The Pentagon website has news releases reporting changes in command, call-ups of reserve forces, the deaths of service men and women in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Occasionally you’ll see a release announcing that the remains of soldiers, sailors and airmen missing in action in previous wars have been identified. These are always extraordinary – recently I’ve seen listings about MIAs from World War II and the Korean War. But one I saw earlier this summer has stuck in my mind. The release, though written in the spare prose you’d expect from the Department of Defense, had a penetrating fragment of humanity.
The release from June 22 was titled, “Marine missing in action from World War I identified.” http://www.defense.gov/releases/release.aspx?releaseid=13627
Your first reaction might be: How can they still identify someone killed in a war more than a hundred years ago? So of course you want to read on. But there’s more to this story than the forensics and circumstantial evidence that led to the identification of 1st Sgt. George H. Humphrey of Utica, N.Y.
Humphrey died in France on Sept. 15, 1918, two months before the Armistice. He was fighting in the first U.S.-led offensive of the First World War under Gen. John J. Pershing’s command. The battle was the St. Mihiel Offensive, which had a couple of firsts for the Americans – the use of tanks and the term “D-Day,” according to the Pentagon.
Humphrey was with the 6th Marine Regiment attached to the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division. A German machine-gun bullet got him in the head, killing him instantly. He was 29. His buddies buried him the next day.
The part of the story that has stayed with me is this: More than a year later, in October 1919, a Marine who saw the sergeant die sent a letter to Humphrey’s brother. He wrote about the attack near the village of Rembercourt and sent a map he’d drawn showing where Humphrey was buried, as he remembered it.
It was a heartfelt gesture and must have given the grieving Humphrey family some consolation, knowing that perhaps they could bring their George home someday.
What a cruel disappointment it must have been when they learned that the Army had searched the battlefield and couldn’t find his remains.
Sadly, Sgt. Humphrey’s immediate family would not live to know where he lay.
And 90 years went by.
In September 2009, the Pentagon says, some French people hunting for war relics “found artifacts near Rembercourt-sur-Mad they believed to be those of a World War I American soldier.” A month later, the U.S. military dug up the area and found human remains and a marksman’s badge bearing Humphrey’s name. Dental comparisons helped identify the remains.
On June 23, Humphrey was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. A photo was taken at the gravesite, showing Marine Brig. Gen. Walter Miller presenting the American flag to relatives, who did not want to be named. http://www.daylife.com/topic/John_J._Pershing.
Here’s the link to a July 5 story about Humphrey that ran in the Beaver Dam Daily Citizen in Wisconsin, where he grew up: http://www.wiscnews.com/bdc/news/local/article_720ee888-88b8-11df-b2e3-001cc4c002e0.html. The story includes the text of the letter sent to Humphrey’s brother.
Presumably, the letter has stayed with the family all these years.
I’m guessing that’s because it’s timeless.