1LT Leonard Button was a short but sturdy Baptist from Arkansas. The night of May 13, 1953, no doubt required all the strength his faith, Army training and WWII experiences could provide.
What happened after that night may have been too much for even the strongest and most faithful man.
While landing behind enemy lines in North Korea for a “highly classified intelligence mission,” Button’s mission was discovered. Forced back from the shore by mortar fire, the infiltration boat could only listen to the small arms fire and grenade explosions from Button’s direction. Button, assigned to the 8240th Army Unit (see more below), was soon declared missing in action.
The next year, an Army general wrote his family (see document below), saying: “Since your son, First Lieutenant Leonard W. Button…was reported missing in action on 13 May 1953, the Department of the Army has entertained the hope that he survived and that information would be received dispelling the uncertainty regarding his absence. However, as in many cases, no information has been received to clarify his status. …In view of the lapse of time without information to support a continued presumption of survival the Department of the Army must terminate such absence by a presumptive finding of death.”
The letter added: “I regret the necessity for this message but hope that the ending of a long period of uncertainty may give at least some small measure of consolation.”
What the Army did not tell his family in 1954, and may never have told them, is that Leonard Button was known to have been captured alive on the night of May 13, 1953, along with Koreans on his mission.
According to previously Top Secret Army documents (see below) provided to KPOWS this month (May 2015) by the US military under the Freedom of Information Act, “Lt. Button was seen and identified alive on 21 May 1953 and further was reportedly tried and sentenced by the (North Korean) Ministry of Social Security…”
Army intelligence listed Button among “US personnel known to have been alive and under communist control in May 1953.”
However, Button was never returned or accounted for in the US prisoner exchanges with North Korea and its communist Chinese ally after the war ended in July 1953.
The Pentagon continued to list Button as an MIA, despite its Top Secret records showing he had been captured alive, imprisoned, sentenced and never returned by the enemy.
Then, during the 1990s, the Russian government confirmed Button’s survival from its own records. Button was captured by the “5th Army of North Korea’s counterintelligence organs. He was captured during the period when he went to meet his two agents who wever coming back from a mission…This information was given to us by the North Koreans…” [The Russian information, seen below, was provided to KPOWS by John Zimmerlee, the preeminent researcher of Korean War POW/MIA cases, son of a lost American hero from Korea, and co-author of our book on the subject. See more about John in our notes below.]
Given that both American intelligence (reviewed by the Pentagon POW office during the 1990s) and Russia confirmed Button was a POW, not MIA, what has the Pentagon done about his case? Apparently not much: On this Memorial Day, 1LT Leonard Button is still listed as MIA by the Pentagon on its official site. We are not even sure his family has ever been provided with these records [please be in touch with KPOWS if you have a contact for Button’s family.]
Notes: the 8240th Army Unit was a US special operations organization that managed guerrilla and intelligence operations behind enemy lines. It is linked to several other important POW cases, including the incredible case of the “Ashley Five,” a group of American aviators known to have been alive in North Korean captivity at the very end of the Korean War but never returned (their fate too hidden behind Pentagon secrecy for decades); two missing American soldiers from related units (Sgt. George Tatarakis and SFC William Miles) reported to have been captured and sent to the Soviet Union; and more recently the 2013 detention of Merrill Newman, a veteran of the 8240th who was detained by Pyongyang when he visited North Korea as a tourist 60 years after the war.
We believe the North Koreans and their Soviet advisors focused on capturing Americans involved in operations behind the lines in North Korea and likely decided to keep some of them back at the end of the war due to their intelligence value.
Because of his ability to provide the families of Americans missing from the Korean War with files the Pentagon can or will not share with them, along with his frustration at the continued classification of large numbers of 50-year-old+ POW documents and the handling of cases such as Button’s and the Ashley Five, Zimmerlee has incurred the ire of the Pentagon. Most recently the head of the Pentagon’s POW office, Rear Admiral Micheal Franken, called Zimmerlee an “extremist” and moved to banish him from efforts to reorganize this historically disfunctional office.
According to recent media reports, the Pentagon is doing the same to noted POW/MIA researcher and author Lynn O’Shea, along with the National Alliance of Families, the group she manages.
If you need to learn more about the POW/MIA issue and the struggle with the Pentagon to fix its POW operations, we suggest you contact John and Lynn.
Note for fellow researchers: Some of the recently released documents have NARA markings on them from past years. However, when I have seen the associated set of these (CCRAK) documents in the Archives, they included one but not several of the other reports mentioned here. Of course, a number of related records, from as far back as 1954 and likely earlier, remain classified.
Finally, I intend to provide more detail on Button and the links to his case, but I wanted to get something up to honor him before I went on the road this Memorial Day.
Lt. Button, we salute you and remember your sacrifice.