Photo by Isabel Thalken/Nebraska Communications

After Nearly 70 Years, Chinn Family is Finally Reunited

By Brian Rosenthal

When Randy Chinn takes his seat in the lower northwest corner of Memorial Stadium on Saturday, he’ll pay special attention to the American flag flying, and he’ll remember the sacrifice his father, Army Master Sgt. Leonard K. Chinn, and many other military men and women have made for their country.

“He never scored any touchdowns or hit any home runs, but he did a lot for a lot of other people,” Chinn said. “The ‘ol flag’s still flying. So many people don’t realize it when that flag is flying over Memorial Stadium, but think of the past people who have done that for us.

“That flag is still there.”

At 11 a.m. on Sunday, November 11, the world will mark the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended the hostilities of World War I. To commemorate this event, Memorial Stadium has designated a special POW/MIA chair. Each game this season, a decorated veteran of U.S. military service will take his or her post next to this unoccupied chair in honor of the more than 800 Nebraskans who were lost in combat, but whose fate remains “UNKNOWN.”

A plaque permanently installed by the chair has the following verbiage: “You are not forgotten. Since World War I, more than 92,000 American soldiers are unaccounted for. This unoccupied seat is dedicated to the memory of those brave men and women and to the sacrifice each made in serving this country. …”

The unoccupied chair is located in North Memorial Stadium, Section 33, Row 18, Seat 27.

Chinn, a 70-year old retired firefighter from Columbus, will sit next to this chair, along with his children, Todd and Becky, during Nebraska’s football game against Illinois, in honor and memory of Chinn’s father. Leonard Chinn was 33 when his family received confirmation on April 30, 1951, that he had died in North Korea, having been a prisoner of war since Dec. 1, 1950, after persistent Chinese attacks.

“We’re very, very honored, our family, to have that done for him,” Chinn said of the designated POW/MIA chair. “But also, it’s not just about our dad. It’s about the rest of the families that went through what we went through, plus the veterans that did come home from other wars.”

Chinn had already served in World War II in the Pacific, and then re-upped and went to Korea, where he was a member of Company D, 2nd Engineer Combat Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division.

“Here’s a man that took over some guns and let his men escape so they get could get out of there when the Chinese were overrunning their position,” Chinn said. “Here’s a man who knew he had a wife and two children in Fort Lewis, Washington, but still went on and did that.”

Chinn and his brother, Rodney, spent decades uncertain of the whereabouts of their father’s remains. After their mother, Irene, died in 2002, Randy read an article in an American Legion magazine, where saw an 800-number to call for families that wanted updates on lost family members at war. North Korea had turned over many American remains in 1993 to Hawaii.

Leonard’s two sisters provided DNA samples to help the process, but not until a 2014 family update meeting in Minneapolis did analysts ask Randy for a cheek swab for his DNA.

Finally, on July 12, 2018, the family received word that Leonard’s remains had been identified. They arrived at Omaha Eppley Airfield in September.

“It’s what America’s about. For other families like us, it gives them hope,” Randy said. “It shows it can be done, and we’re a caring nation. Our government spent a lot of money for the laboratories in Hawaii, and then the one at Offutt Air Force Base.

Nearly 8,000 Americans are still unaccounted for from the Korean War, but Randy is thankful and relieved to know his father’s ashes are now in an urn buried above his mother’s casket in a cemetery near Silver Creek.

 “That’s so much relief for myself and our family. We know,” said Randy, who was 2 when his father was captured, and has no memories of him. “But there will always be unanswered questions. Would he have ever taken me to a football game? Would we have ever fished together, hunted together? I’ll never know that. But I do know where his ashes are now.

“He’s my hero. A lot of guys have sports heroes in baseball, basketball, football, whatever. But he’s an all-around hero.”

Pavlik ‘Honored’ To Represent POWs
Many would agree that Dennis Pavlik, a native of Elba, Nebraska, who now lives in Omaha, is also a hero, although Pavlik, the last living Korean War POW from Nebraska, would graciously dispute that claim.

“I’m not a hero,” Pavlik said in a phone interview. “I say a guy who gives up his life to save somebody else’s, that’s a hero, as far as I’m concerned.”

