By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
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.
“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.
‘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.