Pfc. Thomas Stagg died on a cold November day in North Korea, mowed down in 1950 by a Chinese ambush along with all 10 fellow soldiers in his Army patrol. He was 21.
That much his family knew: Tommy was dead, killed six days after Thanksgiving, adding a second sad holiday to Christmas, when his only brother had died in World War II. And they were told his body could not be recovered.
Decades passed, but his kin never forgot – least of all his sister, Elsie, who quietly prodded her only son, another military man, to shake the Army bureaucracy for answers.
They found a defense agency that’s equally persistent in identifying and returning the remains of U.S. service members.
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That’s why on Memorial Day, after 66 years, Thomas Stagg will finally come home. He’ll be buried in Birmingham, Ala., with full military honors, in the family plot alongside his brother, William; his father, a World I veteran; and his mother.
“I’ve really been feeling very emotional the last week or so, just knowing it’s coming up,” said Stagg’s niece, Robin Croswhite of Charlotte. “And I think about my grandparents: They lost one son and then the other one. How do you deal with that?”
More than 7,700 Americans remain unaccounted for after the Korean War, in which 33,686 U.S. service members died in battle before fighting ended in 1953.
Croswhite, who was 2 when her uncle died, has no memory of him. Her brother, Larry Leonard of Auburn, Ala., remembers only Stagg and the gunfire crack of a military salute at the funeral of his brother William.
His mother, Leonard said, “just always said she had two great brothers.”
Leonard, 73, was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam and is a retired colonel in the Army Reserves. For years, at his mother’s prodding, he dutifully wrote letters to military brass about his uncle. He joined groups that lobby Congress for more funding to repatriate missing service members, and attended the regional meetings that the military holds for their families.
Elsie Leonard died in 1981, a few years after Stagg’s parents.
“She knew that she was dying and said, ‘I don’t want you to forget about Tommy and the things I’ve asked you to do,’ ” Leonard said.
Clues in an old watch
The task of bringing home the nation’s fallen belongs to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which sends teams all over the world to battlefields where Americans are missing in action. The agency wields an assortment of specialists, from physicians to anthropologists, aided by scientific advances. But it is slow work.
The DPAA is still identifying sailors killed at Pearl Harbor in 1941. While six missing Korean War soldiers from Alabama, Stagg’s home state, have been identified, 147 remained unaccounted for.
“We will stay the course with this mission until the job is done,” the agency’s website vows.
The first crack in the Stagg case came in the early 1990s, when North Korea returned to the U.S. 208 boxes of commingled human remains.
Investigators determined that at least 400 U.S. service members were among them. And North Korean documents said some of the remains were recovered from the area where Stagg was believed to have died.
“For the longest time, it was just a series of bones and teeth, no dog tags or anything,” Leonard said. “It’s like a puzzle, except the pieces are all turned upside down.”
An old wristwatch might have helped confirm the identification.
Leonard and Robin Croswhite had submitted DNA, providing genetic material from the maternal side of Stagg’s line. But Leonard remembered a watch U.S. Steel had given Stagg’s father for 40 years of service.
The watch had a Speidel band, a type famous for its flexibility. Leonard bet some DNA from the male side of the family, particularly useful in these cases, was embedded in the band.
“When I called my representative with DPPA, I said, ‘You know what, I bet there’s a million skin cells in there,’ ” Leonard said. “And he said, ‘We just need one.’ I just have to hope that watch band was the indicator.”
He sent the watch to the agency. While swabs from living family members are best, the agency says DNA might also be obtained from eyeglasses, watches, hearing aids, hats, envelopes, baby hair and baby teeth.
Last December, the agency notified Leonard that it had confirmed its identification of Thomas Stagg. Stagg was the third member of his 11-member squad to be identified, Leonard said he learned.
“In truth, it was sad because my mother’s not alive and his parents are not alive,” he said. “That’s who really needed to know that this had happened. It was a good feeling, but it was a bittersweet feeling.”
Leonard pondered what to say at Monday’s funeral service about an uncle he never really knew. He decided, instead, to let Uncle Tommy speak for himself – Leonard will read from his last letter home.