Another soldier lost in the Korean War is coming home to Kentucky after 60 years.
The remains of Army Sgt. Charles Patterson Whitler, found in North Korea and identified through family DNA samples, will be interred with full military honors Friday at his hometown of Cloverport in Breckinridge County near Elizabethtown.
Whitler was 22 and a member of 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, when he went missing Nov. 2, 1950, during heavy fighting around Unsan. Whitler, who had just returned to duty from an earlier wound, was in a unit that became involved in hand-to-hand combat, cut off by large force of Communist Chinese troops.
For the next six decades, Whitler's family had no idea what actually had happened to him. Only in June did the family learn that remains had been found and positively identified as those of Whitler.
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"I never knew him, just the stories my family told," said Whitler's niece, Mary Furnish of Lexington, who will attend Friday's services.
"I know he was a little guy with blond hair who had an outgoing personality and was quick with a joke," she said. "I wish I'd had a chance to meet him."
U.S. military officials now say that Whitler was in a group of 10 U.S. soldiers captured by the Chinese. Whitler and his companions later were handed over to North Korean soldiers, who marched them to a nearby farm field and gunned them down. Three Americans survived. One of them told the story.
A joint U.S.-North Korea search team discovered remains of the seven victims in a mass grave in 2004. Experts from the U.S. Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command then began the exhaustive process of identification.
Whitler is the second of the victims to come to Kentucky. The remains of Cpl. Harry Reeve, recovered from the same grave and identified through DNA samples, were interred at Radcliff, near Fort Knox, last month.
Now, it is Whitler who is coming home.
"I remember the day we heard he was missing like it was yesterday," said Whitler's youngest sister, Mary K. Mitchell, now living near Sacramento, Calif.
Mitchell, 5 at the time, remembers it vividly because that same evening her father collapsed and died of a heart attack. She still thinks his death was caused by the shock of learning that his son was missing.
"I grew up listening to my other brothers speculate about what had happened to Pat, always hoping he had escaped somehow and was living on a desert island or something," Mitchell said.
About a decade ago, Mitchell began searching military records and talking with Korean War veterans, hoping to find clues about her brother's death. She also donated a sample of her DNA so that if remains were ever found they could be identified. Unbeknownst to Mitchell, another sister, Sandra Robinson, now deceased, also had given a DNA sample. Mitchell said it was Robinson's DNA that forensic experts ultimately used to identify Whitler.
But it was Mitchell who first got word in June that he had been found.
"I was so stunned; it's still hard to get my mind around it," she said. "The fact that Pat is going to be brought home and buried beside his mother and father after so long, it's just incredible. All I really wanted was to learn what had happened. I never dreamed they would actually find him."
Mitchell, Nancy Sue Haley, Whitler's only other living sibling, and other family members plan to attend the service.
Relocating her brother is doubly meaningful for Mitchell. Her youngest son, Jeff, a Sacramento County, Calif., deputy sheriff, was murdered three years ago, and the case remains unsolved.
"Finding Pat," Mitchell said, "has kind of given us renewed hope that they will find who killed Jeff."