Remains lost for 68 years, this Marine comes home for good
When New Kensington's Seventh Street was blocked by a giant snowball, Daniel Harkins knew that the organizer of the enterprise had to be his older nephew Jack.
And when Georgene Kayafas sat down to dinner, only to have the chair pulled out from under her, the culprit was obvious. Jack Yeager, notorious prankster, had struck again.
He pulled off his youthful hijinks with delightful style, said those attendees at his funeral Saturday who knew him. When she was young, Ms. Kayafas said, she would tell others, "If he wasn't my cousin, I'd fall in love with him."
Marine Cpl. John D. "Jack" Yeager was buried 68 years after his plane crashed during a World War II training mission in the South Pacific. Gone so long, and last seen at age 23, he emerged Saturday as a symbol of youth, service and good humor whose reappearing act may have been his greatest trick of all.
"Bringing together the family, the community and the Marines -- it's just awesome," said Mr. Harkins.
Cpl. Yeager's return was 18 years in the making, starting with the 1994 discovery of aircraft wreckage on the island of Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu. A U.S. Defense Department team underwent special training to excavate the site, and over 10 years recovered the remains of the seven Marines who were on the PBJ-1 bomber. The corporal's wedding ring and Marine identification were found there.
In 2008, Bernard Smith, a nephew of Cpl. Yeager, searched the Internet to verify his birth date for use in a display of his medals.
"And the first article that came up said, 'We are looking for the family of John Daniel Yeager,' " Mr. Smith recounted as he sat in the Ross G. Walker Funeral Home in New Kensington, where a morning of tributes began.
The DNA found at the site was verified using a sample from Marilyn Hendricks Claassen, a niece of Cpl. Yeager. She then spent six months planning his homecoming, which, as she put it, was "unbelievable, the outpouring of love and honor for my uncle."
"He was all but forgotten, on a foreign field, and his remains were given up ever to be found," said the Rev. Kurt W. Skelly, senior pastor of Harvest Baptist Church, at a public service. "I mean, you think about the needle in the haystack. ... God brought him back to us."
A Marine honor guard bore his casket at the funeral home and then at St. Mary Cemetery in Lower Burrell. Soldiers of every stripe, from aging veterans to Junior ROTC members, joined scores of family members and well-wishers.
Motorcyclists with Rolling Thunder and the Patriot Guard Riders joined the procession to the cemetery, led by police and firefighters. The procession passed beneath a giant American flag held aloft by ladder trucks from the Arnold and New Kensington fire departments.
At the cemetery, Marines fired a three-volley salute and doves circled overhead. Later, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 92 held a luncheon that didn't miss a beat when the caterer fell through at the last minute. Volunteers stepped up to grill and serve.
"It's a good example of how deep the patriotism is in this area," said Al Pulice, founder of Pennsylvania Hero Walk, a 14-day, 320-mile relay to raise money for veterans.
Mr. Harkins called it all "overwhelming."
Crash site remains that couldn't be definitively identified will be interred Oct. 4 at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. With the number of World War II veterans dwindling, it's important to say proper goodbyes to the generation that sacrificed so much to defend democracy, old soldiers noted.
"We're all the way at the end of the gate, the flight number has been called," Rev. Skelly said at graveside of Cpl. Yeager's unique journey. "Here we are, saying not 'goodbye,' but 'see you later.' "
First Published September 16, 2012 12:17 am