Note: This story first appeared in the Dec. 1, 2019, issue of The Gaston Gazette newspaper in Gastonia, N.C.
By Michael Banks
It was a Saturday in December, in a frozen, war-torn land half a world away from the forests and streams of Gaston County when the life of Cpl. Earl William Duncan was tragically cut short at the age of 23.
And it was a Saturday, a day before December, nearly 69 years after his death, when the remains of the Korean War veteran were finally put to rest in the soil that he called home.
As a lone bugler played taps under a gray, overcast sky, the casket carrying Duncan’s remains arrived Saturday at his final resting place at Gaston Memorial Park.
His was a journey that had left a father scarred, a mother in mourning and a never-ending quest by siblings to have questions answered. It was one that would originate from a historic summit between the leaders of two countries and the use of DNA analysis that would have been thought of as science fiction in 1950.
Most of all, Saturday was a day for Earl Duncan to return to the land where he loved to hunt and fish and a time for his family, friends and the community to mourn, celebrate and reflect.
“This is a homecoming for one that was lost to us and who we celebrate today. It is nothing short of a miracle to be here today,” said Damien Gula, pastor of McAdenville Wesleyan Church, which was filled with 150 family and friends Saturday afternoon for a welcome home ceremony for Duncan.
Citing the Gospel of Luke chapter 15, Gula talked of the despair when “something of great value is lost” and that corresponding “relentless celebration” when that which is lost is found.
On Dec. 2, 1950, Duncan’s Army infantry company was in the vicinity of the Chosin Reservoir in present-day North Korea when his unit was attacked by enemy forces. Duncan was part of the “Home By Christmas Offensive 1950” that involved 3,000 soldiers and found them fighting four days and five nights in the harshest of conditions with temperatures falling to 35 degrees below zero. He was reported missing in action after the battle ended because his remains could not be recovered.
Duncan would be declared dead on Dec. 31, 1953. And in the ensuing years, no new information about his remains materialized. As the decades passed, questions remained unanswered.
But on July 27, 2018, following a summit a month earlier between President Donald Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, North Korea turned over 55 boxes, purported to contain the remains of American service members killed during the Korean War. Using anthropological and DNA analysis, as well as circumstantial and material evidence, scientists were able to identify Duncan’s remains from one of those boxes.
The family was notified on Sept. 10 and his remains finally arrived in Gaston County on Nov. 23.
Saturday’s day of homecoming started with a family visitation at the McAdenville church as Duncan’s three remaining siblings – brothers Samuel and Howard and sister Elsie – stood beside their brother’s casket that was draped in an American flag.
Overhead, a screen displayed images from Duncan’s life. There were some old black-and-white photos of Duncan with his parents, Prosey and Fronia Mincey Duncan, as well as pictures of him with members of Dog Company, which was part of the 7th Infantry Division’s 32nd Infantry Regiment First Battalion. There were also a great number of family photos, most of them in color. There were marriages, reunions, Christmas celebrations and babies being born. Absent from them all was Earl.
Elsie Loftin, who lives in Lowell, was the only girl among the six Duncan boys. In a letter read by her grandson to the crowd, she talked of the “big brother absent from her life for the past 70 years.” She remembered the pocket full of red pistachios he always seemed to have and the gifts he would send his little sister when he was overseas. And those little trinkets, which were on display Saturday, are “the most highly treasured possessions I will ever own.”
She talked of her big brother’s “generous heart and spirit,” but lamented, “I can’t remember the sound of Earl’s voice. I wish I could.” She also recalled the “complete deafening silence” that enveloped their West Cramerton home when they got the word in December 1950 that Earl was missing in action.
“Our home became a quiet tomb,” Elsie wrote. “Eventually, life would go back to normal for us, but never again for Daddy and Momma.”
She said her father fell into a deep depression and blamed himself for Earl’s death, while her mother was in constant mourning.
And that price paid by Duncan should not be taken for granted, said pastor Michael Loftin, who is Elsie’s grandson and the great-nephew of Earl. Speaking at Saturday’s ceremony, Loftin quoted the Scripture John 15:13: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for friends.”
“It’s men like that who made this country amazing,” Loftin said as he spoke from above Earl’s casket. “This day is about those that made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom and sins. It cost many lives to get us here today.”
With a loud rendition of the hymn “To God Be the Glory” being sung by those in the pews, six members of the U.S. Army’s Military Funeral Honor Guard from Fort Bragg carried Duncan’s remains from the church.
They were also present when his remains arrived at Gaston Memorial Park, led by a convoy of 12 motorcycle riders from the North Carolina Patriot Guard as it passed under a giant American flag held aloft by a ladder truck from the Gastonia Fire Department. The sound of bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace” filled the air as the casket was brought to the grave site by the pall bearers from Fort Bragg.
Under a tent and near the casket, family members sat, surrounded by friends and various military groups, including the Gastonia composite squadron of the Civil Air Patrol and 25 members of the Gaston County Honor Guard.
Speaking graveside, Goda spoke of “this one dearly loved, lost without reach, found and returned home for his final rest. At long last, the search is over.”
A three-volley salute was fired by the military funeral guard with each round representing duty, honor and country. The flag was removed from the casket and presented to Sam Duncan as taps played in the distance.
Howard Duncan said Saturday was a very emotional day and he had decided he was just “gonna let it roll” when it came time for tears. And, for him, that came when taps was played.
The day was about Earl and those who still remain missing, Howard Duncan said.
“There are still thousands of families waiting for this,” he said. “Don’t give up. I had just about given up.”
Three members of The Ride Home, a POW/MIA advocacy group, were at Saturday’s service and made a presentation to the family members. There remain 1,527 service members from North Carolina who are still listed as Missing In Action. Of those, 1,302 are World War II vets, 186 Korean War servicemen and 38 from Vietnam.
The past couple of weeks have been a whirlwind for the Duncan family and Howard admitted at the end of Saturday’s service that it hasn’t quite settled in that his brother is finally home after all these years.
“I suspect the day after tomorrow will be kind of lonesome,” said Howard, who added this Dec. 2 will be different than all those previous anniversaries of Earl’s death.
With his brother’s casket just over his shoulder and tears forming again at the corners of his red-rimmed eyes, Howard said, “It’ll be good. Just knowing Earl’s here. Earl’s home.”