by Stacey Henson, News-Press.com
May 20, 2016 — After more than 66 years, Mike O’Dea, 96, says a sliver of hope remains he will learn what happened to his baby brother, Army Cpl. Laurence O’Dea, missing in North Korea.
“There’s always hope — that they maybe were sent to China and lived a life of some kind,” the 20-year Naples resident said. “The hope now is very small. There’s not much evidence of it. So, my hope was that he died instantly without having to go through a lot of stuff.”
Saturday, Collier County Honor Flight is flying on behalf of Laurence O’Dea and the nation’s other 83,000 warriors listed as missing in action. The first of its kind among the 130 Honor Flight hubs, it is the ninth flight since 2013 and second one this year for the local group. Veterans receive a free daylong trip to Washington, D.C., to tour war memorials.
The flight includes 52 Korean War veterans and 15 World War II veterans, mostly from Lee and Collier counties. Each is paired with a guardians escort who will wear an official POW/MIA remembrance bracelet. Heather Corace, an honor flight board member, said the bracelets each came with biographies, many with photos, of the people they represent.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “It brings it home.”
While the bulk of Americans listed as MIA are from World War II, the U.S. government reports about 7,800 remain from the Korean War, which lasted from 1950-53.
Robert Henderson, vice president of the Korean War Veterans Association, Chapter 155, of Cape Coral, has worked with the South Korean Consulate in Atlanta to honor Korean War veterans. He’s authorized to give them the Ambassador for Peace medal as an expression of appreciation. He’s distributed 98 of the keepsakes.
Often called “the Forgotten War,” he said the medal helps those understand the importance of the U.S. role in saving Korea from communist forces.
“I appreciate the attention to us and what we did,” said Henderson, who was an Air Force staff sergeant serving 18 Air Force bases based in Japan. He will present one of the medals to the O’Dea family in honor of Laurence O’Dea’s service.
“We’re grateful that he’s receiving some recognition,” O’Dea said.
Henderson is among those on the honor flight, with more than 200 Korean War vets on a waiting list. He was looking forward to seeing the Korean War Memorial, with its 17 larger-than-life steel figures representing a squad on patrol.
“This is a big deal,” Henderson said. With preference for flights given to the aging World War II population, this has the most Korean War vets in attendance for a single flight.
Corace said although there are many WWII veterans waiting, many are snowbirds and have returned home, are too ill for this trip, or have asked to go in cooler weather, freeing slots for the slightly younger Korean veterans.
The flight also honors Air Force Staff Sgt. Charles Bishop, who died in 2014 before he could take the flight. Uniformed military personnel will carry placards with information about Bishop and Laurence O’Dea. When the flight returns to Southwest Florida International Airport, flagbearers will present U.S. flags and the placards to the Bishop and O’Dea families in a private ceremony.
Henderson also will present the O’Dea family with the peace medal.
The elder O’Dea served as an Army captain after being called up with a National Guard unit before the war started, eventually serving under Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the South Pacific. He said he hopes to one day join an honor flight and see all the war memorials.
“I just want to take it all in,” he said. Two of his sons served in Vietnam, one losing a leg, and two of his brothers also served in WWII.
Twelve years and five siblings separated the eldest O’Dea from his youngest brother. When Mike O’Dea left for World War II, Laurence was 8.
Mike O’Dea had returned a war hero, earning the Distinguished Service Cross and surviving a gunshot wound to the arm. He had returned to his small-town Owosso, Michigan, farm when Laurence O’Day was drafted.
“He just got out of high school,” Mike O’Dea said. “He had three or four months’ training and then he was on a ship going overseas.”
Laurence O’Dea, 18, sent letters and postcards home, providing the family with few details of his life in the Army.
O’Dea said his letters indicated although assigned to an engineer battalion, the Army had given them rifles and machine guns, using them as infantry.
“He was in action before he knew what was going on,” Mike O’Dea said.
Then, the family received the telegram informing them he was MIA.
The family pieced together that Laurence O’Dea was near the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, when the Chinese forces invaded, fearing if they didn’t intervene the north would fall. O’Dea believes his brother was among those holding off the Chinese as other units retreated to safety. The Chinese eventually forced the Americans back, almost to Seoul.
O’Dea’s mother died in 1967.
“She always held out hope until her death,” O’Dea said of finding his brother. The stone marking his parents’ grave honors O’Dea, with his name and that he’s MIA in North Korea etched on top.
That Laurence O’Dea is honored with a medal more than six decades after he disappeared allows the family to continue sharing his legacy.
“My son is named after him, and a nephew is named after him,” Mike O’Dea said. “I think the memory will live on.”
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