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70 years later, a hero's return

NEW KENSINGTON — Jack Yeager came home Saturday, about 70 years after he left.

He came home to a family that has two members who were alive when he left but a family nonetheless overjoyed at his return.

Even though it was in a casket draped with an American flag.

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“This is my uncle Jack,” his niece, Marilyn Harkins Claassen said, gently placing her hand on the casket in the Ross G. Walker Funeral Home. “It’s hard to believe. They say, ‘No soldier’s left behind,’ but so many soldiers are left behind.”

The remains of U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. John D. “Jack” Yeager, who left New Kensington in October 1942 to fight the Japanese in World War II, were laid to rest Saturday in St. Mary Cemetery, Lower Burrell with full military honors.

Yeager, a Marine airman, was killed on April 22, 1942, when the bomber in which he was a tailgunner crashed in a storm during a training flight. He was 23 years old.

The family thought for most of that time that his plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean since that was what the Marines Corps told them.

However, a report that detailed that the plane was lost over the island of Espiritu Santo, part of Vanuatu, was misplaced.

Then in 1994, a private expedition that was searching for another crash site came upon the site where Yeager’s plane crashed.

Located in rugged terrain with dense vegetation, the site was difficult to access. Finally, from 2009 to 2011, recovery teams excavated the site during three 45-day missions.

Yeager’s remains were identified through a DNA match with a sample provided by Claassen along with an ID bracelet he wore and an inscribed wedding ring.

On Friday, the remains were flown to Pittsburgh International Airport, where Claassen and her cousin, John “Jack” Smith of Lower Burrell, and an honor guard of eight Marines, met the casket when it arrived. Smith was named after his uncle.

“It means everything in the world that he is home with us,” Smith said after the funeral. “It really meant something more than words can express to see them take him off the plane. It was an experience. I wouldn’t want to do it again.”

His brother, Bernie Smith, 74, of New Kensington, and Claassen’s brother, Daniel Harkins, 79, of Carrollton, Texas, are the two family members who knew their uncle. Bernie Smith was 5 when Yeager went off to war.Harkins was 10.

One vivid memory for Harkins was Christmas Day 1941, 18 days after the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

“Christmas was at our house, and he said he was going to join the Marines,” Harkins said. “And that kind of put a shadow over everything.”

But he said his uncle Jack picked up one of his presents, a toy gun that shot corks about 10 feet. Pointing it toward the Christmas tree, said, “Watch me hit that yellow light right there.”

“He shot and hit that light square, shattering it, and that kind of lightened the mood,” Harkins said.

“I think the thing that meant the most to me today was how the community remembered him,” Bernie Smith said. “I think all the veterans groups participated.”

Indeed, members of the VFW, the Marine Corps League and the American Legion participated.

A group of cadets from the Valley High School Army ROTC stood at attention outside the funeral home along Freeport Road and an honor guard detachment from Rolling Thunder, the motorcycle group that campaigns for the return of American prisoners of war and finding those missing in action, were part of the funeral procession.

Right before the entrance to the cemetery along Route 56, the aerial truck ladders from New Kensington and Arnold fire departments formed an arch with a large American flag in the center for the procession to pass under.

The homecoming for the uncle she knew only through stories from her family and reading the countless letters he wrote while in the Marines, is “a continuance,” Claassen said.

“A continuance of his memory,” she said. “Yes, there is closure, and he is here at home and I can visit him.

But it is a continuance of the love he gave to us and we can continue to give to him.”

Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4675 or tyerace@tribweb.com.

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