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Awaiting Her Father's Return: Daughter Of Pilot Hopes To Reunite Parents' Remains

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Janis Curran of Gilbert, Ariz., has been waiting a long time for the remains of American servicemen to be returned from North Korea, particularly the remains of her father. He was Lieutenant Charles Garrison. He was a Naval Reserve fighter pilot in a unit called the Bitter Birds. In 1951, his plane was shot down. He was in South Korea but in an area occupied by the North. Janis Curran was only 3 years old at that time. And she joins me now. Welcome.

JANIS CURRAN: Thank you. It's nice to be here.

CHANG: So his unit - the name Bitter Birds, what's the story behind that name?

CURRAN: Well, the group was together during World War II. And they got through World War II fine, almost everyone. But when they were called back only three years later for Korea, they were bitter about that. And so they named themselves the Bitter Birds then.

CHANG: Like, why again so soon?

CURRAN: Right. Right.

CHANG: How did your mother break the news to you? You were only 3 years old at the time when you found out, right?

CURRAN: Yes. I barely remember two people in uniform coming to the door. And my mother looked at this paper, and she just kept backing up like she was trying to distance herself from what it said. And she started crying. That's probably the first time I knew something was terribly wrong.

CHANG: And how did she explain to you what had happened?

CURRAN: She just said, your father died. We had a picture of him on the mantel. And I didn't really know any difference to not having a father. My sister did, but she didn't really talk about it either. Every time we asked someone about it, everyone looked so sad that we stopped asking.

CHANG: You had to grow up without your dad at your side, and you had to learn about who he was through family stories, through letters he wrote.

CURRAN: Yes.

CHANG: What picture of your dad do you have in your mind now? What kind of man was he?

CURRAN: Oh, as I discovered, he was a wonderful person who loved life. And I remember my great-grandmother writing a letter saying, it's such a shame someone who enjoyed life and got so much out of it - that he had to be taken so young. He was 31 at the time. That's how - mostly how I got to know. My mother really couldn't talk. She told me in later years - actually, just a few years before she died, she told me the only way she could survive it was not to talk about it. And I do understand that.

CHANG: I just - you know, I'm thinking about this moment right now. North Korea has returned 55 boxes of what it says are the remains of American servicemen. That could be just a fraction of what the U.S. ultimately will get. But it's a first step. How important does this moment feel to you right now?

CURRAN: Well, it's very important to me because besides the - that return, I understand there will be talks about our government going back into North Korea to, you know, make additional excavations. And it's been over 10 years, I think, since excavations were interrupted because of North Korean hostility. And so this is a good sign.

CHANG: Does it feel like the beginning of closure for you?

CURRAN: I can't say it's actually closure. I don't think I'm going to feel closure until my dad's remains are lying next to my mother's.

CHANG: Where is she right now?

CURRAN: In Adrian, Mo. She never remarried. She lived in the same house that he bought for us before he left for Korea. He never was able to live in it. And she was just there about, well, under a year before she found out that he went missing. And even though she told us he was dead, I believe in my heart she was waiting for him to return.

CHANG: I really hope that he does and that they can be resting together forever.

CURRAN: Me too. Me too.

CHANG: That was Janis Curran. Her father was the fighter pilot Lieutenant Charles Garrison. He was listed as missing during the Korean War. Under a new arrangement with North Korea, Janis is hopeful that her father's remains will be back on U.S. soil soon. Thank you very much, Janis.

CURRAN: Thank you for your interest and your caring.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOM CAUFIELD'S "WASH THE DUSK WITH SILVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.