The long way home

For nearly seven decades, Howard Duncan has been haunted by one fateful decision made when he was just a teenager.


At the time, it seemed a rather simple choice, yet it would be one that would linger for a lifetime.


“It’s been with me 68 years, 11 months and 23 days. I remember the last time I saw him like it was yesterday,” Howard Duncan said Saturday, standing in a vestibule at Carothers Funeral Home in Gastonia, about 50 yards away from where the casket of his older brother, Earl, lay draped in an American flag.


On that long ago day, Earl, who was on military leave from his posting in Korea, had asked his younger brother to spend a few hours with him before he had to catch a flight and head back to war.


However, some of Howard’s buddies were asking him to spend the day on the South Fork River, just down the road from their home in west Cramerton. For the 17-year-old Howard, a day on the river with the boys was too good to pass up.


“All of us, we loved the water. We loved the river,” said the 86-year-old Howard, who still lives near the river in Mecklenburg County. “He asked me to go and I chose the boys. It’s haunted me for 68 years.”


That moment had stuck with him until Saturday when Earl’s body was returned to Gaston County, nearly 69 years to the day he was killed fighting in Korea.


Cpl. Earl William Duncan had been listed as missing in action for all these years until his remains were identified earlier this year. His remains were flown to the Charlotte airport on Saturday and Howard, along with his siblings, Samuel and Elsie, were on hand.


“When they rolled him off the airplane and I touched his casket … that gave me a lot of relief,” Howard said. “It kind of took away part of my personal guilt because of that.”


Earl, who volunteered by enlisting in the Army in August of 1948, was a member of Company D, 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division, 31st Regimental Combat Team. On Dec. 2, 1950, he was in the vicinity of the Chosin Reservoir in present-day North Korea when his unit was attacked by enemy forces. He was reported missing in action after the battle ended because his remains could not be recovered.


Samuel Duncan, who is 88 now and lives in Gastonia, was four years younger than Earl. He remembers that December night in 1950 when Gaston County Sheriff Hoyle Efird knocked on the front door of the family home.


“I opened the door,” Samuel recalled Saturday. “When they told us (Earl was missing in action), it was like a rock hitting you.”


Samuel was drafted into the Army and also sent to Korea, where he was a military policeman. He spent his initial months over there using whatever leave time he could accrue to search for his sibling.


It would be to no avail as Earl would be declared dead on Dec. 31, 1953.


In the ensuing years, no new information about Earl Duncan’s remains ever materialized. As the decades passed, questions remained unanswered.


But on July 27, 2018, following the summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un in June 2018, North Korea turned over 55 boxes, purported to contain the remains of American service members killed during the Korean War. The remains arrived at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii on Aug. 1, 2018, and were subsequently accessioned into the laboratory of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency for identification.


To identify Duncan’s remains, scientists from DPAA used anthropological analysis, as well as circumstantial and material evidence. Additionally, scientists from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System used mitochondrial DNA, Y-chromosome DNA and autosomal DNA analysis.


Duncan was officially accounted for on Sept. 10, and family members were informed soon after and plans were made to bring Earl Duncan home.


On Saturday, a convoy of law enforcement and six motorcyclists with the Patriot Guard led a procession including the hearse carrying Earl Duncan’s body as well as other vehicles with family members. The procession made its way from the Charlotte airport along I-85 and finally to Carothers Funeral Home.


Along the way, overpasses were filled with emergency vehicles and fire ladder trucks with American flags flying high.


Vincent Brinkman, a Mount Holly resident who served in the Vietnam War in 1970-71 as a member of the 101st Airborne, was one of the Patriot Guard members who escorted Duncan’s remains.


“You get to say your own personal goodbye,” he said. “And when you see the flag, it touches you.”


For Chris Brewer, a Huntersville resident and fellow Patriot Guard rider, the Duncan family and their long wait for closure was foremost on his mind as he drove along the route.


“I got tears coming down, just thinking about it. It’s hard not to.”


And Saturday’s dreary, wet, cold day didn’t deter neither those lining the roadway nor those escorting Duncan’s body.


Brewer said veterans “fought in cold, wet, rain, sleet, hot, whatever. None of us should ever complain. They were doing this while getting shot at.”


Once at the funeral home, members of the Gaston County Honor Guard were on hand to serve as pall bearers and carry Duncan’s casket into the funeral home.


Joe Harris, commander of the 49-member honor guard, said his unit’s mission Saturday was to “welcome him home, honor the family, show respect” and “let the family know that someone cares.”


Jim Pass, a member of the Honor Guard, said each of the 1,146 services the unit has attended since its formation in 2011 is unique.


“Unless you’re a veteran, it’s difficult to describe how the emotions touch you,” said Pass, who was a captain in the Army. “Some people tell you the hair gets up on your arms. Other people will have trouble speaking for a moment. Other people will have a tear come to their eyes. It affects each individual differently.”


Aaron Watkins, an Army veteran from Bessemer City and Honor Guard member, said he shed tears at Saturday’s ceremony.


“You get emotional at all of them,” he said. “You can’t imagine the feeling when the family member comes up and tells you that they want to thank you and how much it means to them that you was there.”


The Duncan family was overwhelmed with Saturday’s showing.


“That was just a shot to the heart. It lets you know that some people do care,” Samuel Duncan said.


The siblings said their mission is to spread hope for others.


As of today, 7,606 Americans remain unaccounted for from the Korean War. Using modern technology, identifications continue to be made from remains that were previously returned by Korean officials, recovered from Korea by American recovery teams or disinterred from unknown graves.


“There’s other people like us, that ain’t got closure,” Samuel Duncan said. “Don’t give up hope.”


A Welcome Home Ceremony celebrating Earl Duncan’s life will be held 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 30 at the McAdenville Wesleyan Church. The family will receive guests from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.


Expression of love and fond memories, as well as tributes honoring Cpl. Duncan, may be made on his guestbook at www.carotherfuneralhomegastonia.com.


And while it’s still hard to believe his brother is finally home, Howard admits to feeling relief and happiness.


“I’ve had a hole in my life every day until today. It finally filled up. It’s closure.”


You can reach Michael Banks at 704-869-1842, email mbanks@gastongazette.com and follow on Twitter at MichaelBanksNC.