Over the course of the Korean War, American casualties were buried in a variety of settings, including centralized United Nations (UN) cemeteries, local battlefield cemeteries, and prisoner of war (POW) camp cemeteries across North Korea. In addition to these, service members’ remains were known or suspected to be in isolated locations across the country near battlefields, POW march routes, and aircraft crash sites.
When the armistice was negotiated in 1953, it was initially agreed that each side should recover their own dead from the others’ territory. As a result of a number of factors, however, it was eventually decided that that remains would be recovered by the opposing side and exchanged at a neutral location near the DMZ. This exchange, which occurred during a few short months in the fall of 1954, became known as Operation Glory.
Due to time and logistical considerations, it was initially agreed that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (D.P.R.K.) and the Chinese Communist Forces (CCF) would only recover and return remains from known cemeteries in North Korea. Remains were returned from sites such as Hungnam #1, Koto-Ri, Kaesong, Sukchong, Pukchong, and Pyongyang (no remains were returned from Hungnam #2). In addition, the D.P.R.K. and CCF also returned believed-to-be American remains from a number of known POW camps and isolated burial locations. These included POW Camps #1 and #3 and Camp #5, and isolated burials relating to battlefield losses, air losses, and POW march routes. While some sets of American remains were returned with name associations and related material evidence, other sets were returned as unknowns, unaccompanied by any identifying information
In total, UN forces recovered and returned approximately 14,000 sets of D.P.R.K. and CCF remains and received around 4,200 sets of remains believed to belong to American service members
Following the exchange, the remains were sent to a U.S. Army mortuary facility in Kokura, Japan, to be examined by mortuary technicians and anthropologists. As the staff at Kokura processed the Operation Glory remains, they began to note a number of discrepancies between the names and recovery locations provided by the D.P.R.K. and the CCF. Although the staff at Kokura used advanced forensic techniques and a revolutionary computer punch card system to assist them in their work, these discrepancies dramatically complicated the identification efforts. Although the vast majority of remains were identified, it was difficult work, and, for a variety of reasons, the Kokura staff were unable to identify a number of sets of remains
Remains that were believed to be American but could not be identified were buried as unknowns with full military honors at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (NMCP—also known as the Punchbowl), in Honolulu, Hawaii
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) and its predecessor organizations have been working to identify these Operation Glory unknowns since the late 1990s. Multidisciplinary teams within DPAA and its predecessor organizations have worked collaboratively to identify and resolve the discrepancies reflected in the Operation Glory returns. As a result of the more than 15 years of research on the parts of numerous historians, anthropologists, dentists, and other analysts, in 2018, DPAA was granted permission to undertake a large-scale project to disinter and identify the more than 300 remaining Operation Glory Unknowns still buried in the NMCP. The planned disinterment project employs a phased approach, beginning with reported UN cemetery burials, progressing to POW camp burials, and ending with isolated burials. The first phase of this project began in the fall of 2018, and Phase Two was initiated in the spring of 2019.