A 19-year-old soldier from the Wyoming prairies who was declared missing in action 68 years ago in Korea was finally laid to rest June 29. The long-awaited burial came as President Donald Trump paid a historic first visit to North Korea and spoke confidently of the return of more remains.
In Kaycee, Wyoming, population 263 in the 2010 census, the white hearse carrying the remains of Army Cpl. DeMaret M. Kirtley, known as "Marston" to his sheep ranching family and friends, proceeded slowly Saturday past a small, flag-waving crowd to a cemetery on the outskirts.
Zena Husman, Kirtley's niece, told Wyoming's K2 Radio that her uncle "loved Wyoming and made the ultimate sacrifice for his country."
She said of him that "You're home now, where you belong, where you were loved all these years. You're where you're meant to be, where you'll never be forgotten."
Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, who spoke at the funeral, said it was a "sobering thought" to recall that Kirtley went missing in December 1950 in the horrific, sub-zero battle of the Chosin Reservoir, known as the "Frozen Chosin" to the soldiers and Marines who fought there.
"These were very special men who make me proud to be an American," Gordon said of Korean War veterans, according to the K2 report. "This day is a day every American can take pride in knowing that we will never forget those who protect our nation."
Kirtley was a member of Battery A, 57th Field Artillery Battalion, 31st Regimental Combat Team, 7th Infantry Division. The unit had been deployed east of the Chosin Reservoir in late November 1950, when Chinese forces attacked in overwhelming numbers, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency and Army Human Resources Command.
He was reported missing in action on Dec. 6, 1950, and the Army declared him deceased on New Year's Eve, 1953.
In 1954, an agreement was reached between the United Nations Command, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Chinese People's Volunteer Forces for the mutual return of war dead, DPAA said in a release.
The U.S. called it "Operation Glory" and it continued until October 1954. There were 416 sets of U.S. remains that could not be identified; they were buried as "unknowns" at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii, DPAA said.
One set of remains, designated as "X-15900 Operation Glory," was among those that North Korea had turned over. The remains were reportedly recovered from burial sites on the east side of the Chosin Reservoir, where Kirtley was last seen.
In May 2017, DPAA disinterred the X-15900 remains and submitted them to mitochondrial DNA analysis. In May 2018, the remains were identified as those of Kirtley.
More than 7,000 U.S. troops are still unaccounted for from the Korean War, according to DPAA, and President Trump said repeatedly during his Asian trip to Japan and South Korea that remains continue to be returned.
However, there have been no repatriations since North Korea turned over 55 boxes of remains following the "Singapore Summit" between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in July 2018.
DPAA had held out hopes that North Korea would agree to the resumption of joint searches for remains but there were no contacts. In May, DPAA announced that it had suspended attempting to communicate with the North Korean side on the possibility of more returns for fiscal 2019 ending September 30.
Still, in the Oval Office last week prior to his departure for Asia, Trump told reporters that remains were continuing to be returned.
"We've had, as you know, the remains of the heroes, our great heroes from many years ago, that's coming back, and coming back as they find them, and as they find the sites and the graves, and they're sending them back," Trump said.
At Osan Air Base in South Korea Sunday, following his historic meeting with Kim Jong Un in the Demilitarized Zone, Trump again said in an address to U.S. troops that remains were being returned.
He noted that Osan was the first stop in the repatriation of the 55 boxes of remains that North Korea returned last year, before they returned to Hawaii for a ceremony presided over by Vice President Mike Pence.
"These were our great, great heroes. And they're coming back. They're coming back. Along with, as you know, we have our hostages back. And just things are so different, so different," Trump said, according to the White House transcript.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.