WWII POW Hulon Raper's relatives hope DNA testing can identify his remains
By DREW C. WILSON | The Wilson Daily Times, N.C. | Published: April 14, 2020
WILSON, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — Pvt. Hulon Lee Raper’s family just wants to find him and bring him home.
Now, some 78 years after the Bataan Death March and Raper’s death in a prisoner of war camp, a genealogist working on behalf of the U.S. Army has reached out to the soldier’s Wilson County and Johnston County family members asking for DNA to verify that the remains the government has found are that of the World War II serviceman from Kenly.
“All these years, nobody knew what happened to him,” said Bonnie Kaye House, Raper’s niece. “It’s been an issue our whole life, and I would love for him to go back home to his mama and daddy.”
House is one of four relatives whose biological data could establish that the remains are Pvt. Raper’s.
Hulon Lee Raper, born Aug. 3, 1921, in Wilson County, just outside Kenly, was a member of the U.S. Army 454 Ordnance Co., Aviation, in the Philippines when Japanese troops captured him on April 9, 1942. Raper joined 75,000 American and Filipino prisoners who were marched 66 miles to prisoner of war camps after the fall of Bataan. Thousands died along the way.
Raper ended up at the largest camp, the Cabanatuan Prison Camp, in Nueva Ecija Province, Central Luzon, Philippines, where 8,000 prisoners were held.
Raper died of malaria on June 24, 1942, at the age of 20. He’s thought to have been buried in a communal camp grave.
Genealogist Paul Stoetzel of Eagle Investigative Services, working on behalf of the U.S. Army’s Past Conflicts Repatriation Branch, recently reached out to Raper’s relatives asking if they would donate DNA in an effort to positively identify the soldier.
“When I do my genealogical research, I reach out to the families and speak with them about it to find out if they would be willing to take a DNA test,” Stoetzel said. “The PCRB actually does the reach-out for the test. They will send them the kit. They will talk with them about the results or anything like that. I am a documentary genealogist, not a DNA guy, so I just identify the people who can take the tests.”
Along with House, Shirley Shirley of the Beulah community, Wayne Stone of Wilson and Woody Raper of Virginia were identified to take the DNA tests.
Raper’s parents were Matthew Turner Raper and Pearcy Ellen Lamm Raper. All four of those identified to take the test are descendants of Raper’s siblings.
Raper’s parents lived out their lives never knowing what happened to their son.
Most burials at the Cabanatuan Prisoner of War Camp Cemetery were on a mass grave basis, according to Bill Costello, public affairs officer with the U.S. Army Human Resources Command at Fort Knox, Kentucky, home of the Past Conflicts Repatriation Branch.
“Many discrepancies were noted in the recording of burials, which may have been due to the fact that the interments of bodies were made under wartime conditions and under the supervision of the Japanese,” Costello said “With the advancement of technology, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency is currently re-looking and will eventually disinter all Cabanatuan losses in hopes of positively identifying these soldiers and reuniting them with their families. To aid in this process, the U.S. Army has contracted the services of certified genealogy companies who try to identify the soldiers’ current primary next of kin, secondary next of kin and DNA-eligible family members who are willing to aid in the identification process.”
House’s mother, Gladys Raper House, was 10 when big brother Hulon Lee went to war at age 17.
“She remembered how he cried because he didn’t want to go to war. She was the baby girl, and he was the baby boy,” House recalled her mother saying. “There were five of them that went, and he was the only one that cried and didn’t want to go.”
“Delma, Henry, Leslie, Wilbert, Hulon Lee, all brothers, were in World War II at the same time,” House said. “The Raper family had five candles in the window honoring their sons, the custom at the time.”
All of them came home except for Hulon Lee.
The family has a history of military service.
“My fourth great-grandfather, Robert Raper, served with Gen. Washington at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania,” House said.
Gladys House named her firstborn son Hulon Lee in honor of her missing brother. The little boy died at the age of 4 months.
