At a country church in Rutherford County, Army Sgt. Cameron Morrison Flack, 18, worshipped the Sunday before he left for the Korean War, where he’d be declared missing in the epic Battle of the Chosin Reservoir.
His relatives will gather at the same church this Sunday when Flack’s remains, positively identified through DNA testing, will be buried with full military honors.
In the early 1950s, Flack’s parents, I.K. and Texie, had a monument erected in their son’s memory at Round Hill Baptist Church cemetery in Union Mills, about 80 miles west of Charlotte. The stone has Flack’s name, his birthday, Jan. 3, 1932, the date he was reported missing, Dec. 12, 1950, along with statements that he “gave his life in service of his country” and that his body rests in Korea.
A new inscription will say that his remains were returned on Nov. 2, 2014.
As a bugler sounds taps Sunday near the grave with mountains in the distance, Flack’s sister, Shirley Mace, will remember the young soldier who went to war in 1950 and didn’t come back. Flack grew up on a farm and left school at age 17 to join the Army.
“He’s home, he’s home, thank God he’s home,” said Mace, 76, of Glenwood. “I’m already shouting and praising the Lord. My brother was a good guy – the best ever.”
On Oct. 24, the U.S. Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office announced that Flack’s remains had been identified and would be returned to the family.
In November 1950, he was serving with the 7th Infantry Division on the eastern banks of the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea. Chinese troops overcame U.S. positions and U.S. troops withdrew to the south.
In Flack’s unit, 1,300 soldiers out of a force of 3,200 were killed or captured. He was reported missing in action.
According to the Defense Department, between 1991 and 1994, North Korea turned over to the U.S. 208 boxes of human remains believed to contain more than 400 U.S. servicemen who fought during the war. North Korean documents that came with the boxes indicated that some of the remains were recovered from where Flack was believed to have died.
To identify Flack’s remains, scientists used circumstantial evidence and forensic identification tools, including DNA, which matched his sisters, the Defense Department said.
The Joint POW/Missing Personnel Office excavates sites across the globe and runs a laboratory where remains can be identified. But statistics suggest that chances of identification are slim.
The government, which spends about $100 million annually on recovery efforts, makes about 72 identifications a year. At that rate, National Public Radio and ProPublica concluded in a recent investigation, it would take more than 600 years to identify the more than 83,000 service members missing since World War II.
That new investigation blamed the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command for using an outdated approach. The agency, it said, “is hindered by several layers of bureaucracy, an aversion to risk and a reluctance to lead with DNA testing.”
Two Rutherford County veterans set the wheels in motion that led to the identification of Flack’s remains.
In 2005, Billy Seay of Forest City found a list of Korean War soldiers from North Carolina killed in action on the state American Legion website. Four were from Rutherford County.
Seay and Jack Nanney, Flack’s second cousin, began tracking down relatives of the missing soldiers to get DNA samples. They were able to get samples from three of the four families. Later, they learned family members of the fourth soldier had provided DNA samples.
So far, Flack is the only missing soldier from Rutherford County whose remains have been identified.
“This makes me feel good,” Seay said. “Hopefully, the others can be identified.”
In August, Sherry Brooks Parker of Marion got a call from Defense Department officials who told her they had gotten a positive identification of her uncle’s remains.
Family members met with a Defense Department representative for a detailed explanation of the identification process.
Over the years, she said the family had been updated on the progress.
Family members went to Washington twice, had two or three meetings in Charlotte and got two or three letters a year.
“People ask me why it took so long, but I feel they were doing everything they could do,” said Parker, 59.
Although Parker never knew her uncle, “I feel like I grew up with him,” she said.
Every first Sunday in June, the family put flowers on Flack’s monument in the cemetery.
“My mother would cry every time she thought about him,” Parker said. “She really took it hard.”
Mace recalled her brother sent his Army pay home to his parents every month.
“He told mom to use it to help send the girls to school,” she said.
In 1950, Flack made a brief stop in Union Mills before heading to Korea. The day he left home, he started down a dirt path to the main road when Mace discovered he’d forgotten something. She doesn’t remember what the object was, but she picked it up and ran to her brother. That’s the last time she saw him.
The news that Flack was missing in action “tore daddy and mom apart,” Mace said. “I’d never seen my daddy cry. He grieved himself to death, and mom was never the same. She’d say her son was missing in action. But she never, ever said he was gone.”
Flack’s remains were flown from Hawaii to Atlanta and arrived at Charlotte Douglas International Airport on Friday. A group of Patriot Guard Riders accompanied a Crowe’s Mortuary hearse back to Rutherford County.
Funeral director Paul Crowe, who is distantly related to Flack, said the service on Sunday will be the first of its kind for him.
“I’m glad they were able to get the boy home,” he said. “It’s a long time to be away from family. It’s a comfort to me as a distant relative.”
‘Just an ordinary guy’
For 81-year-old Jack Nanney of Union Mills, the return of his second cousin’s remains was “overwhelming.”
“He was just an ordinary guy,” Nanney said.
They talked for the last time the Saturday afternoon before Flack headed off to war. In busy downtown Rutherfordton, the cousins hopped on the flat bed of a 2-1/2 ton truck that took them up U.S. 221 to Union Mills.
“Our feet were dangling out the back,” Nanney said. “And we were shooting the bull.”
Later, he would hear about what he calls the “pure hell” of the Chosin Reservoir battle that claimed his cousin’s life. The fighting took place in brutally cold weather with temperatures plunging to near 40 below zero.
Flack had two brothers, Charles and Mike, who fought in Korea. A first cousin, Army Master Sgt. Austin Flack, survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in World War II and spent 38 months in a prisoner of war camp during the Korean War.
On Sunday, when Flack’s remains are buried in the tree-lined cemetery at Round Hill, Nanney doesn’t know what he’ll think.
“I’m 81 years old,” he said. “This is something I thought I’d never see.”