Strangers pay respects at burial of remains of Army veteran, wife

By JO CIAVAGLIA | Bucks County Courier Times | Published: September 25, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — Fire and time erased much about the lives of Lucille and LeRoy Bortner.

On a calm late September morning, a dozen strangers took the time to remember them in death.

The mourners, most of them employees of the Montgomery County Office of Veteran Affairs, sat on steel benches or joined honor guard members in standing before the couple, whose ashes waited side-by-side on a wood table in an outdoor shelter at the Washington Crossing National Veterans Cemetery.

New black plastic containers replaced old cardboard ones that had started to buckle at the seams after more than 30 years. A local funeral home donated engraved metal name plates with the birth and death dates of the couple, who were interned at the Upper Makefield cemetery's columbarium.

Tuesday's funeral service was brief. It began with a three-volley rifle tribute. The familiar sad lingering song of a lone bugle followed.

Men offered salutes as they passed by. Strangers gently touched the boxes. Some whispered prayers.

Montgomery County's Director of Veteran Affairs Dennis Miller, a retired Coast Guard veteran, provided a short eulogy.

"We did not know you. We found you," he said. "But we will never forget you."

The cremated remains of the couple arrived at the Montgomery County Coroner's Office about five years ago after a man, claiming to be their grandson, left them there, inside an unopened U.S. Postal Service flat rate box that someone spent $16.20 to mail to a Norristown post office box from Miami, Florida.

LeRoy's military connection was unknown until this news organization uncovered service records as part of its ongoing Unclaimed series. LeRoy Bortner's possible military service was brought to the attention of First Deputy Coroner Alex Balacki, who also attended the Tuesday service.

Balacki brought the information to Miller, who started the process to confirm the couple's eligibility for burial in a veterans' cemetery with full military honors. The Bortners bring to six the number of unclaimed dead who have been interred since the publication of the Unclaimed project in July.

The couple have virtually no online footprint. No obituaries were found in Pennsylvania or Florida, where they died two months apart in 1986.

LeRoy Bortner's military records were among those destroyed in a fire at the St. Louis, Missouri, National Archives in the mid-1970s, according to Miller. The few available records offer a glimpse into his early life.

He was born LeRoy Francis Bortner on May 7, 1921. His mother's name was Lizzie.

As a young man, he worked for a country club and wallpaper company in York County. He served in the U.S. Army from 1942 to 1946, rising to the rank of sergeant.

In May 1958 he married 29-year-old Lucille S. Peterson in Dade County, Florida.

She died first, a month after their 28th wedding anniversary, at age 57.

LeRoy died two months later, in August 1986, at age 65.

They were cremated at the same Miami crematorium.

What happened in the years after their deaths is a matter of speculation, Miller said in his eulogy.

"We surmise they went from mantel to mantel, closet to closet, friend to relative without ever having a final place of rest," he said. "But today he will have his military honors most deserved, and a final place of rest."

©2019 Bucks County Courier Times, Levittown, Pa.
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