An arc of gleaming black granite slabs etched with 36,634 names was unveiled on the National Mall over the summer, built to honor American service members who died fighting in the Korean War.
People like Frederick Bald Eagle Bear, an Army corporal who was killed as he rallied his infantry squad to fend off an enemy attack. And Walder McCord, a bomber pilot who crashed during a night mission. And John Koelsch, a helicopter pilot who was shot down trying to rescue another pilot, died in captivity and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
But Lieutenant Koelsch’s name is spelled wrong, Lieutenant McCord’s name is not on the wall at all, and the name of Frederick Bald Eagle Bear, a member of the Lakota tribe, is so mangled that the polished granite lists him as Eagle B F Bald.
There are hundreds more mistakes like those.
“It’s just a damn mess — full of old bookkeeping errors and typos,” said Hal Barker, a historian who, together with his brother, Edward Barker Jr., maintains a vast online repository of information about the conflict, a trove known as the Korean War Project.
The brothers estimate that the $22 million wall of remembrance — an addition to the 27-year-old Korean War Veterans Memorial — contains 1,015 spelling errors. It also incorrectly includes 245 names of service members who died in circumstances totally unrelated to the war, they say, including a man killed in a motorcycle accident in Hawaii and another who drank antifreeze thinking it was alcohol. And it includes one Marine who lived for 60 years after the war and had eight grandchildren.
Beyond that, there are about 500 names that should be listed but are not, according to the Barkers. They say that the official roster used for the wall was so slapdash that they cannot find much rhyme or reason to who was included and who was left out.
For example, records show that when Lieutenant McCord’s bomber crashed, nine crew members aboard were killed, but the names of only three are included on the wall. In another case, a Navy plane collided with an Air Force plane off Japan, killing both pilots; the Navy pilot is on the wall, but the Air Force pilot is not.
Hal Barker, left and Ted Barker, his brother, started the Korean War Project, a repository of information about the conflict and the Americans who fought in it.Credit…Nitashia Johnson for The New York Times
How did it all go so wrong? Through the shared missteps of several federal agencies and a veterans’ group that failed to devote the time, money and scrutiny needed to prepare an accurate list, probably ensuring that even more time, money and scrutiny will be required to fix it.
The granite slabs were erected by the Korean War Veterans Memorial Foundation to recognize a largely forgotten conflict that left more than a million people dead and a country divided. The money for the project was largely provided by the government of South Korea. Like other monuments on the mall, the slabs are maintained by the National Park Service. The error-riddled list of names was supplied by the Defense Department. And no one seems to have checked it.
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The foundation declined to comment. The park service deflected blame to the Defense Department. The Defense Department declined to make decision makers available for comment. In response to questions from The New York Times, it acknowledged that there were errors on the wall, saying in a statement that compiling an accurate list was “challenging.”
“We encourage all family members or concerned citizens to notify the Department of any names that were omitted, misspelled, or included in error,” the statement said, adding that the department would work with the park service to make any necessary corrections or additions, though they did not offer any details of how the granite could be fixed.
The brothers said they could think of no options but tearing out the slabs and starting over.
It is not the first time the department has botched casualty figures from the conflict in Korea, where three years of bitter fighting ended in stalemate and an armistice in 1953. For nearly 50 years afterward, the official number of American dead from the conflict was 54,246, a number published in history books, quoted in speeches and etched in stone when the Korean War memorial was unveiled. But in 2000, the Pentagon acknowledged that the figure included all troops who had died anywhere, for any reason, during the war years, and that the true number of war deaths was 36,516.
Before the carving started on the new wall of names, the Barker brothers repeatedly warned planning commissioners, military officials and eventually even the White House about problems with the list, records show. But the process lumbered forward.
“No one bothered to check it before they set it in stone,” said Edward Barker Jr., who goes by Ted.
War memorials that recognize thousands of people were once rare. Arches and obelisks built to honor generals and faceless victories predominated for hundreds of years. And while plaques bearing local names of the fallen have been a familiar small-town sight since the Civil War, national war memorials did not center on exhaustive lists of the dead.
In recent generations, however, engraved lists have come to be almost expected, as society grew more focused on individuals. Major memorials like those for the Vietnam War and the Sept. 11 terror attacks now prioritize listing masses of people name by name.
But as the Korean War wall of remembrance shows, efforts to be inclusive can instead call attention to who was left out. Should the wall include a nurse killed in a plane crash on her way to the war zone? What about a Marine who died by suicide a month after coming home? Even with the best proofreading, any attempt to recognize all who died in as complex an event as a war will inevitably involve hard decisions.
