Published November 11th, 2021 at 6:00 AM11 minute read
Louis William Dick died in 1975.
Amanda Jane Gish Dick died in 1983.
Before their deaths they purchased cemetery plots for themselves as well as for their only son. They knew he had been killed during World War II. They did not know if his body would ever be identified and returned to Missouri.
But they nevertheless saved a place for him – right next to their own gravesites.
That’s where family members placed the remains of Harold Lee Dick after federal officials returned them just over a year ago, 76 years after the gunner’s mate second class died near Tinian Island in the Pacific.
“They never stopped keeping the faith,” said Beverly Simmons, a second cousin of Harold Lee.
“They never gave up. And now Harold Lee is buried beside them.”
Veterans Day is devoted to honoring military veterans for their service. That’s opposed to Memorial Day, which specifically honors those who died during that service.
But the Nov. 11 observance still hinges on remembrance. And, over the past 13 months, at least four families in the Kansas City region have experienced especially vivid rewards of remembrance, receiving the remains or relics of family members missing for as long as 80 years.
In October 2020, family members gathered at Kansas City International Airport to receive the remains of Harold Lee Dick, and begin his final journey to the Masonic Cemetery in Tipton, the central Missouri community where he had grown up.
In June, the family of Russell Ufford received his remains. Ufford was a former Center High School student and 17-year-old crew member of the USS Oklahoma who died during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 – 80 years ago next month.
In May, the family of Carol Eugene Domer received not his remains but an especially unique relic. That was a ring Domer apparently was wearing on New Year’s Day 1943, when he died after his fellow crew members had been forced to ditch their B-24 bomber in the Solomon Sea in the Pacific, near Papua New Guinea.
Federal government divers had retrieved the ring 73 years later, in 2016.
And in September, in ceremonies that made national news, the family of the Rev. Emil Kapaun, a Roman Catholic priest born in Kansas who had died in a prison camp during the Korean War, welcomed home his remains during ceremonies in Wichita. For decades his story of courage and faith has inspired Catholics who hope to see Kapaun canonized by church authorities as a saint.
“In the military, you never leave a fallen comrade,” said Sean Everette, spokesman with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) in Washington, whose representatives identified the remains and returned them.
“Of course, during battles there are circumstances that prevent you from recovering that fallen comrade. But that promise doesn’t go away.
“So it is our sacred duty to make every effort we can to go out and find these people and bring them home to their families.”
Such forensic identification efforts largely began with the Vietnam War.
Since 1973 the remains of more than 1,000 Americans killed have been identified and returned to their families. Still, nearly 1,600 Americans remain unaccounted for.
But such efforts have benefited from advances in technology. Beginning in the 1980s government officials have used DNA in their identification efforts. In recent years, DPAA representatives have organized specific projects devoted to returning the remains of service members.
Officials identified and returned the remains of Ufford as part of the DPAA’s “Oklahoma Project.”
The government lists 2,403 deaths from the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Those included 429 members of the battleship USS Oklahoma, which capsized after being struck by several torpedoes.
Of those, 35 bodies soon were recovered and identified. Those remaining were recovered once the ship was raised from the harbor bottom in 1943.
As of 2003 there were 394 sailors and Marines from the Oklahoma buried as “unknowns” in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Between 2003 and 2015, six men were identified and accounted for. In 2015, when the “Oklahoma Project” began, officials disinterred the remains of 388 sailors and Marines.
Of those, 355 have now been identified.
This summer officials returned Ufford’s remains to North Carolina, the home of a relative.
“Grandma always talked about Russell. She kept a picture of him on the wall,” said Kathy Rinehart of Pleasant Hill, who supplied DNA to help in the identification effort.
“Today our family is grateful he has been identified and brought home.”
Many families must have displayed such photographs.
“As long as we could remember, Mom always talked about Harold Lee,” said Beverly Simmons, a resident of Otterville, Missouri, just east of Sedalia.
“Ever since I can remember my mother had Harold Lee’s service picture on her and Daddy’s dresser.”
Simmons’ mother, Mildred McNeal Oswald, is a first cousin of Harold Lee. Several years ago she submitted a DNA sample to government scientists, as did Mary Jane Dick Niederwimmer, Harold Lee’s sister.
In 1941 Harold Lee had enlisted in the Navy and was soon assigned to the USS Colorado. On July 24, 1944, the ship was conducting a bombardment of Japanese positions on Tinian Island, in the Northern Mariana Islands. A concealed shore battery returned fire.
