Daughter of Korean War MIA meets with VP Wednesday

Published: Jul. 31, 2018 at 4:51 PM CDT
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Vice President Mike Pence's office has announced that Diana Brown Sanfilippo, a Stateline woman who lost her father to the Korean War, will accompany the vice president at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Honolulu August 1, 2018 as part of an Honorable Carry Ceremony.

ORIGINAL STORY: "You don't have closure. You may never have closure. But you have to be able to be at peace with that."

Diana Brown Sanfilippo has spent most of her life searching for that peace and connections to a father she lost 66 years ago.

Her memories of him are as a 4-year-old, saying goodbye to him at an airport, little else. She's had to build the rest almost literally from scratch, a decades-long struggle often with little help.

First Lt. Frank Salazar, along with the rest of the Nevada Air National Guard, was called to active duty in March of 1951. The Korean War was by then in its ninth month. At home the debate over the conduct and scope of the war raged. In Korea things had settled into a violent stalemate. His unit was stationed stateside, but Salazar volunteered for duty in the war zone.

December 31, 1952, his P-51 was hit by ground fire on a reconnaissance mission over North Korea. He was listed as missing in action and, after a year, declared dead. His widow moved on, and remarried.

Records show she received a shipment of his belongings, but never shared it with her children, refused to talk about him, even answer their questions.

"It was like there was never any picture, no talk. I didn't know what happened. And then another man comes in and he's my dad and I don't know anything."

She was in her teens before she saw a picture of him in his aircraft and learned of his fate.

"You know, it kind of impressed me," she says of the picture, one of the few she has. "And then she tells me 'He's missing. They never found him.'"

"All this stuff goes through my mind even as a child. Was my dad tortured? Was he still alive? Did he live through the plane crash? All I have is questions and no one wants to answer or even talk about him."

She says now that she and her brother paid a price for that lack of knowledge, any connection to their father, left with questions, no answers. They didn't even share their loss with each other. She notes they never smiled in family photos taken later.

"I would say I was probably depressed most of my life because there's like this sadness in me."

She grew up, went to college, became a marriage and family therapist. It may have been that training that helped her eventually recognize and deal with her struggle.

"I knew I had to figure this out but I didn't know how."

It helped, she says, when in 1998 the Air Guard, marking its 50th anniversary, recognized Salazar as their only combat fatality and presented the family with a plaque. But the path forward came into focus three years later on September 11th.

"I watched the towers fall and it was really emotional for me. I know it was emotional for everybody. I knew there would be families who would have their loved ones missing. And so I thought, 'I really have to tell my story because this is happening to other people.'"

She began putting her struggle into words, writing about her loss. Then in 2007 her husband, Bob, researching for her online, found a reference to her father. .

"He said, 'Your Dad's name is here and there's a request for DNA' and I thought 'Oh my gosh.'"

She thought for a moment he'd been found, but when she called it was from the casualty office at Randolph Air Force Base. They wanted DNA to help them identify any returned remains.

Another posting led her to a retired colonel, her father's best friend in Korea. He was looking for any of Frank Salazar's family.

"And he talked with me about the two of them flying and it gave me a sense of how much my dad loved to fly. And so, I knew that was how I was going to connect with my dad. So I became a pilot."

Later she paid a princely fee to take the controls of a P-51, the aircraft her father loved. Finally earlier this year, Lt. Salazar got his ceremony, a military funeral and marker at Arlington National Cemetery.

"He was forgotten. He was never talked about and I wanted to bring him back to life. I wanted him to have a legacy. He existed even though I grew up as if he never existed. And there needed to be a service to have that happen."

She says she is now at peace with her loss, though closure still eludes her.

"I wouldn't say there's total closure because it does not feel good to me that his remains are in a hostile country. To have him home would be closure for me, but I know that may never happen."

That doesn't mean she's not hopeful.

"I have hope and I don't have hope because of the history of North Korea not turning over remains when they said they would."

Diana says she's not waiting for that call. The North Koreans have failed to keep those promises before. Still, she says, news of any returns will be welcome to all.

"Us family members who share this same loss are happy for any other family member. Even if our own doesn't come home we share the joy with the other who does."

There are more than seven thousand US servicemen unaccounted for in the Korean War. Frank Salazar is one of five Nevadans in that number. The chance that his remains would be among the 200 or so promised for return are slim.

Diana has completed a book about her struggle: "Fly-by: A Daughter's Journey from Tragedy to Tribute." It will be released this fall.

And she maintains a Facebook page for families of missing persons.