By Michael Rank
Flight Lieutenant Desmond Frederick William Hinton (August 13, 1922-January 2, 1952) was a Royal Air Force fighter pilot who died in the Korean war flying for the United States Air Force and is buried in North Korea. I am extremely grateful to his brother David who shared his memories of Desmond with me and told me the remarkable story of how he located Desmond’s grave near Pyongyang and visited it in 2004.
I wrote about this for the Asia Times, and David was also kind enough to share with me photographs of Desmond which he has allowed me to put on this website.
I am also grateful to HE Peter Hughes, British ambassador to North Korea, and to Korean war veterans Frank Ellison, Peter Fisher, Edgar Green and Stuart Holmes for their valuable assistance, as well as to former British envoy to Pyongyang Jim Hoare for bringing the Quinones article cited below to my attention.
In addition I would like to thank the North Korean ambassador to the UK, HE Ja Sŏng-nam, who first alerted me to the existence of Desmond Hinton’s grave in a speech at the House of Commons in March, 2009. For more about Mr Ja and his role in recovering the remains of US soldiers who died in North Korea, see below.
Letter from Desmond’s C.O. who said he believed Desmond had survived. Colonel Mitchell said Desmond was on a strafing run on some trucks a few miles northeast of Pyongyang.
He called that his plane was hit and he would have to bail out. He jettisoned his canopy and two pilots saw the seat was empty which makes me beleive [sic] that Des got clear of the seat.
His parachute was not seen, however, he was wearing an all white shute and the ground was completely covered with snow. This would have made it difficult to see the opened parachute.
The other pilots circled the area for some time and the could not locate Des. I personally feel that he made it O.K. and I feel he will be held until the cease fire talks become a reality …
Des is one of the most courageous and skilful pilots I have ever known. He helped in many ways and I think of him as one of my closest friends.
The grave is in fields near the village of Kusŏ-ri/Guseo-ri 구서리 which is about 30 km north of Pyongyang close to Sunan 순안 airport at 39°14’05″N 125°42’28″E. Here’s a screenshot from Google Earth and it can be seen on Wikimapia here.
Kusŏ-ri is shown in the map below, near the top of the yellow area on the left hand page. The map is from a small North Korean atlas조선지도첩(Pyongyang, 1997). Reflecting North Korea’s extreme secrecy the country’s only international airport is not marked, although the town of Sunan is marked without mentioning the airport (the town is about 10 km south of Kusŏ-ri). I have marked Kusŏ-ri on the North Korean map here if you want to pinpoint the places on the map more precisely.
And here is Ft Lt David Hinton (Ret) who made my article possible.
Another report, whose author I have not been able to trace, says a total of 18 members of the RAF Sunderland Squadron died in two separate crashes in the Korean war, and six RAF pilots attached to the Royal Australian Air Force also died on operational duties.
According to the official history The British Part in the Korean War by Anthony Farrar-Hockley, 1,078 British troops died in the war, including 27 members of the RAF (12 officers, 15 other ranks) (vol 2, p. 491). It refers to how RAF officers became attached to the USAF in order to achieve “manpower savings which could be passed to the Fifth Air Force in Korea.”
“By the end of the war, twenty-one RAF pilots had served with the 4th and 51st Fighter Interceptor Wings,” the book states.
“Each tour was approximately four months. As one group went home another was in training at Nellis [Air Force Base near Las Vegas, Nevada]. Sixteen officers in all completed active operations. All of them damaged one or more MiG-15s during combat, several were credit with ‘kills'” (Vol 2, pp. 323-324).
However, David Hinton told me his brother trained at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, not at Nellis. The Shaw website describes how “The outbreak of the Korean War in the summer of 1950 spurred the deployment of the wing’s flying units to Royal Air Force Station Manston [Kent], United Kingdom. Perceiving the communist North Korean aggression as a potential precursor to a large-scale Soviet invasion of Western Europe, the Truman administration ordered a deterrent force of nuclear-capable bombers to England. The wing’s F 84s deployed to protect the bombers from aerial attack while they were parked on vulnerable airfields in East Anglia.” Shaw is still being used to train RAF pilots today.
The National Archives has a useful website on the Korean war here.
There’s an extremely interesting report entitled The US-DPRK 1994 Agreed Framework and the US Army’s Return to North Korea on the now suspended official U.S. efforts to recover the remains of American servicemen who died in North Korea in Korea Yearbook 2008. The report by former senior State Department official C. Kenneth Quinones tells how Ja Sŏng-nam was involved in these efforts long before becoming ambassador in London, and how he was almost killed in a car crash near Kaesong on his way to Panmunjom in the wake of the downing of a U.S. helicopter that had repeatedly strayed into North Korean airspace in December 1994. The pilot was killed and his passenger was injured, but thanks in part at least to Mr Ja the pilot’s remains were repatriated and the passenger was released.
David Hinton’s host in North Korea, Senior Colonel Kwak Chol-hui, is one of the very few Korean People’s Army officers who has had dealings with foreigners. He met two Senate Foreign Relations Committee members in 2003, and told them “that the DPRK would like to expand the joint recovery operation, employing as many as 2,700 investigators to scour the country to conduct interviews with those elderly North Korean who might have knowledge of the location of U.S. remains. He indicated that the DPRK’s commitment to the recovery operations is independent of the nuclear issue, and, in his opinion, should remain so. It is unclear, however, what role the DPRK envisions for U.S. forces in such an expanded operation.”
Kwak has since been promoted to major-general. He led the North Korean side at “DPRK-U.S. general-level talks” with U.S. Air Force Major General Johnny Weida at Panmumjom in March 2009, when he declared that planned U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises “will pose increasing danger as they are timed to coincide with a spate of bellicose remarks let loose by the U.S. and the south Korean conservative forces as regards the projected launch of a satellite by the DPRK.”
Apart from Desmond Hinton, who knows if any further British or other members of U.N. forces lie buried in North Korea?
And as a footnote, here’s a 2004 article by the (North) Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) which reported David’s visit but was not widely read at the time:
Pyongyang, July 2 (KCNA) — Some days ago, British citizen David Hinton requested the DPRK side to correctly ascertain the fate of his elder brother Frederic William Hinton, former lieutenant of the British Royal Air Force, who participated in the Korean war as an airman through a channel concerned. From a humanitarian point of view the DPRK side confirmed with much effort that his elder brother died in the Korean war and informed him of the correct crash site and the grave site.
Recently he paid a visit to the DPRK during which he went round these sites.
He expressed thanks to the DPRK government and the side of the Korean People’s Army for helping him realize his hope.