GOSHEN, Ohio (FOX19) - It was one soldier’s incredible homecoming 70 years in the making, and the Korean War veteran’s family says it’s the celebration they’ve been waiting for their whole lives.
There were no tears at the viewing at the Evans Funeral Home in Goshen this week. U.S. Army Private First Class Roger Lee Woods’ family said this was one of the happiest days of their lives, knowing their uncle, their father’s brother, will finally be laid to rest, at home, with their family in Goshen. They showed him open-casket, which was something even Funeral Director Lewis Frith said was a first for him too.
"He was missing in action, X274,” said Woods’ niece, Judy Allen. “He's not that anymore. He's Private First Class Roger L Woods."
Woods was not even 18 when he enlisted, and was one of the first casualties of the Korean War in 1950, and had been missing since then.
"My grandpa suffered a lot, because he was just barely 17 when he went in,” said Allen.
And that many parents in the U.S. suffered, after giving the green light for their kids to go to war, then losing them and living with guilt the rest of their lives.
"He was one of the first and they were very under manned. They didn't have supplies. It's almost like they were sitting ducks,” said Allen. "We didn't know if he was in North Korea or South Korea, we knew he was there somewhere."
They'd heard about Woods their whole lives.
"He sent his paycheck home to my grandpa to help out the family,” said Allen. “He was a good guy."
Along with letters, Woods had sent home to the family, they’ve held onto all these years.
Judy was barely 2 -- and her sister Stevie a newborn -- when their Uncle Roger died. But before Stevie was born he’d written letters asking about her.
“Mom, would you please send me a picture of the new baby girl?” said Stevie Rose. “And that was me!”
Sadly, they never got to send that baby picture. Roger had been killed in action.
He will actually have been buried three times. Villagers buried him in Korea, then the U.S. sent recovery teams and exhumed him and buried him in Hawaii with all of the other soldiers considered missing in action. Fast forward to now, his remains were brought from CVG to Goshen with a red, white and blue motorcade, for an open casket viewing, and his eventual third burial.
His remains are carefully stored below his uniform in the casket. In an image the U.S. Army provided, on the left Roger’s skeletal remains can clearly be seen, with the areas in red showing bones still missing, but his family said despite that, this is a victory.
“Hey! I went nuts!” said Rose exuberantly. “I’m still so happy that he is home!”
His purple heart and other medals, plus a trophy for excellent marksmanship, were all on display beside his casket.
"We don't have to worry, we don't have to wonder anymore. We don't have to say we have an uncle who's missing in action,” said Allen.
Back in May, Rose had just posted his picture to Facebook. She’d been doing research on him for years and just had a strange feeling there was about to be a break in his case.
"I just had posted his picture saying, now Uncle Roger, you're coming home, you’re coming home this year,” said Rose. "An hour later I got a call saying, he's identified!"
"Your collar bone is like a fingerprint for your bones,” said U.S. Army Major Patrick Hernandez, who is with the Human Resources Command as part of Casualty Mortuary Affairs Operations Division at Fort Knox, Ky., part of the Past Conflict Repatriations Branch.
He said, they aligned Woods’ bones, with the same position they were in when his original enlistment X-rays were taken, and voila, it was a match.
"They actually superimpose the two X-rays in sections over each other and you can see, it’s a perfect formation,” said Hernandez. “And that’s what really was the final lock it in saying, yeah, this is Private Woods.”
Hernandez said in the next seven years, all remains from the Pacific Theater will be exhumed from the graveyard in Hawaii and they will use that collar bone test and new DNA testing techniques on all of them. He said they got lucky with Roger Woods, the first soldier they tried this new process on.
Looking at the damage to Woods’ skull and midsection, Hernandez said Woods died likely an explosion from a grenade or some kind of immediate explosion. His DNA was not a perfect match, but his collar bone, and an injury he’d sustained to it as a child, sealed the deal.
The final viewing for Woods is 11 a.m. Thursday at the Evans Funeral Home in Goshen.