Fallen WWII hero returns home; Remains of soldier positively ID’ed in Germany

By Austin Jackson | Published Wednesday, August 1, 2018
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REUNITED – Kay Crawford looks over the informational packet that helped identify her father, James Park’s remains at the Wise County Veterans Museum Monday in Bridgeport. Park died in World War II in 1944 and will be returned home soon to be laid to rest in Dresden. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

In war-torn Germany, months before the Battle of the Bulge, United States armed forces began a clash with Nazi forces at Hurtgen Forest in September 1944.

It was the beginning of the longest and one of the most pivotal battles in World War II. Sergeant James Kenneth Park, 20, a sole surviving son and father of an 18-month old baby girl, serving in the 26th infantry regiment, 1st infantry division, was one of thousands who gave their life in the battle.

After months of fighting, shrapnel from enemy fire cut his life short at just 20 years old on Nov. 23, 1944.

The U.S. Army eventually broke through the German-held strongholds at Hurtgen Forest in February 1945, but for Bridgeport resident Kay Crawford, the only child of a fallen war hero, the battle for closure would take much longer.

Crawford was raised by memories and photos of her father, who heroically served and eventually fell in action during World War II. Despite being declared missing in action in 1945, Park said her grandparents didn’t want to let their only son go.

They held onto hope that one day, he’d return to receive the medals that had been sent home to Texas.

“My grandparents had always thought he had amnesia and that he would return to them some day,” Crawford said. “They just knew that one day he was going to find his way home.”

A Long Road

A LONG ROAD – Kay Crawford hears about the process to identify and recover her father’s remains from Jeannette Gray of Army Casualty Services at the Wise County Veterans Museum, Monday. Gray used DNA testing to help identify James Park and return his remains to the Crawford family. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

After 74 years, thanks to extensive DNA testing and being put through various states of exhumation and burial, Park’s remains will return home to Texas where they will be laid to rest at Crawford’s family plot in Dresden.

The process for identifying Park began in 1946, when a German villager buried the remains in a cemetery near the battle site.

For years, the body went unidentified due to Park’s helmet having the wrong name inside. It was a common occurrence, but one that effectively sent the identification process into a tailspin.

Park was deemed indiscoverable in 1946, and the family went on hoping that that their long lost father had found peace, alive or dead.

In 2016, Crawford received a call from the Veterans Administration. The DNA test had been conclusive. They had a match.

“He asked me ‘Ma’am are you sitting down?'” Crawford said. “I was brought to tears. It had been 72 years, but they found him. He was coming home.”

Rediscovering Family

REDISCOVERING FAMILY – Kay Crawford and three generations of her family learned about James Park’s military service on Monday. Park died in the battle of Hurtgen Forest in November of 1944. After 74 years, he will be reunited with his family. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

Crawford said her grandparents were reluctant to put up a tombstone for their son. They didn’t want him to come home and think they had given up hope. Now, the grandparents have since passed, but Crawford said she was given peace knowing that they would soon be reunited with their long lost son.

“I think it will give them peace,” Crawford said. “They will finally have their son back – their baby boy.”

On Monday at the Wise County Veterans Museum, Jeannette Gray, mortuary affairs officer and nine-year Army veteran, gave Crawford a picture of her father she’d never seen before.

“It made him real to me,” Crawford said, with emotion straining her voice. “He was always like a stranger, but now he’s a person. A real person.”

Gray explained the tenuous process of identification. It took years of searching dental records, military notes and countless samples to other missing soldiers in the area. The Crawford family submitted their DNA, joining the database of other families searching for their loved ones.

At the end of the process, she said, “We can say without a doubt that these are your father’s remains.”

Sgt. First Class Philip Oliver will assist in returning the remains to Crawford and the family in the coming months. He said he would make sure that Park is given a full burial, deserving of a war hero.

Crawford said she hopes to reunite her father with his parents, returning him to the plot where his tombstone and plot has lied vacant for so long. Oliver said the process could be worked out in around three weeks.

Crawford plans on having a funeral for her father in Bridgeport in October before he’s laid to rest.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” Crawford said. “But I have closure. I’m glad he’s coming home.”

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