MIA for 70 years, Korean War veteran’s remains to be returned to family
By ELIZABETH ROMÁN | masslive.com | Published: November 11, 2020
(Tribune News Service) — Peter and David Bloniarz grew up in Springfield, hearing stories about their uncle, Thomas Redgate, their mother’s youngest brother, who went missing in action 70 years ago during the Korean War.
“He disappeared just before Christmas so for my family and my cousins this was always a pall over Christmas,” says Peter Bloniarz, who now lives in New York. “It was an enormous loss. He was the youngest in their family, and my mother was the oldest. He had two brothers, and he was the third brother.”
U.S. Army 1st Lt. Thomas Redgate was born in 1926. He served in World War II and, later, reenlisted to serve in the Korean War. At 24 in December 1950, he was declared missing in action during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, considered one of the most harrowing engagements and the darkest hour for American troops in Korea.
The two-week conflict, fought in brutally cold temperatures at what became known as “frozen Chosin” from late November into December 1950, saw more than 100,000 Chinese troops surround American Army infantrymen and Marines in the reservoir valley. Military reports were that there were an estimated 18,000 casualties, including 2,500 killed in action, 5,000 wounded and almost 8,000 who suffered from frostbite.
Redgate was raised in the Brighton neighborhood of Boston, along with several siblings, including the Bloniarz brothers’ mother, Irene. David Bloniarz, who still lives in Springfield, says he, his siblings and many cousins grew up hearing about their uncle. Each of their families always kept at least one photograph of him displayed in their homes.
“We lost a huge component of our family, I wasn’t even born when he died, but my grandmother lived with us in Springfield for a time and she would pray her rosary every day," David Bloniarz said. "I used to ask her what she was praying for and she would always say I’m praying for you and I’m praying for Tommy to come home.”
Their grandmother never saw her son alive again. Redgate remained MIA until July 27, 2018, when the remains of several war veterans were turned over to the U.S. Army by North Korea, and received by Vice President Mike Pence as they arrived on U.S. soil in Hawaii. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, more than 7,500 American soldiers and Marines remain unaccounted for in Korea.
The Department of Defense Prisoner of War and Missing In Action Accounting Agency positively identified Redgate through DNA testing at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam Hawaii in April, just seven months ago.
Jeannette Gray, a mortuary affairs officer for the Department of the Army Casualty Past Conflict Repatriations Branch, has been working with the family since April to make arrangements for the return of Redgate’s remains. The department works to identify Prisoners of War and those Missing in Action in conflicts including World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars and the Cold War.
As the eldest child of Redgate’s eldest sibling Peter Bloniarz was the one who got the call about the identification. The ID was made using DNA from the family with that garnered from two of Redgate’s remaining bones, a left femur and left humerus.
“The fact that the Army works so hard to identify the remains and work very closely with the family and then bring him home for a heroes burial is just remarkable," Peter Bloniarz says. "We are so blessed and thankful that the government takes responsibility for these folks that made that ultimate sacrifice for our country.”
Gray said there are labs in Hawaii, Virginia, Nebraska and other locations across the country that work to identify remains through historical research, DNA and other methods.
“Each branch of the service has their own casualty office that works with family members to get DNA on file for those who are still unaccounted for and then those samples are used to do a comparison with any type of remains that are sent to the lab for analysis to see if there is any potential match,” Gray said.
Many Americans are unaware that the military provides this service for families, according to Gray.
“In most cases people are excited, sometimes you get some tears,” she said. “People will often say they never thought this would happen or that their family member would be found. Even a family member who is not an emotional type of person, this does bring out some emotions in them that they never knew existed because it rehashes those things that even if they weren’t alive, their parents would have went through not knowing what happened to their brother, sister or father. ”
Now that Redgate’s remains have been identified they can be sent home for a military burial. Unfortunately, due to coronavirus pandemic travel restrictions, that will not be happening for some time. The family is hoping to have a proper military burial for their uncle next year, if and when restrictions are lifted. He will be buried at the Massachusetts National Veterans Cemetery in Bourne.
“When his mother, our grandmother died, his name was also put on her gravestone and we debated burying him there, but we feel he deserves to be buried with honor in a military cemetery to commend him for his service to our nation,” Peter Bloniarz said.
Redgate will be buried alongside his brother, who also served in the military.
This Veterans Day, the city of Boston will honor Redgate’s sacrifice by naming a “Hero Square” at the corner of Mapleton and Market streets, near his family home in Brighton.
“This was my mother’s home until she married my father in 1941, and eventually moved to Springfield following my dad’s service in the South Pacific during World War II,” David Bloniarz explains.
Redgate’s mother lived in the family home on Mapleton Street in Brighton for many years until she moved into a small apartment and eventually moved into the Bloniarz home in Springfield in the early 1960s.
Many of the cousins, including those still living in the area, will attend the ceremony in Boston today and await the moment they can finally bury their lost uncle.
“He disappeared when I was 3 years old, so none of us really knew him,” Peter Bloniarz says. “But, he was always near and dear to all of us – my siblings and my cousins – because his disappearance left a hole in our parents' hearts.”
Since April Peter Bloniarz has been scheduling regular meetings with his siblings and cousins through Zoom to discuss what they would like to do with their uncle’s remains. The military offered to debrief the family virtually and tell them what they believe happened to their uncle in North Korea, but they have opted to wait and do it in person when his remains are returned next year.
“We have waited 70 years. We figure we can wait a little longer to do this properly,” says Peter Bloniarz.
David Bloniarz says this process has brought his family together. “We get on these Zoom calls, and my brother Peter gives us the updates. We are all pretty tight, but this has been something that has brought our family closer together,” he says.
The brothers say they look forward to the day when their uncle will finally be laid to rest. “This is the honor he deserves, and, after 70 years, he is finally coming home,” Peter Bloniarz says.