64 Years Later, Korean War Vet Finally Comes Home

By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

Pfc. Eugene Erickson.  Photo courtesy of Bruce Erickson

Pfc. Eugene Erickson. Photo courtesy of Bruce Erickson

Army infantryman Eugene Erickson was in the thick of fighting the Korean War in 1951 when he disappeared. His family never saw him alive again. But after 64 years and a painstakingly long identification process, he was finally laid to rest this month in front of his remaining family, who never gave up on him.

Gene, as he was known, grew up in the small town of Brainerd, Minnesota, as the youngest of three children. He joined the Army in September 1950 and was sent to Korea as part of the 38th Infantry Regiment.

On May 18, 1951, the 21-year-old was declared missing after his company was attacked by Chinese forces during a battle north of Hongcheon, South Korea.

While Gene was never officially listed as a prisoner of war, other American POWs were eventually able to give U.S. officials information about him – that he had died of malnutrition at a POW camp in August 1951. He was officially declared dead in 1953 and was posthumously promoted to the rank of private first class.

Gene’s family said they were informed of his death that same year by another POW, Sgt. Herbert Floyd, also a Brainerd native, who had made a pact with Gene to tell his family if he perished.

“There was no question in our minds if he was still alive. We knew that,” said Gene’s nephew, Bruce Erickson, who never met his uncle.

It just became a decades-long question of whether he would ever be found.

Fallen Hero Finally Identified

Flash forward to March 3, 2015, when 88-year-old Clayton Erickson, Gene’s older brother, took a call at his Albuquerque home that changed everything. Nearly 64 years after his brother had disappeared, he was finally coming home.

A Brainerd Dispatch article written in 1953 explains the joy and sorrow Sgt. Herbert Floyd, another prisoner of war in Korea, brought with him as he returned home.  Photo courtesy of Bruce Erickson.

A Brainerd Dispatch article written in 1953 explains the joy and sorrow Sgt. Herbert Floyd, another prisoner of war in Korea, brought with him as he returned home. Photo courtesy of Bruce Erickson.

“I remember Sandra [Clayton’s caregiver] called and left a message: ‘Everything’s OK with your dad, but call home,'” recalled Sandy Erickson, Clayton’s daughter. “So I called, and when she told me about this, it was almost disbelief.”

“Dad was so stunned by this, I think his first question was, ‘How do I know this isn’t a scam?'” Bruce Erickson said.

It wasn’t. According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, Gene is one of 128 men who have so far been identified from 208 boxes of human remains — believed to have more than 400 servicemen in them — that were turned over to the U.S. by North Korea in the early 1990s.

Clayton had given the DPAA his DNA around 2000 to help with any eventual identification. His kids said they didn’t know because he had never said much about his long-lost brother.

“We didn’t talk about it much growing up, other than to acknowledge dad had a brother who was presumed killed in war,” Sandy said.

But, they’re now learning, their father always kept hope that his little brother would be found.

“Every time he moved here in Albuquerque, he insisted on keeping the same phone number that we had all those years Bruce and I were growing up,” Sandy said. “Dad wanted to keep the phone number the same so the Army could find him.”

Gene was officially accounted for on April 13 after the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command and Central Identification Laboratory showed Clayton the documents proving his remains had been found.

The Combat Infantryman Badge belonging to Pfc. Eugene Erickson. Photo courtesy of Bruce Erickson

The Combat Infantryman Badge belonging to Pfc. Eugene Erickson. Photo courtesy of Bruce Erickson

‘This Was Gene’s Parade’ 

On May 12, Gene was finally returned to his family, not in Minnesota but in Albuquerque. His arrival at the airport was incredibly touching, his family said.

“The thing I remember most is after the casket came out draped with the American flag at the end of the conveyor belt. The airport’s an incredibly noisy environment, and as soon as [the casket] got there, everybody stopped, and it just got very quiet,” Bruce recalled. “That was just really remarkable.”

An awards ceremony was held that day at the National Guard Armory, where Gene received the Purple Heart and the Prisoner of War Medal. He was then interred in Santa Fe National Cemetery.

Clayton, who had come down with pneumonia a few days before, refused to let the ailment keep him from being a part of his brother’s homecoming.

“At the end of the ceremony … the sergeant who accompanied Gene’s remains from [the lab in] Hawaii to Albuquerque shook my dad’s hand, and they just held hands for a couple of minutes without saying anything,” Sandy said. “It was really beautiful.”

Clayton said very little through it all, except the important things: “I miss you, Gene,” and “Goodbye.”

Floyd, the other POW from Brainerd, got a parade when he came home from war.

“This was Gene’s parade,” Bruce said.

The Ericksons shared their story to honor Gene, but also to let other families of the missing know to never give up hope.

More than 5,000 missing servicemen are still presumed to be in North Korea. While these men remain lost, they are never forgotten.  Be sure to #HonorThem this Memorial Day.

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3 Responses to 64 Years Later, Korean War Vet Finally Comes Home

  1. Maxi Stewart says:

    Patriotic, loyal and loving – for the brother who never stopped looking and hoping his little brother will come home. Dios ti ag-ngina – annramos00@yahoo.com ; Annabelle Ramos, Baguio Country Club, Baguio City, Philippines.

  2. The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) was recently disbanded after an
    avalanche of scandals were exposed by NBC, CBS, Fox News, NPR, the AP, and Stars
    and Stripes. Multiple government investigations then found gross mismanagement
    and a total lack of leadership. The American public and
    families of our lost heroes channeled their anger, frustration, humiliation, and
    feelings of betrayal to demand the immediate removal of those responsible for
    what the the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey,
    testified was “disgraceful”. Sadly, the government’s idea of the massive reform necessary has been a
    superficial name change of the organization and re-shuffling the same poor
    executives and laboratory managers to new desks and titles in a brand new $85
    million dollar building in Hawaii.

    If you are a family member of one of the few lost heroes that JPAC manages to
    identify while enjoying an annual budget that far exceeds $100 million, count
    yourself extremely fortunate. The families of over 83,000
    other brave American heroes who remain missing celebrate for you while they
    continue to wait without answers. According to the “new” Defense
    POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) website, JPAC dribbled out the identifications of only 25 recovered American servicemen in 2014 from the over 73,000 that remain missing from World War II. One of
    those identifications was made by the French government using DNA after
    JPAC refused to even accept the case! Another recent identification was the result of a family filing a Federal lawsuit to force JPAC’s management to act after JPAC’s own investigation matched the missing serviceman’s identity with a precise burial location! The remains of more than 1,000 American servicemen and women currently are backlogged in cardboard boxes at JPAC because of an arrogant refusal to adopt modern investigative techniques and employ available scientific technology. The average length of time for the JPAC laboratory to make an identification once the remains are recovered is an unbelievable eleven (11) years! Meanwhile the management mantra of “delay, deny, and wait for the families to die” continues. This scandal plagued organization rivals the VA Hospital, Dover Mortuary, Arlington Cemetery, and the Viet Nam Unknown debacles and there is apparently no end in sight.

  3. Alpha says:

    “On May 12, Gene was finally returned to his family, not in Minnesota but in Albuquerque. His arrival at the airport was incredibly touching, his family said.”

    Good story. Photos of the homecoming would’ve made it great.