- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Until this summer, most members of the Tilch family had no idea what happened to Fort Washington native U.S. Air Force Sgt. Philip W. Tilch, who was declared missing in action in 1950 during the Korean War.
“We never had closure, we never had a funeral,” said Nancy Moore, 76, Tilch’s sister. “We never had anything.”
This summer, Moore, who now lives in Waldorf, and her daughter, Kimberly Clements, 47, of Faulkner unearthed a cache of letters that allowed Clements to piece together the circumstances of Tilch’s capture by North Korean troops and his eventual death. According to letters from men who spent time in captivity with Tilch, he likely of the effects of freezing weather.
Moore and Clements now hope to find some way to memorialize Tilch in the Silesia area of Fort Washington.
Tilch posthumously was awarded the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
Moore said she remembered the dread when she and her family first realized Tilch — who was 19 at the time — had been declared missing in the early 1950s. Moore said two officials visited the family, but having letters returned provided them with continued anguish.
“My mother’s letters started to come back stamped ‘Missing in Action,’” she said. “It was horrible.”
Tilch’s and Moore’s mother, Edith Tilch, wrote letters to the federal government, the military, and eventually connecting with other soldiers from Tilch’s outfit — the 6132 Tactical Aircraft Control Squadron — but she never shared the letters with the rest of the family, presumably because they were too “painful,” Moore said.
The letters sat in a closet until Edith Tilch’s death in 1991, Moore said. But she said she couldn’t bring herself to read them, so they remained untouched for an additional 21 years.
“I thought [the box] was just Christmas ornaments,” Moore said. “I read one, but I couldn’t read the rest.”
Clements said the letters were brought back to light earlier this year after a family gathering to share old photos. Clements went through the trove of letters and cross-referenced them with accounts and details from the Internet.
“Our cousin, Rudolph Adler, was in Korea at the same time,” Clements said. “He mentioned, ‘[Tilch] should really be recognized for all he went through.’”
Clements said that through the various letters she learned Tilch had been captured after encouraging another man, Air Force Sgt. Fred Gentry, to take his place on a rescue helicopter. Gentry died in 2010.
David Turner, a member of neighboring Broad Creek Historic District Local Advisory Committee and a trustee at the Maryland Historical Trust, declined to comment on Moore and Clements’ proposal to memorialize Tilch, but said his story is representative of the nation’s consciousness of the Korean War.
“It bespeaks a larger issue of lingering pain,” Turner said. “It parallels the war itself. The war has been pushed away from our consciousness, but we rediscover it later because it keeps coming up through current events [regarding North and South Korea.]”
Even more than 60 years later, Moore said it still was “awful” to discover her brother’s fate.
“It’s still hard on all of the family,” Moore said, tearing up.
“It’s like he’s the forgotten son of the forgotten war,” Clements cut in. “There’s only a few of us left, so we have to do something now or he’ll be forever forgotten.”