By POOJA SHAHANI
SHOREHAM — Rita Davis, 73-year-old cousin of deceased Army sergeant Richard Desautels, will always remember her cousin as a lively and vibrant young boy.
“He was full of energy,” recalled Davis, who was only 14 years old when Desautels left their native Shoreham for a tour in the U.S. Army in the Korean War. “His family had this small tractor and he’d come down the hill. He would push the clutch in and come tearing down that hill with the dog right behind him. I remember my stepfather having a royal fit.
“He was just being a boy. That was Richard.”
Desautels enlisted as a soldier in the Army when he was 17 years old. In late December 1951, the family found out that Desautels had been taken as a prisoner of war to China. The family hung their hopes on the possibility that Richard would be returned in a prisoner-of-war exchange.
“I can remember his parents were coming to the house because they were going to announce the names on television of the POWs coming to be exchanged. His name was on there. Then when they exchanged them, he didn’t come back,” Davis remembered.
For decades, the Desautels family waited for some information about their missing son. Then, in May 2003, Desautels’ elder brother, Rolland, received a summary from the Pentagon of what a Chinese army official had related about the case. The report acknowledged that Desautels had been a prisoner of war in China and it said he had become mentally ill on April 22, 1953, and died a few days later.
Rolland Desautels sent this report to a POW/MIA advocacy group The National Alliance of Families for further investigation. However, this information was kept a secret from the general public because the Desautels did not believe the authenticity of the report from the Chinese officials.
This past June, the Associated Press received the report from the advocacy group and published the story; marking the first time China had admitted that an American soldier was taken as a POW in Chinese territory and contradicting the Pentagon’s current stance that China has returned all the U.S. POWs it held.
Davis said that she was unaware of any developments in her cousin’s disappearance until she saw the AP story in June.
“I was all through with my work and went to the lobby to get the newspaper,” she said. “I sat there and I looked at the headline and I said ‘oh,’ and then I looked at the picture and I was just shocked. I didn’t know anything before that.”
Davis believes the U.S. government did not do enough to help her cousin.
“It seems that they could have done more. Maybe they couldn’t, maybe there was nothing else they could do, but why, all of a sudden does China admit, why now, after all these years?” she questioned.
According to Davis, her cousin was a smart young man who sacrificed himself for the American people.
“When we found out that he was a POW, we said that they’d never break him because he was tough. He learned the Chinese language when he was a POW. He listened to them and learned it himself.”
Desautels’ parents died without knowing the truth of what happened to their son.
“It’s good to know what happened to him. I wish they’d done it right away. I wish his parents could have known. I was sure that they agonized over that because I know I would have,” Davis said, her eyes welling up with tears.
For Davis, her cousin’s story is an example of how many other families continue to wait and hope for the return of their sons from wars.
“I feel bad that there are so many other soldiers that we’ll never know about,” she said. “But by his family finding out about him, it might help other families find out about other POWs.”