74 years later, Opelika man still waiting for father’s remains to be returned from North Korea

COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) — As people prepare for the long Memorial Day weekend, this holiday of remembrance for the fallen is a difficult one for an Opelika man.

This is 74-year story of service, the ultimate sacrifice and a lifetime of waiting.

Steve Penland was nine months old when his father Sgt. First Class Raymond D. Penland was ambushed by Chinese and North Korean forces in December 1950.

Penland – now 74 years old — will spend this weekend like he has so many Memorial Day weekends in the past looking for closure.

Penland is a Gold Star son. He’s knows his father was killed in action.

He died December 16th, 1950 in what is now North Korea. He had 32 cents, a lucky stone, the New Testament, two letters and a compass in his pockets when he was killed.

Sgt. 1st Class Penland was buried in a rain poncho and sleeping bag in a United Nations cemetery in Hungnam, Korea.

He was survived by his 23-year-old wife, Sara Helen, and two little boys.

Nearly three-quarters of a century later, Penland’s remains are still unaccounted for.

“What  my brother and I, — our family — think about it quite a bit and  would hope and pray that that sooner or later  that  that we’ll just we’ll get to the right person who can  get the  Department of Defense back in to North Korea  to excavate the remains that are that are still there  from that conflict,” Penland said.

More than 36,000 U.S. soldiers killed in Korea, more 7,600 remain unaccounted for.

For everyone unaccounted for Steve Penland bluntly assesses “There is a family member like me.”

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency continues to work with the Penlands and other families looking to bring a loved one home from war – even if it’s long after the fighting stopped.

There was some hope for the Penlands and others a few years ago when North Korea returned some U.S. remains.

“The 55 boxes that were sent back, what, three years ago, a couple of those remains have been identified as service members,” Penland said. “But the problem is when those boxes come back. The remains are co-mingled. So, you could have three or four different bodies in those remains. Also, there are animal remains in there also.”

A year ago, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency itentified the remains of a Marion County war hero Corporal Luther Story, who was killed days before Penland’s death in Korea.

Story was a Medal of Honor recipient and his remains were brought home to South Georgia Memorial Day 2023.

“Every time I see something like that, it gives me hope,” Penland said. “With Cpl. Story being brought home and being brought back to Buena Vista it does give me hope.”

Steve Penland is 74 and lives in Opelika. Ray Penland is 76.

“I think it weighs more on my brother and I the older we get,” Penland said. “Luckily, we have given DNA. I have first cousins who have given DNA to the Army. So, if it ever happens, it can be identified.”

The Korean War, fought in the early 1950s, is often called the Forgotten War, sandwiched between World War II and Vietnam.

“I don’t want my Dad to be forgotten from a forgotten war,” Penland said. “There are service members all over Europe unaccounted for in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, North Korea. Service members unaccounted for. We would like to see all of them brought home.”

Steve and his brother Ray are in a strange place. On one hand they know – but on the other hand – they don’t know.

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