Yet Pavlik, who will serve as the POW/MIA Chair Sentinel for Nebraska’s Nov. 17 football game against Michigan State, put his life on the line numerous times while fighting for his country and enduring 42 days as a prisoner of war in Korea.

“You really don’t want the recognition, but you earned the recognition, and ain’t it a hell of a way to be recognized, to be a POW?” Pavlik said. “It’s an honor. I’m not just representing myself; I’m representing all of the POWs.”

A 1950 graduate of Elba High School, in Howard County, Pavlik was drafted – and gladly so, he says – into the Korean War, where he served as an artilleryman and U.S. Army Sergeant. For some 25 years after his release, Pavlik never shared with his family his story of how he was among 40 U.S. soldiers caught by Chinese forces and held captive.

Today, he repeatedly shares the grim details, at length.

Pavlik describes the shock he saw on the face of the Chinese soldier he stared at from all of 6 feet, listening as somebody nearby said, “Don’t shoot!” Had he fired, Pavlik is certain he and seven others in his group would have died instantly.

They surrendered, and upon their initial march over a hill, encountered numerous bodies of dead soldiers, including one on top of the cab of a truck with a 50-caliber machine gun on top of him. Red-colored water trickled down the hill. On the other side, Pavlik encountered one of his own men, still living.

 “He kept saying, ‘Please help me, please help me,’ and we couldn’t do nothing,” Pavlik said.

They continued, and as Pavlik looked over on the other side of the path, he witnessed a large amount of dead Chinese soldiers.

“One of them didn’t have his head on,” Pavlik said. “He was lying about 8, 10 feet away. We walked on down, and we got to a place they were burying their dead, two guys grabbing arms and legs and throwing them into a hole.

“That was my first day (in captivity).”

Pavlik had slept an hour, maybe two, out of the previous 48, when the Chinese forced him and his counterparts into a hole. About midnight, the enemies threw South Korean POWs on top of them.

“They were going to sleep right there,” he said. “They didn’t care.”

Pavlik laid down, and some dirt fell in his face. He looked up and laid eyes upon the biggest black rat he had ever seen in his life.

They ate rice, millet and dried fish heads, and drank river water. Pavlik once remembers inadvertently drinking water the Koreans had fertilized with human waste.

For the next 4 weeks, they marched every day, some 35-40 miles a day, until they came to a holding camp, with about 70-75 people. A few were Marines, and the rest Army.

“We had one guy in that camp before me,” Pavlik said. “He said when he went through it, it was raining and a lot of the bodies were being washed out, and he said the pigs were eating them.

“That’s the way it was.”

At this camp, called Camp Six, the soldiers learned they were being released as part of a prisoner exchange that would eventually bring Pavlik home. The next day, they loaded onto trucks, about 15 to 20 on each, and headed to Kaesong, a holding area, until they heard their names called to be released to United States’ control. The National Red Cross handed out cigarettes and other items.

On August 25, 1953, at about 9 a.m., they neared Freedom Bridge, and Pavlik vividly remembers seeing the U.S. flag.

“Freedom is something you cannot touch,” Pavlik often says, “but it touches you.”

That’s something Pavlik is sure to remind audiences when he’s asked to speak to schools and other groups.

“I usually start off with, ‘Do you know what freedom is?’ and it depends on what class you have,” Pavlik said. “Sometimes no hands will go up, maybe half the hands will go up.”

Just recently, while attending a dance, Pavlik witnessed a man having a medical episode and fall to the floor.

“That bothered me, seeing a guy on the ground like that and needing help,” he said. “It reminded me of Korea. People probably don’t understand that. My wife says I talk too much about Korea, but I think it helps me to talk.”

To talk, and to cry.

“I cry like hell. I don’t know what for. I can’t stop,” Pavlik said. “So I take more anti-depressant medicine and I can talk about it without crying now. You feel like hell when you do. Like I told one guy crying over something, ‘The only guy that feels bad about it is the guy that’s crying. Everybody else is proud of you.”

And when hearing stories like that from the Chinn family, Pavlik becomes filled with emotion.

“I feel for them,” he said of families still missing POWs. “I’m waiting for the guys that were killed with me, I hope I can see their names before I go.”

For information on how to apply for or nominate a veteran to be an honorary POW/MIA Chair Sentinel next season, please go to Huskers.com/POW/MIAChair.

Reach Brian at brosenthal@huskers.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.

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