Korean War veteran, unidentified for decades, laid to rest in Pittsburgh
For 64 years, he was known only for being unknown.
On Dec. 7, 1950, he was a body riddled with Chinese bullets hurriedly buried in an unmarked grave near North Korea’s Choisin Reservoir.
In 1954, his remains filled one of 25 “Operation Glory” boxes shipped from Korea to the Army’s Camp Kokura in Japan. Marked as Unknown X-13693, his bones revealed only that he was 60 inches tall, of European descent and about 19 when he died.
Two years later, he was interred in Grave 996 of Section U, Court 8 in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, known informally as Punchbowl Cemetery.
That was his identity until 2012, when medical detectives from the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office at the Air Force’s nearby Hickam Field ordered the exhumation of his and seven other bodies, two of which turned out to be the remains of Koreans.
On Jan. 29, he became a hypothesis. After nearly three years in the lab, investigators believed that they matched his teeth and clavicle to the dental and x-ray records of a Marine missing in action at Choisin. They called Dr. Marcella H. Sorg, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Maine, for a second opinion.
Her decision officially gave the nameless man a name: Sgt. John McLaughlin, an infantryman in D Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. The North Side native died while rallying his encircled squad during brutal fighting. His selfless heroism posthumously earned him the Bronze Star Medal for valor.
The Marine Corps buried McLaughlin on Saturday in Cavalry Catholic Cemetery in Hazelwood. His remains traveled across nine time zones, three countries and parts of two centuries before he entered his third grave, but he was finally home.
“You can’t imagine the feeling of closure that comes over you,” said McLaughlin’s niece Lisa DeFilippo, 52, of Erie County.
McLaughlin has only one surviving sibling — DeFilippo’s 86-year-old mom, Agnes.
“There were 10 in the family, and she’s the only one of them who gets to know — in this lifetime anyway — that he’s back, but all of us kept his memory alive,” DeFilippo said.
That’s why the United States goes to such great lengths to bring everyone back, dead or alive, according to Air Force Lt. Col. Melinda Morgan, spokeswoman for the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office in Washington.
“Often, the torch of that service member’s memory is carried from family member to family member,” Morgan said, pointing to the DeFilippos, who kept photographs of McLaughlin on the mantle and remembered him during family celebrations.
The Pentagon lists 7,852 service members still missing from the Korean War. A bronze rosette will be affixed to McLaughlin’s crypt in the Punchbowl, alerting visitors that he has been returned to Pittsburgh.
His identity might have been discovered sooner, but the well-intentioned science of the 1950s came to dog the investigation decades later.
The American Graves Registration Service, a section of the Army’s Quartermaster Corps, debuted a system during the Korean War to quickly find, identify and ship the remains of slain soldiers to America for burial. It involved mortuary troops radiating and packing all the unknowns in a formaldehyde resin.The method, then considered the best means to preserve bodies for identification, destroyed DNA that would have linked McLaughlin to genetic samples of his relatives the military took decades later.
McLaughlin’s burial Saturday fulfilled a pledge by today’s armed forces: No man left behind.
‘An incredible honor’
Five months ago, a dossier of McLaughlin’s military career — including all the forensics work to identify him — landed on Hattie Johnson’s desk. She retired from the Marines after 22 years of duty and became a civilian employee at the Corps headquarters in Quantico, Va., specially tasked with reuniting families with the remains of their loved ones.
Her delicate job involves handing over Marines’ dog tags, watches and other possessions, which sometimes include romantic letters and snapshots. She ensures that surviving relatives get the chance to attend the service member’s funeral, all expenses paid.
“I absolutely love my job. I get to bring families to closure,” she said.
Last year, Johnson met the families of 22 fallen Marines. Many were relatives of men killed while taking the Pacific island of Tarawa in late 1943.
Investigators continue to sort remains that were relocated when the Navy carved a runway through their World War II graveyard.
“There have been times when I’ve cried. I’ve asked the families to pardon me, but I get to know these Marines. I get to see their pictures, read their records. So many of them are so young. It gets to you, and you’re crying harder than the family sometimes,” she said.
The last Marine in a chain of custody stretching from Choisin Reservoir to Pittsburgh was 1st Sgt. Mario Castaneda, the top active-duty enlisted Marine at the Corps’ Erie reserve depot. He escorted McLaughlin’s casket from Hawaii to Pittsburgh International Airport on Friday, solemnly standing watch over it as it entered a glass hearse operated by Allegheny County employees.
On Saturday, Castaneda folded the flag that draped the coffin and gently pressed it into Agnes DeFilippo’s hands, telling the Crawford County woman that it is a symbol of appreciation from a grateful nation.
“It’s an incredible honor,” said Castaneda, 36, a Chicago native who has gone on five combat deployments overseas, his last to Afghanistan in 2010. “In fact, I can’t think of any greater honor than to bring Sgt. McLaughlin home.”
Carl Prine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.