For that reason, the National Park Service repeatedly opposed adding the Korean War memorial wall when it was proposed. The service had already waded through controversy over the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, just across the Mall’s reflecting pool, where factions faced off over who deserved to be listed. Years of arguments and lobbying led to the addition of more than 380 names to that granite wall, including one man who died 28 years after he was wounded in Vietnam.
“There is not always agreement on those names to be included,” the parks service’s deputy director for operations at the time, Peggy O’Dell, warned at a congressional hearing in 2016. “Choosing some names and omitting others causes a place of solace to become a source of hurt.”
Erika Doss, a professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame who has written extensively about monuments, said that Americans increasingly see recognizing individuals as critical. “We see ourselves as a nation of individuals, so listing the names becomes unifying,” she said. But she wondered how so solemn a gesture could have gotten so flawed this time. She asked, “Didn’t they have an editor?”
The mistakes might have attracted little notice if not for the Barker brothers.
Ted, 77, and Hal, 75, both 5-foot-6 and partial to loose jeans and white running shoes, share a two-bedroom apartment outside Dallas where, over the years, more and more living space has been ceded to their research. Walls are covered with bulletin boards. Out-of-print books and binders stuffed with obscure infantry rosters weigh down sagging shelves. Hal’s bed is little more than a cot, pushed into a corner to make room for a sprawling homemade desk with six computer monitors where he maintains their project’s website.
The brothers began what they readily admit has become an obsession more than 40 years ago, hoping to better understand their father, Lt. Col. Edward L. Barker, a Marine pilot whose portrait hangs in their hall. He was often brooding and quick to anger, Hal said: “A good Marine, but a bad father.”
The colonel, who died in 2009, had a uniform that gleamed with ribbons, including a Silver Star, but Hal said that whenever the brothers asked what he did in the Korean War, their father responded, “None of your damn business.”
Hal majored in history in college, and after graduating, he sought out veterans who could tell him about his father. That led to collecting oral histories of nearly forgotten battles. Ted got involved as the project grew, and the brothers created the website in 1995 to share their findings. The site has grown to thousands of pages of maps, photos and profiles, crowdsourced by veterans and their families and meticulously curated by the brothers.
In the 1990s, as part of their research, the Barkers started cobbling together a list of all Americans who died in the war. It was based largely on military personnel records entered on IBM punch cards in the 1950s. The cards had room for only a limited number of characters, and could not accommodate hyphenated or multi-word surnames like Bald Eagle Bear, so hundreds of names got scrambled.
Much of the data has since been converted to modern digital files, but the errors introduced in the punch-card era endured. So the brothers started checking their list against personnel files, census rolls and gravestones — work that has taken years.
“People ask us how we could spend so much effort doing this,” Ted Barker said. “I say, how could we not? We feel we owe it to these guys.”
Around 2010, a group of veterans running the Korean War Veterans Memorial Foundation began lobbying to add a memorial wall to the existing monument. When the foundation asked the Barkers for names, the brothers said they could supply a list but warned that a lot of correction work would still be needed.
The foundation pushed ahead, and in 2016, despite National Park Service opposition, Congress authorized the wall. Tucked in the legislation, though, was something the park service insisted on. Because the park service feared that a protracted public process like the one for the Vietnam memorial would yield another divisive mess, the law required that the office of the Secretary of Defense decide on and issue the list of names, all at once with no outside input.
In a statement, the park service said the accuracy of the list was the responsibility of the foundation and the Defense Department. That statement concluded, “We will continue to work with those organizations to ensure that the names engraved on the memorials are as accurate as possible.”
The National Park Service’s legislative provision created a problem: All the Pentagon had were its old, error-ridden records, without the Barkers’ corrections.The brothers say they emailed the Defense Department repeatedly to offer their services, but the department was largely unresponsive.
Then the brothers noticed something odd happening: The Korean War Project website started to be visited thousands of times a day by computers associated with civilian researchers hired by the Defense Department. The brothers grew suspicious that the Defense Department might be paying people to vacuum up their decades of research, rather than engaging directly with them,so in 2020 they sharply limited access to the data and the corrections they had made.
The Defense Department did not respond to questions about the brothers’ suspicions.
The foundation, whose leaders by now were in their 80s and 90s, pushed the government to deliver a list, as required by law, so the memorial wall could be completed.
The foundation did not make leaders available for comment for this article.
The Pentagon delivered its list in 2021. When the Barkers saw proofs of what would be carved into the granite, they again raised the alarm but said they received little response.
Truth be told, the brothers agreed, they never liked the idea of a wall of names. It not only draws dividing lines among the dead, they said, it ignores those who lived — men like their father who came home but were forever scarred by their experiences.
“A wall should have never been done,” Ted Barker said. “But now that it has been done, we need to get it right.”