il had been made aware of and had approved his visit.
Reflecting the importance that North Korea attached to his visit, it was even reported by the official news agency KCNA, but for personal reasons David has not spoken about it until now.
The current British ambassador to North Korea, Peter Hughes, is aware of this lonely grave and said in an e-mailed statement: “Staff from this embassy visit the grave regularly to ensure it is kept in good order, and we carry out a small service there on Remembrance Day each year. I presided over the last such ceremony on November 9, 2008.”
Desmond Hinton’s grave is the only known one of its kind, but there has been one much larger-scale, much more official attempt to trace servicemen missing in action in North Korea.
In the 1990s, during a mild thaw in the frigid history of US-North Korean relations, the countries reached agreement on permitting American experts to search for the remains of US troops missing in North Korea.
More than 8,000 American troops are listed as MIA in the Korean War – far more than in the Vietnam War – but results from this unprecedented US-North Korean joint project were modest.
It “resulted in the recovery of 225 probable US remains; 27 have been identified to date and returned to their families for burial in US soil”, according to the US Department of Defense.
David Hinton is content for his brother’s remains to stay in North Korea, and he is now planning to visit Desmond’s grave again later this year.
There is every indication that the North Koreans are looking forward to welcoming him again, suggesting that despite its recent missile launches and atomic bomb test, Pyongyang has a human face after all.
Michael Rank is a former Reuters correspondent in China, now working in London.