Miles, shot down over Korea, was never found

Written by Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat May 27, 2013 12:30 pm

Rex Miles went missing after a flight mission over North Korea on July 12, 1951. Courtesy photo.
Rex Miles took to the air over North Korea on July 12, 1951, and never returned.

A master sergeant in the U.S. Army, the Sonora man was a spotter on a reconnaissance aircraft. His job was to fly low and locate enemy targets for front-line fighters.

He and his pilot took off that morning in their AT-6D Mosquito observation plane. They took enemy fire from the ground and crashed in mountainous terrain near Ousil, which today is located in southeastern North Korea, near the Demilitarized Zone.

What happened to him after that remains largely a mystery.

Miles is one of thousands of U.S. fighting men who went missing in action during the Korean War — men who were declared killed but whose bodies were not located. Today, his name is engraved at the Courts of the Missing at the Honolulu Memorial along with 8,194 others from the Korean War.

Military records and recollections from his younger brother, Jack, 86, of Sonora, paint a vague picture of Miles’ fate with possibilities that he perished in the crash or survived and was later killed or died while a prisoner of war.

“It’s been open-ended,” Jack Miles said. “All we knew is he was listed as MIA.”

Rex Miles was called up to a second round of service as a reservist, after the fighting began in Korea between the Chinese-backed north and American-backed south. An experienced pilot, he learned to fly at the Columbia Airport after coming home from Europe when World War II ended.

He brought his flying experience to the Army’s Company K, 3rd Battalion 8th Cavalry, 1st Division and was teamed up with the 6147th Tactical Air Control Group. He worked as an air-ground controller, spotting targets with an Air Force captain piloting the fast and rugged Mosquito planes.

According to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, the Mosquito squadrons were effective for reconnaissance and “significantly raised the efficiency” of strikes by the U.N. forces. They were regularly targeted during missions by North Korean and Chinese troops on the ground with rifle and anti-aircraft fire.

Because of the sensitive material on the planes, pilots were ordered to destroy the aircraft if they went down. Jack Miles said his family was informed that photographs from above caught the plane burning after it landed.

Declassified intelligence reports released by a Korean veterans organization state that other soldiers reported two American pilots bailed out of damaged aircraft and were captured around that time. Capt. Howard Howell, who was piloting the plane with Miles, was reportedly taken as a prisoner of war and later presumed dead. His remains have not been recovered either, according to military records.

Records for Miles state that he was listed as missing in action, and search and rescue efforts were unsuccessful. He was presumed dead on Dec. 31, 1953, according to military records.

Jack Miles said he remembers having an awful feeling while working his job at the lumber mill the day Rex’s plane went down. The family didn’t learn he was shot down and missing for days, Jack said, but he still had a sense of dread.

“I could hardly work for days,” he said earlier this week.

Though Rex Miles was a pilot, he never officially flew for the military.

He was drafted into the Army in January 1944, less than a year after graduating from Sonora High School. He trained at Camp Wolters in Texas as a gunner in an anti-tank outfit before being sent to the European front late in World War II.

He took part in the Battle of the Bulge with Gen. George Patton’s Third Army, helping fend off Nazi forces that made one last major offensive against the Allies on the Western Front. The battle was among the bloodiest of the war.

Jack Miles said his brother regularly wrote his mother from overseas during the war, sending letters or postcards. Miles still has one of them, a thin piece of wood that looked like a shingle sent from Germany. He doesn’t remember why his brother sent the mementos, though he remembers his mother receiving multiple like it during the war.

With the end of World War II, Rex Miles returned to the Sonora area and learned to fly. The two brothers went to flight school together at the Columbia airport, with Rex paying for his lessons through the G.I. Bill and Jack paying out of pocket.

Jack said Rex always wanted to be a pilot. As the third and second oldest of six siblings, the two spent hours building model planes out of balsa wood while growing up in a small house near Tuttletown.

“He loved to fly ... and he was a great pilot,” Jack said of his brother. “Flying, it was like it was in our blood.”

Rex worked a number of jobs, like truck driving, after the war, though Jack remembered his brother often having a hard time finding work. During that time, the two bought a brand new 1947 Dodge truck together. Jack still has it at his home outside of Sonora.

He recalled his brother needing a ride to one job near Chico, where Jack took him in his biplane. The two parted ways on the runway, though Rex insisted on watching Jack take off before he got a car ride from the air strip to the job, Jack said.

“It was just as quiet up there as sitting in a chair,” he said of the trip at 8,000 feet. “I didn’t get to see him a lot (at that time).”

A religious family, the Miles children were raised Jehovah’s Witnesses after their mother converted from a Presbyterian upbringing. Followers of the religion often shun military service, politics and nationalistic or patriotic activities because of their interpretation of the Bible.

Jack said neither he nor his brother were very devout when they were young. Even when he went to Korea, Rex was sent to front-line conflicts. Their mother regularly wrote Rex letters while he was in Korea, encouraging him to become more devout and often quoting scripture, Jack said.

According to Jack, Rex’s interest in reconnaissance stemmed from his increasing interest in religion — that he would be able to stay part of the war effort without actually killing the enemy. In some of his later letters to the family, Rex showed interest in becoming a minister after returning from Korea.

“Rex wrote to mother three times at least, that he’s coming back and he’s going to learn the scriptures,” he said. “He was going to become a minister and do what he’d been taught.”

Efforts have been mounted over the years by the U.S. government to recover some of the remains of Americans killed in North Korea. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, special search and recovery teams with permission from North Korea conducted missions between 1996 and 2005 resulting in the recovery of remains for about 225 servicemembers.

The North Korean government also turned over boxes of remains in 1994 believed to be from as many as 400 Americans. As of last year, experts have identified 63 of them.

Almost 8,000 fighting men who went missing in Korea are still unaccounted for, and about 5,500 of them were lost in North Korea, according to the Department of Defense.

Jack Miles said members of his family had some blood taken in the 1990s for the government to keep on file. He also said Rex’s dog tags were found in an unspecified mass grave, though they have not yet been able to find his actual remains.

For his leadership and valor, Master Sergeant Miles was awarded the Bronze Star, Air Medal, Purple Heart with Oak Leaf cluster, Combat Infantryman’s Badge, Korean Service Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Korean Presidential Unit Citation and the Republic of Korea War Service Medal.