“It just resurfaced the pain and the sorrow,” Shirley said of her mother, Gladys.
Shirley said she’s still tormented to this day about the hardship her uncle Hulon Lee Raper went through on the six-day Bataan Death March.
“I just was wakened in the middle of the night last night with some of those feelings of Hulon Lee and some of the soldiers,” Shirley said. “I just wept and wept and wept. That was the most wonderful news that I could ever hear Paul tell me that they thought it was my uncle Hulon Lee.”
Hulon Lee Raper befriended author Abie Abraham during the march after Raper offered the writer a cup of coffee, according to a remembrance penned by Connie House Harmon of Selma, Bonnie House’s twin sister.
Abraham wrote a letter “in care of” the Kenly post office in an attempt to find any of Raper’s relatives.
“Abie Abraham went on to write a book ‘Oh, God, Where Are You?’ and Uncle Hulon Lee is included in his book,” Harmon said.
In the book, Abraham wrote: “The guys were sitting around the fire telling how, when they were freed, they were going to find a girl. A young man, Hulon Lee Raper, says back to them, ‘You better hope you get something to eat.’”
According to Harmon, Abraham spoke with Gladys House on the phone before her death and told her that Hulon Lee “talked about Kenly, North Carolina, the whole time he was there” and that when Hulon Lee contracted malaria, “he was holding Hulon Lee in his arms when he died.”
Bonnie House said she got goosebumps when Stoetzel called.
“He told me the whole story about how he died and the camp that he was in. There were six other remains buried with him in a shallow grave,” House said.
Stoetzel had tried to find Hulon Lee Raper’s brothers and sisters, but they had all passed away.
Shirley, oldest of Gladys House’s children, was deeply moved by Stoetzel’s call.
“It was a jubilee, wonderful, wonderful heart-rending thing for me because I remembered the pain and the sorrow as a child with my grandpa and my mother,” Shirley said. “So it was a wonderful experience to hear that they had found his body in an unmarked grave with the others. He was on the top. I don’t know if that was because he had the files and a lot of papers and a letter from my Aunt Ruth. That’s Wayne’s mother, and she was probably about 16 at the time. But it was such a wonderful experience to know that they had found him and they were sending us the kits for the DNA to verify it was our uncle.”
Stoetzel said that while there may be a good likelihood that the remains are Raper’s, he always draws that very clear distinction with family members.
“I have said this to every member of every family that I have talked to,” Stoetzel said.” It is very important that the families always understand that the fact that we are reaching out to you doesn’t mean that they 100% have your relative’s remains. It means that we need your help finding out.”
Sometimes the process can be long and drawn out.
Almost 82,000 Americans since World War II are still missing, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
“The Army has something like 34,000 case files, I think that it is just from World War II, so we will be working on this for years to come,” Stoetzel said.
Stoetzel said he can tell how emotionally invested this family is in the search for Pvt. Hulon Lee Raper.
“None of them ever even met the soldier, but they remember the anguish and the incredible pain that the mother was in all the rest of their life,” Stoetzel said. “It is painful for them even though they don’t remember him. It is serious stuff, and it is very humbling too.”
Shirley told relatives that for now, they have to put any celebration on hold.
“We are just waiting now for the DNA to be sent and sent back. They are not going to do anything until they get those results,” Shirley said. “But, we are sure it’s him. That’s the procedure and the order it has to be and that may take a couple of months.”
The sisters said it’s remarkable that science has advanced to the point that this type of identification is possible.
“We are excited. It is a family thing. It is not a one-man show. The way I see it, it is an honor to honor the one who is to be honored and that is the Lord himself and Hulon Lee and our family,” Shirley said. “I am just awestruck. There’s are just no words that I could tell you or to put in the paper that could express it.”
“There is hope for all,” Shirley said. “There’s hope after death and that’s the way I see at the gravesite when the time comes, that Hulon Lee would be with the flag flying high from the castle of his heart, flying it back and forth saying, “I’m home. I’m home. I’m home. I can just see him doing that.”
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