Dick was among 43 crew members killed. He was 22 years old.
While his body was buried in a Marine cemetery, federal authorities did not identify it. Part of the problem, Simmons said, was a clerical error.
“When they got to port and got him off the ship, his name was written down incorrectly,” Simmons said. “They spelled it ‘Pick’ instead of ‘Dick.’ He was lost under the name of ‘Pick’ for many years.”
Ultimately government scientists identified Dick through the DNA samples submitted by family members.
Harold Lee’s sister Mary Jane, however, died in 2016.
“We just wish she had been living when we got Harold Lee back,” Simmons said.
Just over a year ago Harold Lee’s relatives gathered at KCI to receive his remains. His journey home ended with his remains interred next to those of his parents, as well as his sister and other family members in Masonic Cemetery in Tipton.
For years there had been a small stone, measuring perhaps nine by 12 inches, bearing his name and noting that he had been killed in action.
Simmons has since placed a larger monument at Harold Lee’s grave, bearing his name plus the words “Always Loved – Never Forgotten.”
She also today serves as custodian of Harold Lee’s effects. Those include letters he wrote home during the war, as well as the 48-star American flag the Navy sent the family after he was declared killed in action.
“Not many families have a 48-star flag,” Simmons said.
Ever since this past Memorial Day, Dennis Domer of Baldwin City, Kansas, has been wearing a particular piece of jewelry.
It’s a ring, a family heirloom that had belonged to his uncle, Carol Eugene Domer, a Centralia, Kansas, native who in 1941 enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and went on to serve as a tail gunner on a B-24 bomber. When the aircraft developed engine trouble, crew members ditched the aircraft into the sea.
Of 11 crew members all but one was able to exit the aircraft – that one being Domer.
“We grew up with my uncle already gone,” said Dennis Domer, a retired professor of American Studies at the University of Kansas.
“It was kind of baked into our DNA that our Uncle Carol had been killed and that none of his remains had come back, but that we continued to remember and mourn Uncle Carol.”
But this past May, something came back.
On Memorial Day, U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, who for years had assisted the family in its search for Carol’s remains or effects, officially conveyed the ring to family members during ceremonies at the Nemaha County Veterans’ Memorial, in Seneca, in northeast Kansas.
Dennis Domer’s mother – Rose Evelyn Domer, Carol’s sister-in-law – first began contacting the government in the 1990s. Moran, then serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, became involved in 2003, upon the request of one of Domer’s brothers.
Rose Evelyn Domer, who died in 2018 at age 99, could no longer conduct the correspondence with the government.
So her four sons took it over.
“We thought we had a duty to do it,” said Dennis Domer, whose middle name is Eugene, in honor of his uncle who had died about 18 months before he was born.
“It was more of a hope than anything else. Our mother had hoped that somehow the government could discover some remains, or maybe some effects with which we could close this wound.”
Moran’s office began forwarding requests that an investigation be approved. Soon began 13 years of delays and postponements. At one point government officials learned that, in 2000, representatives of Pacific Wrecks, a private group, had discovered the wrecked plane and had completed an investigatory dive in 2002.
Finally, in 2016, a DPAA underwater team arrived at the site, with divers soon retrieving three items and bringing them to the DPAA laboratory at Joint Base Pearl Harbor/Hickam for analysis.
The items were the sole of a rubber overshoe, a clip from a pen or mechanical pencil, and a ring, size 10.
While the first two items were judged consistent with items used by or issued to U.S. military personnel during World War II, the ring was not. It was, according to a 2017 government summary, a ring bearing the engraved image of a helmeted Roman warrior.
“This piece of jewelry,” the summary noted, “is not standard U.S. military issue and probably represents a personal item.”
Although the Domer family supplied DNA samples, in 2019 the government reported that no DNA could be recovered from the ring. Soon, however, family members received an inquiry: did they have any evidence to suggest the ring had belonged to Domer?
Among the Domer family photos was a snapshot of young Carol in uniform during a family picnic, sitting on a blanket and holding up his nephew, Robin Rice Domer III, a brother of Dennis.
Dennis’s father took the photo in 1942, before Carol reported to the Pacific.
Visible on his right hand was a ring.
“We all had that photo on our computers,” Domer said. “We had never looked at that ring.
“But it was right there. It was as if he was showing us that ring.”
The family submitted the photo, and his uncle’s ring was returned. Sometimes Domer has wondered whether providence played any part in the ring’s remarkable reappearance.
