BRAZIL, Ind. — For Larry “The Flag Man” Eckhardt, lining flags along the funeral route for Korean War veteran Robert Gene Archer — who died as a prisoner of war 62 years ago — is an “honor beyond all honors.”
Eckhardt, an Illinois man who has helped honor fallen troops across the country with similar tributes, arrived at French Funeral Home just after 1 p.m. Friday. About 100 volunteers showed up on a cloudy, chilly day to help place the flags.
“This man is a hero beyond description as far as I’m concerned,” Eckhardt said. “I cannot tell you how it affects me.”
He brought 2,100 flags to line the five-mile funeral route, which would extend west from the Brazil funeral home on U.S. 40 and then south on Water Works Road to Summit Lawn Cemetery.
Archer was just 19 when he was captured by North Korean forces in late 1950 and became a prisoner or war. He died on Feb. 28, 1951, far from his family, friends and home.
Recently, through DNA testing by the U.S. military, Cpl. Archer’s remains were identified and he finally returned to his hometown of Brazil on Tuesday.
Eckhardt said he had just been to a military funeral in Michigan, but “I was going to be here no matter what … When we get to welcome one of these guys back that has waited so long, and their families have wondered for so long, it is just phenomenal.”
He briefly addressed the crowd, paying tribute to veterans and to those who volunteered Friday. “Without you, this would not happen,” he said.
He then instructed volunteers to place the flags about 12 large steps apart down both sides of the road, but not in front of traffic devices. The three-by-five foot flags are on 10-foot poles.
Flags were then loaded into pickup trucks and vans, and teams of volunteers went to different parts of the funeral route. Volunteers used iron bars and sledge hammers to create holes in the ground next to the roadway, and others then planted the flags.
Among those placing flags along U.S. 40 in downtown Brazil were Charles and Mary Helen Fuhrer of Terre Haute. “You get chills planting the flags and thinking it’s an honor for this man,” said Mary Helen Fuhrer, a retired Vigo County School Corp. teacher.
“It’s good to have him come home,” said Charles Fuhrer.
Closer to the cemetery, along Water Works Road, Michele Neese of Poland helped place flags with her 16-year-old son, Cole.
“I felt like it was very important to honor his memory, even though it’s been as long ago as it has. I read he didn’t have a lot of family,” said Neese, who is a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. “I thought it was important that the community show support,” especially since Archer had been a prisoner of war.
Also volunteering were several members of the Indiana Air National Guard 181st Intelligence Wing. They wanted to be there “to welcome home a long-awaited brother in arms,” said Lt. Col. Robert Wiemuth.
Brazil Mayor Brian Wyndham and about 10 city workers assisted. “As a community, we’re very honored to be part of this and we want to make sure our veterans are honored,” Wyndham said.
Tom Archer, a nephew of the fallen soldier, described Friday’s turnout for the placing of flags as “fantastic. It’s unbelievable … It’s really hard to express the emotion and gratitude.”
Eckhardt also praised the community for the strong turnout Friday. He described the mood as more upbeat than is typically the case in such circumstances. “We’re welcoming somebody home. At the same time, it’s a tribute to all of our Korean soldiers,” Eckhardt said.
Being able to help honor Archer “is beyond description. How do you describe a young man that has been gone for 62 years? He’s basically served his country for 62 years,” Eckhardt said.
Also volunteering Friday was Charles Carlton, 80, of Bridgeton, a Korean War veteran. While he didn’t know Archer, he believed it was important to help place the flags on Friday. “I think he deserves it. We were both in the same place. I made it back; he didn’t,” Carlton said.