Ala. soldier's remains returned, 62 years after his death in Korea
For 62 years after Army Master Sgt. Olen Berry Williams was reported missing during the Korean War, even after he was considered killed in action, his family never lost hope.
Years were spent waiting for news. For anything.
Still, a family reaches a point when a trail turns cold, and they assume they will never know the final story.
But this week, six decades after Williams was reported missing, his family finally received both his body and some closure. This week Williams finally came home.
He will be buried Sunday at Evergreen Cemetery in Verbena. His remains — about 95 percent of his bones — were flown into the Birmingham Airport on Thursday. Williams’ great-niece Tammy Richardson was told officials would wrap his remains in a white sheet, and would include his uniform and awards.
The coffin arrived draped with an American flag.
About 15 family members watched as the casket was lowered from the plane.
“I thought we were all doing fine, but all of a sudden, it just got real emotional,” said Bob Williams, a retired Air Force colonel who served in Vietnam in 1972 and retired from the service in Montgomery after 26 years as an Air Force fighter pilot.
Williams, who is a great-nephew of Olen Williams, was 2 years old when he died.
“I’ve ... heard of cases where they have found only one little bone,” he said. “But here, almost a complete person. Those bones had to be isolated. That’s why it’s remarkable.”
Williams grew up in Clanton and was one of 16 children born to Lewis Britton Williams and Elizabeth (Lizzie) Williams. He was child number 13 and had a twin brother, Owen Perry Williams. His parents, a grandparent, two sisters and a brother also are buried at Evergreen Cemetery.
Williams, a highly decorated non-commissioned officer — was 37 when he was killed in Korea. He never married or had children. But numerous nieces and nephews — and great-nieces and nephews — will gather this weekend to honor him.
“Momma can remember when he was about to ship out for Korea, and they were going to have to drive him to California to fly out,” Richardson said. “She said all the family came together and they had a big lunch. He was always joking around with everybody.
“She remembers him picking her up and throwing her up in the air. She was 6 years old then.”
And it was the last time she saw him.
“But she remembers when they received a letter, and it was brought in and they gave it to my mother,” Richardson said. “It was telling her that he was MIA. My grandmother started crying, and then everyone started crying. That’s just one of the things that she remembers.”
Served 10 years in two wars
From age 27 to 37, Williams served.
He entered the military in 1940 and was one of the first on the beaches at Normandy. After that, he was wounded in France, later receiving an honorable discharge from the Army. The next day, Richardson said, he re-enlisted and went straight back into battle.
In late 1950, Williams and elements of the 31st Regimental Combat Team were establishing a defensive line south of a bridge across the P’ungnyuri River, near a small village in Sinhung-ni, North Korea, when the 31st RCT was attacked by enemy forces, according to the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office. As a result, Williams was reported missing in action.
In 1954, the United Nations and Communist Forces exchanged the remains of war dead in what came to be called “Operation Glory,” according to the personnel office. Among the remains that were turned over at that time were remains of servicemen who died and were buried on the eastern bank of the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea. The remains were transferred to the Central Identification United in Kokura, Japan, for scientific analysis.
In October 1955, a military review board declared the remains within seven boxes unidentifiable. The unidentified remains were transferred to Hawaii, where they were interred as unknowns at the national Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, also known as the “Punchbowl.”
In 2012, analysts from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command reevaluated Williams’ records and determined that, due to the advances in technology, the remains recovered from Operation Glory should be exhumed for identification.
To identify the remains, scientists from JPAC used circumstantial evidence and forensic identification tools, such as dental and radiograph comparison, which matched Williams’ records.
“We’re excited to be bringing him home ... we’re glad he had been located and we can bring him back home with his mom and dad and brothers and sisters,” Richardson said. “Nobody ever gave up on him. He was always crazy and everything. We knew that something had happened. We knew that because we hadn’t heard from him, that he was probably deceased, but never gave up on trying to remember him.
“Back in 2008, I contacted the military and got information to see if I could get a marker to place down in the grave. I was able to get that, and we placed it by his baby sister, who is buried next to his mom and dad. The family placed it there. Now we get a new marker.”
“It certainly does provide closure,” Williams said. “I’ve looked for him for 16 years. I started piecing together using his records … was able to piece together 10 years of 1940-1950.
“I think there always was hope. But the reality of trying to match remains was very difficult. Did we expect it? I was in the military for 26 years, flew combat in Vietnam. The idea of being able to see those people come home is really touch and go.”
Master Sgt. Olen B. Williams may have been missing for six decades, but no one considered finding him a lost cause.
“The key thing that our government does,” Williams said, “is they never give up.”