“It’s hard to imagine all these coincidences coming together,” he said. ”But we persevered and didn’t give up, and now there is so much joy in the family that we can close this long story in our lives.
“With this ring now back in the family, there’s a sense that this guy is right here with us.”
That the ring features a Roman warrior, meanwhile, does not strike Domer as a random detail.
“I think a lot of young men, with what little money they might have had, would buy such a ring as a way to increase the significance of what their duties were going to be, what they were going to be doing,” he said..
“That’s how I have mythologized or romanticized it – but I don’t think he selected that kind of ring for nothing.”
This summer Ray Kapaun entered a family viewing room in a government laboratory in Hawaii.
There he viewed the long-unidentified remains of his uncle, U.S. Army Chaplain Emil J. Kapaun, a Kansas native who had died during the Korean War.
“My uncle had died in 1951 and I was born in 1957,” Kapaun said. “I had never gotten the chance to meet him.
“His remains were more or less intact, which I think was a miracle in itself.”
In November 1950, Chinese troops overran the Rev. Kapaun’s unit, taking him and others prisoner. Kapaun had volunteered to stay with wounded soldiers while others retreated to safety.
The Chinese took their prisoners to a camp where Kapaun, at age 35, died the following May.
In 2013 President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Kapaun the Medal of Honor, the country’s highest military honor. The citation detailed how Kapaun had “calmly walked through withering enemy fire in order to provide comfort and medical aid to his comrades…”
Ray Kapaun accepted the decoration on his uncle’s behalf.
His uncle’s remains had been returned shortly after the 1953 armistice, but government officials were not able to identify them. In 1956 they interred the remains – listed as “X-14550 Operation Glory” – in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.
Scientists with the DPAA’s Korean War Disinterment Project retrieved those remains in 2019. They used dental and anthropological analysis, as well as DNA analysis, to identify them.
Ray Kapaun’s father Eugene had supplied a DNA sample before his death in 2010.
The agency announced it had identified Kapaun’s remains in March. That was after his nephew had received a phone call at his Washington State home.
He was startled.
“We had not received any advance word that it was even a possibility,” Kapaun said.
“It was totally out of the blue. If the pope had contacted me to say that they had declared my uncle a saint, they would have surprised me less.”
In 1993 Pope John Paul II had declared Kapaun a “Servant of God,” considered the first step toward possible canonization. According to Catholic doctrine, saints are deceased persons who lived heroically virtuous lives and either offered their lives for others or were martyred for their faith.
Since the Korean War’s end, Kapaun’s surviving fellow prisoners had served as witnesses to his heroic virtue.
They detailed how he had ministered to all prisoners, encouraging them and often risking his own life either by stealing food or medicine from camp guards or offering his own rations to others.
Many of those who made it out of the prison camp alive at war’s end attributed their survival to Kapaun. It was the testimony of these prisoners, Ray Kapaun added, that helped establish his uncle’s legacy.
In 2015 Wichita church authorities traveled to Rome to present documentation in support of Emil Kapaun’s canonization. More recently, Ray Kapaun said, officials had been preparing to convene and consider advancing his case and perhaps see him receive the title of “Venerable” – another step in the sainthood process – until the COVID-19 pandemic postponed those proceedings.
During a 1953 memorial mass in Wichita for the Rev. Kapaun, a flag-draped casket had been empty.
This September Catholics in Wichita welcomed home Kapaun’s remains with elaborate ceremonies and services.
After a funeral mass in a city auditorium, a casket containing the remains was placed on horse-drawn caisson and taken to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, where they were entombed on Sept. 29. Today admirers of the Rev. Kapaun who wish to visit are invited to do so “in a prayerful and holy place.”
The decision as to where to place his uncle’s remains was a complicated one, Kapaun said.
Emil Kapaun was born in Pilsen, Kansas, a small community established in the late 19th century by Czech and German immigrants. During the 1940s he had served there as pastor of St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church. Today the church maintains a museum devoted to Kapaun and in 2001 parish officials dedicated a life-sized statue of him assisting a wounded soldier.
Ultimately Ray Kapaun agreed with the diocese’s decision to entomb his uncle’s remains in the cathedral.
“It was a tough decision,” he said. “The town of Pilsen really wanted him and we totally understood why. He had been the parish priest there.
“But, when we were talking with the diocese, it just didn’t feel right to bring Father Kapaun back to Kansas and bury him again.
“Now he is in a place where people can visit and actually pray to him.”
Flatland contributor Brian Burnes is a Kansas City area writer and author. He is serving as president of the Jackson County Historical Society.