Seventy-four years after his death, a Marine is returned home to a family who refused to forget
By JESSICA CONTRERA | The Washington Post | Published: December 1, 2018
A bugle sounded taps, a flag was presented, and a Marine was buried Saturday in Maryland - 74 years after his death.
Staff Sgt. Richard Murphy Jr. was one of more than 72,000 Americans listed as "missing in action" in World War II. In June 1944, Murphy was killed in the Pacific off the coast of Saipan in the Northern Marianas. He was 26. His remains washed ashore but were, at the time, unidentified.
They were buried in an American cemetery in the Philippines and remained there until the Department of Defense exhumed them this year and confirmed his identity.
Because of modern science, a determined military historian and a family dedicated to keeping Murphy's memory alive, the Marine was returned to the area where he was born and buried beside his mother at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Silver Spring, Maryland.
"It has been an odyssey," said Murphy's 68-year-old nephew, Gerry Murphy. "We took it for gospel that Uncle Richard was MIA and he'd forever live in our hearts, but now. . . . It's amazing, it's mind-boggling, and it's beautiful."
Murphy's story began a century ago in the District of Columbia, where he was born to Mollie and Richard Murphy, an automobile dealer. Richard Jr. was the youngest of the Irish couple's four children and was known in their rowhouse for being talkative, charming and so talented at piano that his rendition of "Ave Maria" could move a listener to tears. After graduating from Central High School - now known as Cardozo - and Georgetown University, Murphy stayed in the city to work for what was then called the Evening Star newspaper. According to his 1943 enlistment papers, he "wrote stories of local interest" and served as "both [a] leg man and rewrite man."
That experience prepared Murphy for a job as a war correspondent for the Marines. Although he was blind in one eye, he was sent to the front lines to chronicle the war.
"He did not want other boys to do his fighting," his mother once wrote of him. "He wanted a share in the danger."
A year after he enlisted, Murphy met with danger in the Pacific, aboard a vehicle that could navigate land and sea. His fleet was near the Northern Mariana Islands, approaching the Japanese stronghold of Saipan, when mortar fire began to rain down, according to a witness account sent to his mother. In the chaos, Murphy's amphibious craft became stuck on a coral reef. His fellow Marines began jumping overboard, but Murphy, the family story goes, stayed to help a wounded man. "A shell came down and blew the craft out of the water," Gerry Murphy said. "Neither of them were ever seen alive again."
Three months passed before the Murphy family received a telegram: "DEEPLY REGRET TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR SON ... IS MISSING IN ACTION ... I REALIZE YOUR GREAT ANXIETY BUT DETAILS NOT NOW AVAILABLE."
A year later, another telegram confirmed his presumed death. Murphy's trunk, containing 22 books, four notebooks and two tobacco pouches, was shipped back to his parents. His body never was.
For the rest of their lives, Murphy's parents displayed a framed picture of him beside his posthumously awarded Purple Heart. They saved a seat for him at Thanksgiving and toasted him at New Year's Eve.
"Even though we never met him, we felt that we knew him because of all the stories they told about him," his nephew said.
Gerry Murphy inherited the framed picture. It was hanging in his Potomac, Maryland, home in 2014 when he received a call from Kuentai-USA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing home the remains of World War II service members lost in the Pacific. At first, he thought it might be some kind of scam.
He was told it was possible that Uncle Richard had been found. The story began with a man named Ted Darcy, a former Marine who worked to recover wreckage of World War II aircraft for museums and collectors. In 1991, Darcy was working on a plane in Hawaii when he discovered the remains of the pilot beneath it. He reported his find to the government agency tasked with recovering missing service personnel, now known as the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA).
According to Darcy, it took 17 years for that pilot's remains to be returned home. That was Darcy's introduction to a slow-moving process of reunification. Frustrated, Darcy switched his efforts from planes to people and created an organization called the WFI Research Group.
By building databases of missing service members and records of unidentified remains, Darcy has since identified more than 200 service members who had been MIA. A dozen of those have been confirmed by the government. Murphy was his 13th.
Murphy's remains, listed as "Unknown X-15," had been interred in section L, Row 9 of a U.S. cemetery in Manila. The plot was marked with a marble cross inscribed with the words, "Known but to God."
"I think I'm in pretty good company, because I know who it is," Darcy liked to say.
He figured it out in 2010, thanks to Murphy's teeth. When the young Marine enlisted, a medical examiner made a chart marking his gold crown, silver filling and one cavity. That chart was in Darcy's database. It also matched dental records of Unknown X-15 that the government filed before the burial. Darcy notified the government of his discovery.
Four years later, he sought help from Kuentai-USA to accelerate the case. The records were examined by forensic dentists. That analysis convinced the Defense agency DPAA to exhume Murphy's casket in Manila, drain it and fly it to Hawaii. The remains were tested against DNA collected from Gerry Murphy and one of his cousins, Jeanne Minahan Robinson.
In July, eight years after Darcy first identified Murphy and 74 years after the Marine died, DPAA confirmed the match. The Murphys arranged for a November funeral to enable members of the extended family to attend.
On Saturday, more than 75 people filed into St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Rockville, Maryland, to pay tribute to Murphy. A polished wooden casket, his second, was draped with an American flag. A bagpiper came to honor his Irish heritage. An organist played "Ave Maria."
Those gathered to honor Murphy reminisced about the man they had never met but had come to admire so much.
"Now," Robinson announced, "our family can truly join together and say: 'Welcome home, Uncle Richard.' "