Kim Jong Un Must Tell Us What Happened to American POWs

Americans were held in captivity for years. U.S. Air Force Major Samuel Porter Logan Jr., shot down during the Korean War, was just one of them. Some might even be alive.


Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

North Korea on Friday handed over the remains of what it said were American service members killed during the Korean War.

According to the Pentagon, 7,697 American personnel remain unaccounted from that conflict. There are an estimated 5,300 sets of remains in the North, and North Korean officials had on various occasions told their American counterparts they possessed about 200 sets. Pyongyang returned 55 sets on Friday, the 65th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended fighting.

President Donald Trump deserves credit for, on his own, raising the issue of the return of remains, and the subject is one of the few included in the Joint Statement signed in Singapore on June 12. Although it is good that Washington is pressing the Kim regime to return remains, it is far more important to get an accounting of those who were held captive after the armistice. Although the chances are slim, some of them might be alive. We need to know now.

What happened?

At the time of the armistice, U.S. Army General Mark Clark, who headed the U.N. Command, believed the North Koreans did not, as required, return all American prisoners of war. Pyongyang retained perhaps as many as 800 Americans, although some think the figure is higher. “Approximately a thousand Americans were kept in North Korea or the Soviet Union after the war, mostly in the latter,” Mark Sauter, president of the POW Investigative Project, told The Daily Beast.

Among those not returned—but probably alive at the time of the prisoner exchange called for by the armistice—was U.S. Air Force Major Samuel Porter Logan, Jr. of East Nashville, Tennessee.

Logan’s B-29 Super Fortress, the “Little Mike,” was hit by anti-aircraft fire on Sept. 9, 1950 during the third and last scheduled low-level run for that day. It was his 19th mission over Korea. The pilot was just two weeks past his 30th birthday when his stricken aircraft fell from the sky. Others on his raid reported seeing five or six parachutes, one on fire.

Logan is known to have survived. The Soviets, who were aiding Kim Il Sung’s North Korea, released a photo of him five weeks after the shoot-down. The image appears to be from a video of Logan standing next to a North Korean officer. Both men are just feet from smoking wreckage, presumably part of Logan’s plane.

Logan’s name, rank, date of the shoot-down, and “27 September” were scratched into a wall of a Pyongyang jail that later fell into American hands.

During the war, the U.S. military found the wreckage site but did not find Logan’s body. A captured enemy soldier said he had been told crew from the B-29 were taken prisoner.  

On March 31, 1954, the Air Force, citing the absence of “evidence of continued survival,” declared Logan dead.

“What does it take for the Pentagon to admit an American serviceman was captured alive but not returned or accounted for by North Korea?” Sauter asked in an e-mail message to me. “Sam Logan was buried by the Pentagon’s bureaucracy for decades. The Air Force declared him dead, telling his mother reports of his capture had ‘never been confirmed.’”

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The Pentagon’s Korean War Air Loss Database to this day still shows him as “MIA.” Logan is not missing. The correct designation, in view of the evidence, is “POW.”

No administration wants to admit the implications of North Korea, China, and Russia holding Americans for almost seven decades. There have been dialogues and discussions with these governments to obtain an accounting of soldiers, pilots, and sailors lost in what has been termed the Forgotten War, but there has been virtually no progress. Part of the reason is that Washington, in reality, has shown little concern.

A half decade ago, officials in Seoul were estimating that approximately 500 South Korean POWs were still alive in the North. The South’s officials have rarely made a vigorous effort to get them back, but they have an excuse. Seoul has never had much leverage over the other Korea.

But what about superpower America?

America’s “solemn duty” aside, there is one important reason why U.S. administrations should put POWs at the top of their agendas. If American officials and diplomats were insistent on getting an accounting—and the release of any personnel alive—Washington would almost certainly see progress on issues usually considered more important or pressing.

U.S. leaders this century have a poor track record in getting what they want from Pyongyang, Moscow, and Beijing not because they represent a weak nation but because those capitals perceive Americans as believing themselves unable to accomplish important goals. Demonstrating determination to obtain the release of Americans will almost certainly change that general perception of America. Reagan did not lead a substantially more powerful America than his predecessor; Reagan was just far more confident and willful.

So every summit, meeting, or conversation with a North Korean, Russian, or Chinese leader or official should begin with these words: “What happened to Samuel Porter Logan, Jr., major, U.S. Air Force, shot down over Korea September 9, 1950.”   

Logan’s family has certainly not forgotten him. In 1961, his mother, Ethel, sent the post-capture photo of her son to America’s ambassador to the U.N. “In the name of decency and humanity, surely a country like ours will not let down their servicemen who fought to defend us,” she wrote. She penned letters for years. At one point, she became so upset she sent one to the Chinese government, hoping it would be more responsive than the Pentagon. “My grandmother was extremely frustrated,” Mike Logan, Sam Logan’s younger son, told The Daily Beast.

“My mother waited her whole life to get word,” Logan told me, saying she thought he could show up at any time. She died at the age of 91 in 2015.

Samuel Logan, if he is still alive, would be almost 100 now. And in one sense, certainly, he does still live. Mike Logan named his son Scott Porter Logan, keeping his dad’s initials and middle name. Mike’s older brother, David, named his son Samuel Carter Logan. David’s only daughter, Leslie Hill, named her only daughter Porter Hill.

Mike’s daughter, Carol Logan Morton, named her son Samuel Logan Morton. She and her husband wanted his first name to be Major, but they were not permitted to register that. They call him Major anyway.

“Among the worst things about the case of Major Sam Logan,” Sauter told me, “is that there are many more like him.”