Richard Downes was only three years old when his father left home to fight in the Korean War.
It was the last time he would ever see him.
On January 13, 1952, shortly after finishing a nighttime bombing mission over North Korea, Air Force Lt. Hal Downes’ B-26 Marauder went down after the plane’s twin engines stopped working. While the pilot and another crew member were able to bail out – they were captured behind enemy lines before eventually being released – the fate of Downes and another airman remains a mystery.
To this day, Downes is one of the more than 5,000 United States military men who are still declared MIA in North Korea. But after President Trump and North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un agreed on Tuesday, during a historic summit in Singapore, to recover the remains of the U.S. military personnel missing in action and presumed dead from the war, Downes and other families whose husbands and fathers are still MIA are hopeful that almost 68 years later, their remains will soon be returned to U.S. soil.
“I did not know this was even going to be discussed at the summit,” Downes, who is the executive director of the Coalition of Families of Korean & Cold War POW/MIAs, told Fox News. “This is the first step, but now we have to find out what the plan is for recovering the remains.”
Nearly 7,800 U.S. troops remain unaccounted for from the 1950-53 war. About 5,300 were lost in North Korea.
In a statement signed on Tuesday by both Trump and Kim, the two countries agreed to the immediate repatriation of those American dead already identified and to the continuation of recovery efforts that ended in 2006.
Between 1996 and 2005, joint U.S.-North Korea military search teams conducted over 30 recovery missions and recovered 229 sets of American remains. But these searches ended when Washington officially broke off the program because it claimed the safety of its searchers was not guaranteed - though the North's first nuclear test, in 2006, was likely a bigger reason.
“We must have hope that this agreement will finally bring peace to the peninsula and help bring closure to thousands of families of missing American servicemen from the Korean War,” said Keith Harman, the national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, in a statement sent to Fox News. “Now the hard work to bring the initiative to fruition begins.”
While most of the missing Americans died during major engagements or as prisoners of war in North Korea, others – like Downes’ father – are believed to be scattered around the hermit kingdom after their aircraft went down on missions. Downes said that while he hopes his father will be one of the 229 Americans already recovered, he understands that it will be difficult to find the remains of those missing.
It's unclear whether North Korea's commitment to recovering U.S. war remains could count as a major win for Washington when Pyongyang would be simply returning to what it had been doing for years. Critics of the program argue that the North was using the deal to squeeze cash out of Washington, calling it "bones for bucks."
During a trip organized by former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson in 2016 to North Korea to search for remains, Downes said that the group flew over the area where his father’s bomber is believed to have crashed.
“Our approach to the airport took us over the rice paddies where my father's plane is believed to have gone down,” Downes said. “That’s probably the closest I’ve felt to my father since I was three years old.”
Ray Bogan and The Associated Press contributed to this report.