JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A Jacksonville soldier finally came home after 63 years Thursday.
Cpl. Joe Howard, a Jacksonville native who perished in a North Korean prison camp, was buried in Jacksonville National Cemetery with full military honors and a tombstone with his name on it.
Under gray skies and misting rain, his remaining family members finally got to welcome their “Uncle Bubba” home.
“All we ever knew was that he was in Washington, D.C., and went off to war and never came home. Uncle Bubba never came home,” Howard’s niece, Beverly Moreland, said. “It gives us a final rest and we’re deeply honored that the military would go to this extent. This is beautiful, that no soldier would be left on foreign soil and we’ve just been honored to witness this today — we’re all in awe.”
To the family, the service, at least in some small measure, gave Howard the funeral he never got.
According to the Army, Cpl. Howard died of malnutrition in Prisoner of War Camp 5 near Pyoktong, North Korea in 1951.
It was a long road home for Howard. As part of the 503rd Field Artillery Regiment, he was captured by Chinese forces Nov. 30, 1950.
“As a member of the 503rd, Cpl. Howard was probably marched for several weeks across North Korea,” according to Lt. Col. Bill Latham, author of “Cold Days in Hell: American POWs in Korea.”
After being forced marched to Camp 5 on the banks of the Yalu River, the horrid conditions got no better that winter.
“It was an extremely cold winter for an extremely cold place,” Latham said. “The Yalu Valley is bordered by mountains on both sides which blocks the sunlight and channelized the wind, which makes the wind chill terrible.”
Latham estimates there were about 3,000 Americans housed at Camp 5. At least 1,000 of them died before the winter of 1950-51 was over.
Cpl. Howard’s remains were handed over to the United States during a war-dead exchange in 1954, but because of a lack of technology, identities couldn’t be confirmed. He was buried anonymously at the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii.
The only boy in the family, all of his sisters have since passed away, leaving only nieces and nephews behind. But not before the last, his closest sister Ruby, was able to provide DNA to the Army that proved to be the crucial puzzle piece needed to identify him.
“They had three black males whose dental records were very similar,” Moreland said. “Then my Aunt Ruby submitted DNA, and it matched.”
On Thursday, Joe Howard got the funeral he deserved. Representatives from the City of Jacksonville, American Legion, Korean War Veterans Association, Missing in America Project and an Army honor guard all came to pay their respects.
From the mountains of North Korea to Hawaii, Cpl. Howard was finally laid to rest at the Jacksonville National Cemetery under the St. Augustine grass he would have recognized.
“This is where all the family is, which is why we chose the National Cemetery here in Jacksonville instead of Arlington National Cemetery,” Moreland said. “He was born here in Jacksonville, so he’s come back home.”