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Long-lost Korean War pilot to get military burial

Remains missing for decades, until chance brought them to light

From Barbara Starr and Larry Shaughnessy
CNN Washington Bureau

Air Force Capt. Troy Gordon Cope is shown on the wing of his F-86 Sabre during the Korean War.
North Korea

PLANO, Texas (CNN) -- On May 31, U.S. Air Force Capt. Troy Gordon Cope will be remembered in a funeral and burial with full military honors -- 52 years after he disappeared during a Korean War dogfight with a half-dozen MiG-15 fighter jets.

Unlike most funerals, this event has his family feeling elated, because, after a half-century of searching and wondering, they finally know what happened to him.

It was a mystery solved with the help of a bootheel, Soviet-era documents and an American businessman's visit to a remote corner of China.

"Gordy" Cope, as his family called him, was one of four brothers from Norfork, Arkansas. The four boys joined the Army Air Corps during World War II. Cope left the service after that war ended but rejoined when the Korean War broke out.

He was flying an F-86 Sabre jet on September 16, 1952, when he and his wingman clashed with six MiG-15s near the Yalu River, the border between North Korea and China.

Cope quickly found himself out of ammunition, and his wingman said he lost visual and radio contact with Cope. He was never seen again.

What the American pilots didn't know then is that they were not up against North Korean pilots in the MiGs. Investigators have since learned Cope and his wingman were fighting more experienced Soviet pilots.

The Soviets' covert role in the Korean War helped fuel speculation within the U.S. government that they tried to capture U.S. pilots to exploit them for intelligence purposes. At the time, U.S. Air Force technology was a top priority of Soviet intelligence.

The military initially listed Cope as Missing in Action. But months later, without any evidence of what happened, the military listed him as Killed in Action. He was awarded a posthumous Purple Heart to go with the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal he earned in World War II.

The unanswered questions about Cope's fate wore on his family. His mother, Edith, took her own life about five years after he disappeared. His nephew is convinced the uncertainty was connected to her death.

"There's no question in my mind it was," Chris Cope of Plano, Texas, told CNN. "I think it was totally connected to it."

His brother, Carl, always had faith that Gordy might be alive.

Although his C-47 transport plane crashed in Sicily during World War II, "I survived, so I've always felt like it would be a possibility that he would survive," Carl Cope told CNN. "I have never given up hope."

In 1988, the family held a memorial service for Troy Cope in Norfork. They never expected find out any more about what happened to him.

First break in the case

The first real break in the case came in 1995. American businessman Warren Sessler visited a museum in Dandong, China, a city just over the Yalu River from North Korea. Sessler found a dog tag stamped with Troy Cope's name. Museum officials let him make a rubbing of the dog tag, and he reported what he found to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

The information made its way back to the Pentagon and the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office. DPMO officials pressed China for answers: What happened to Captain Cope? Why was his dog tag in a Chinese museum?

The Chinese had no answers. The answers were in Russia.

Four years after the dog tag was discovered, a Defense Department researcher looking for clues to the whereabouts of missing Americans found a report from a Soviet MiG pilot in an archive outside Moscow.

The pilot claimed he shot down a U.S. F-86 the same day that Gordy Cope's F-86 disappeared, in the same area where he was last seen. And the report included notes from a ground investigation in what is now Dandong. The notes laid out exactly where the U.S. F-86 crashed.

Negotiations with China

The discovery gave the Pentagon a place to look for Cope. After four years of sometimes difficult negotiations between the Pentagon's DPMO officials and Chinese leaders, China finally gave permission to inspect the site mentioned in the Soviet pilot's report.

The inspection turned up wreckage of a U.S. F-86 Sabre. That caused the Pentagon to send a team of archaeological experts to excavate the site last May. Chris Cope traveled to China as a tourist and met up with the team in Dandong as it began searching for clues to what happened to his Uncle Gordy.

As the investigators began to dig, they found human bones. And they found clues, including a watch similar to the watch Cope is wearing in a photograph taken a few months before he disappeared.

They also found what was left of a size 8 boot. Cope wore size 7 1/2 shoes, but pilots in Korea often wore extra socks to fight the cold. That was enough for Chris Cope.

"When I saw his bootheel, I knew, there was no question in my mind that that was Gordy," Chris Cope said. "I was very elated because this was something we'd been searching for for years."

DNA tests later confirmed the remains were of Troy Gordon Cope.

Chris Cope flew home to tell his father, Carl.

"He was convinced that it was my brother," Carl Cope said. "And I of course felt that was good."

Jerry Jennings is the head of the Pentagon's efforts to account for the 88,000 Americans missing from recent wars. He recently traveled to Dandong, China, for a ceremony at the site where Cope's F-86 crashed.

"Were it not for the cooperation and support we received from your leaders and your people, this day would not have been possible," Jennings told the Chinese leaders gathered in the snow around the plot of land. "We are grateful and we wish to thank you publicly."

As the plans come together for Troy Cope's funeral, his brother said he'll always remember Troy's sense of duty to his wife and children.

"I think his concern about his family is probably the one most important thing" for Troy, Carl Cope said. After 52 years, his family can put aside its concern for him.

Cope will be buried in the Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery.

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