It was a homecoming 60 years in the making on Wednesday for Americans lost in the Korean War.
On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence greeted 55 flag-draped cases of what are believed to be the remains of American service members killed in the war during a ceremony at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Honolulu.
Pence looked on solemnly with his hand over his heart as the long, narrow boxes were gently laid on the stanchions in front of him.
Several dozen pallbearers – representing the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines – unloaded two cases at a time from two C-17 military aircraft parked on the tarmac. With ceremonial music in the background, the crowd gathered in the hangar rose as each wave of remains passed.
The vice president spoke for a few minutes before the ceremony began, calling it “tangible progress in our efforts to achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
“I know President Trump is grateful that Chairman Kim kept his word, and we see today as tangible progress in our efforts to achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula,” Pence said. “But today is just a beginning. And our work will not be complete until all our fallen heroes are accounted for. We will see to it that these are the heroes who will lead the way to many homecomings in the future.”
Pence described to reporters on Air Force Two on Tuesday what it meant to him personally to be speaking at the ceremony. He called the voyage “deeply meaningful” and said he was honored that President Donald Trump had asked him to attend.
“My father was a combat veteran in Korea. And as I said to them, my father, anytime the war came up and anyone used the word ‘hero,’ my dad would say, the heroes were the ones that didn’t come home. So, to be able to be with them and the sacrifice their families have made to defend our freedom, to defend the freedom of South Korea, (I’m) just very humbled,” he said.
Two family members of Americans missing in action in North Korea during the Korean War, Diana Brown Sanfilippo and Rick Downes, flew with the vice president on Air Force Two for the event.
Sanfilippo’s father disappeared when she was 4 years old and she was inspired later in life to learn to fly the same kind of P-51 plane that her father was in when hit by ground fire over North Korea. Downes’ father left for the Korean War as a radar operator on a B-26 bomber when Downes was 3 years old and he never returned. Downes went to North Korea in 2016 to press for the return of his father’s and many other American’s remains missing in action in North Korea.
Pence concluded his remarks by welcoming home the fallen.
“And to our honored dead, who gave the last full measure of devotion for their families, our freedom, our future, our country – to those whose memories we have cherished, though they fell so long ago – and to these great American heroes, who were lost, and now are found – today, as a nation, we breathe a word of thanks for your service and your sacrifice – and we say to you, as one people, with one voice … Welcome home,” Pence said.
The remains are being repatriated as part of a historic agreement last month between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. During their meeting in Singapore, the first ever between sitting leaders of their respective countries, both Kim and Trump committed to recovering the remains of US service members who died during the Korean War and whose bodies were never found.
Trump addressed the mission during a rally in Tampa, Florida, on Tuesday night, saying “our fallen warriors are finally coming home to lay at rest in American soil.”
It was the second of two ceremonies for possible remains being returned performed by the US military, according to the Department of Defense, after an earlier repatriation ceremony in Osan, South Korea.
In some ways, the work has just begun. The 55 cases of remains will be examined by historians and scientists at a Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency laboratory on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, according to a United Nations news release. The laboratory uses forensic anthropology, odontology, DNA and other scientific methods to identify remains.
CNN’s Paula Hancocks, Yoonjung Seo and Joshua Berlinger contributed to this report.