Deanna Klenda got to hold her brother Dean again, 51 years after he was shot down.
Carl Wagoner got to tell his long-dead brother Lewis goodbye, just before he died in December.
A U.S. Army Master Sergeant, Tolliver Hill, escorted Wayne Minard’s body home, to the unincorporated town of Furley – and became close friends with the Korean War soldier’s family. They still talk with Tolliver six months later.
Those three families never thought they’d see a Memorial Day like this one.
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They thought for decades that their missing men were lost for good, on battlefields on the other side of the world.
But U.S. military recovery teams last year brought Dean Klenda home from Vietnam, Wayne Minard home from North Korea, and Lewis Wagoner home from the mass grave near Pearl Harbor that he’d rested in since 1941.
Funerals are for grieving. But these three families today feel liberated, grateful and proud.
Dean Klenda, Vietnam War
After the U.S. military brought F-105 fighter-bomber pilot Dean Klenda home, his sister Deanna held all of him that remained – in the palm of her hand.
Her soul mate, her witty and clever brother, had parachuted out of his plane after it was shot down over North Vietnam in 1965. But his ejection seat failed to separate, and Dean’s body fell into the jungle.
It took 51 years and a Vietnamese farmer to find him, and by that time not much was left of his earthly self: a bit of dental remains, just enough to identify who they’d belonged to.
Deanna Klenda by that time had spent 51 years showing up at meetings with the U.S. military, insisting that they keep looking, that they keep talking to our former North Vietnamese enemies.
“I’d even go to five or six meetings a year, all over the country,” she said last week. “ ‘Here she is again.’ I’m sure that’s what they thought.”
But eight months after his funeral, she showed up at another meeting a month ago, in Kansas City, of military recovery team people who find the bodies of our missing warriors.
“I had tears in my eyes,” Klenda said. “And I thanked them.”
Dean was buried in his hometown of Pilsen, Kan., on Sept. 17.
Deanna plans to decorate his grave on Sunday. The caretakers of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., which contains her brother’s name carved into the black Memorial stone, invited Deanna to come to a Memorial Day ceremony there. She declined.
“I worked 51 hard years to bring him home,” she said. “On Memorial Day, I’m going to be here – with him.”
When they brought that bit of tooth home, she hugged it, small as it was.
Lewis Wagoner, World War II
For 75 years after the battleship USS Oklahoma rolled over and sank during the Pearl Harbor sneak attack, Carl Wagoner built a little shrine in his home, with flags and memorabilia, honoring not only his brother but other family members who had served in the U.S. military, of which there were quite a few.
Carl never let go of hope that his brother’s remains would be found. But it was a slim hope.
The USS Oklahoma lay upside down in Pearl Harbor mud for months after the Japanese attack. By the time men with blowtorches cut deep into the steel bowels of the dead ship, there wasn’t much left of the drowned sailors.
Bone fragments from many often ended up in one coffin. Most of the unidentified remains were buried in mass graves at the military cemetery on Oahu known as The Punchbowl.
Carl, in the 75 years after the attack, lived his long life, told his children about his brother, and kept hoping. When DNA analysis finally identified several bones as belonging to Lewis, Carl was in his late 80s. His health was failing.
At Lewis’ funeral outside Whitewater, on Oct. 8, the U.S. military handed the casket flag to Carl at Lewis’ graveside. In the photo of the flag presentation, you can see how emotional Carl felt as he took that flag in his hands.
“It brought a comforting feeling, a feeling of joy to all of us,” Carl’s daughter Lee Longaker said last week. “Finally, after all these years, my uncle Lewis is home and no longer lies in a mass grave, where nobody knows who are what.”
Her father lasted only two months after his brother’s funeral.
Carl Wagoner, 87, died in Wichita in December.
“It was almost as though as he was waiting for his brother,” Longaker said.
“Once that happened, he knew that he could go.”
Wayne Minard, Korean War
U.S. Army Master Sgt. Tolliver Hill was a stranger until recently to the family of Wayne Minard, an Army corporal who starved to death in a North Korean prison camp in 1951.
At Minard’s funeral on Nov. 12, Hill was one of the several soldiers who oversaw funeral preparations and saw to it that Minard’s family was treated with dignity, respect and full military honors.
That family had suffered terribly in the 66 years since Wayne, just a kid, left the U.S. and fought in several battles in the Korean War.
In a way, the Korean War prison camp guards who let Wayne starve to death killed his mother, Bertha, too. She died shortly after Wayne died – of a broken heart, the family says.
“Wayne’s death did cause a lot of heartache,” said Bruce Stubbs, the son of Wayne’s niece, Janet Stubbs. “My mother would tear up, talking about it years later.”
The funeral brought not only more of a sense of peace, but a surprise friendship.
“The military funeral those guys gave us was outstanding,” Stubbs said. “We all went out to dinner that evening, and all of us were raving about the excellence of the military chaplain’s sermon, the graveside services … it meant the world to our family.”
And before and after the funeral, a friendship developed.
“Our main point of contact with the military was Master Sgt. Tolliver Hill, and … well, he’s just an outstanding individual,” Stubbs said.
“We took him out to dinner. We’ve remained in contact with him. I talked with him again just two weeks ago.
“On Mother’s Day, he even called up my mother and wished her a happy Mother’s Day.”