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After Six Decades, Slain Texas POW ID'd Through DNA

Donna Wasielewski

As American athletes come home from competing against the Chinese in the 2012 Summer Olympics medal count, it’s hard to remember that a few decades ago, American soldiers were fighting the Chinese Army in the Korean War.  

In late 1950, General Douglas MacArthur mobilized American forces for a military campaign that he called "Home by Christmas,” because the objective was to quickly win the war and get the troops home for the holidays. Instead, the Chinese attack at the Ch’ongch’on River led to the retreat of American forces and a protracted war in Korea.

In the midst of that battle on December 1, a 21-year-old medical supervisor from Rockwall County, Texas was taken prisoner.

Reports say SFC William Travis Barker, of the all-African American 503rd Field Artillery Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division, was trying to administer aid to other soldiers when he was wounded and taken prisoner. He was taken to Puktong, a North Korean POW camp.

Two fellow prisoners of war later reported that Barker died in the camp, in February 1951.  But with a lack of physical evidence, Barker’s status had been listed as MIA ever since.

Skip ahead to this summer, when a volunteer group called the Korean WarProjectannounced that Barker’s remains had been conclusively identified, and that he was finally heading home to Texas.

Ted Barker, who is no relation to SFC Barker, updates the online registry for the Korean War Project. He says that it was science, specifically a DNA comparison to a close biological relative, that brought the soldier home.

“A family member would have provided a DNA sample that would have gone to the Federal Laboratory in Maryland, processed, then sent to the field lab out in Hawaii, at Hickam Air Force Base,” says Baker. “That’s where all the forensic studies have been going on for World War I, World War II, and specifically Korea in this case, since 1981. … DNA was probably the deciding determinant.”

SFC Barker’s remains were flown to Austin on Monday. A motorcycle escort of Patriot Guards led him to Killeen, where he’s expected to be buried Wednesday at the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery.

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