Doug Arneson knows the odds are long.
After 65 years of waiting and hoping, he knows his uncle's remains may never be returned from North Korea, where the Navy pilot was shot down at war in 1953.
But still, he hopes.
Which is why the 70-year-old retired businessman from Prior Lake wrote to President Donald Trump in June encouraging him to somehow, some way, use his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to help bring back the remains of Korean War veterans missing in action, including his uncle, Navy Cmdr. John Micheel.
"I wanted to let the president know that there are people in the heartland who are watching … and waiting," Arneson said Thursday.
He figured that his one-page letter might land in a "dead-letter file." Instead, his words became part of a White House press briefing Wednesday after Vice President Mike Pence helped welcome the first set of remains to be returned from North Korea.
"We hope that as remains are identified, families like those of Commander John C. Micheel can find peace," said White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders.
Identifying the remains in the 55 boxes could take months, if not years, forensic experts say. And there's no guarantee that they include any American military personnel, let alone those of Arneson's uncle.
"They might not even be human remains," Arneson conceded Thursday in his home office after flipping through binders, folders and a scrapbook that document the life of an uncle he idolized.
Arneson was 5 years old when he opened the front door of his grandfather's farmhouse in Huron, S.D., and two Navy officers walked in to officially deliver the grim news that had first arrived by telegram earlier that February day in 1953.
Micheel, piloting a Skyraider bomber, was leading an attack on an enemy bridge in the bitterly contested "Punchbowl" valley of North Korea when he was shot down.
"When you get a telegram like this ..." Arneson said, his words trailing off as tears flowed beneath his glasses. He took a couple of deep breaths. "The pain of that night never left me," he said.
He wanted to tell the president how searing grief had consumed his mother and grandfather and left an indelible mark on a child who didn't fully understand it all, but felt the pain of those around him.
His mother dealt with many hardships throughout her life, he said. She grew up during the Depression, and suffered from polio and miscarriages. But none of that compared to losing her older brother.
"The pain affected her [for] her entire life," Arneson said. "You don't understand until you experience it."
Not having a body to lay to rest made it worse.
"I couldn't figure it out," Arneson said of his 5-year-old self. "There was no casket."
At the cemetery, a headstone memorializing his uncle stood at the foot of his grandmother's grave.
"There was no place for a body. It was right next to the road," Arneson said. "Everyone else had green grass where the casket was."
As he got older, Arneson better understood the void left when his uncle's remains didn't come home.
"I always wondered if there was a way to get the body," he said. "But how do you do something like that? Who would you talk to? Who even gives a darn? Korea was the forgotten war. No one ever talked about it. … We didn't win; that was part of it."
So his mother and his grandfather, always stoic, buried their grief. Boxes of memorabilia, his uncle's old uniforms, his Naval Academy class ring, along with the Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart medals, were stuffed into the back of closets and drawers.
His mother often walked out of the room when family reminisced about John. It was too painful to remember, and yet the grief was always there.
A glimmer of hope
Navy officials contacted Arneson in 1999 and asked whether he wanted to submit his DNA so it could be used to help identify remains if they were ever returned. Arneson had his blood drawn and filled out the paperwork.
He's gone to military briefings and updates for families of those whose bodies have yet to be recovered. He's visited memorials to those who died in the Korean War, and he's done his best to keep his uncle's memory alive.
Two binders are filled with the military orders and documents that track his uncle's career. A file folder, discolored from age, is filled with flight training records.
"He came close to washing out of flight training," Arneson said, chuckling. "He landed his aircraft, and one of the wings hit the ground before the wheels. That's probably not an appropriate landing."
In his home office, Arneson paged through an old scrapbook his mother had filled with photos, some yellowed from age, and letters her brother wrote to her. The airmail envelopes and 6-cent stamps evoked days gone by.
From it all, a man who disappeared from Arneson's life emerges. "He was the kind of guy everyone wanted to be around," he said. His uncle was a bachelor who was the life of the party and a prankster, he said. He also was incredibly smart.
Bringing his remains home would bring closure, Arneson said.
"You would like to think there would be a body to go with a marker [at the cemetery]," he said.
One of Arneson's friends, a career military pilot, once told him, " 'Get over it,' " he recalled. " 'He was probably incinerated.' "
Arneson made it clear that he and his family would be content if even a small portion of his uncle's remains were identified and returned.
"You can have that final ceremony and know he's at rest," Arneson said. "That person is no longer missing. He's part of the family again. … There will be a finality to his life."
Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788