John and James Allman recall their mother praying every night for her brother, that he would come home from the war.
The Coast residents, now in their 70s, sometimes still talked about him in recent years: Whatever happened to their uncle James P. Shaw, the young man they called Alvin as children?
As far as the Allman brothers knew, his body was still in North Korea. Their grandmother had been informed he died in the Korean War. But details were scarce — there were never any remains, never closure.
Until late last year.
U.S. Army officials told the brothers that Pfc. Shaw had been found, after his and other service members’ previously unidentified remains were disinterred from a cemetery known as the Punchbowl in Honolulu. Would they like to bring him home to Mississippi?
“We were elated,” James Allman said.
The Beaumont native’s remains had arrived in the city Wednesday, escorted by 80 members of the Patriot Guard Riders motorcycle club, after being flown into New Orleans. James Allman teared up recalling the moment he glimpsed the flag-draped casket coming off the plane. “It felt like, ‘Finally, he’s home,’ the soldier’s nephew said. “And he is.”
And on Friday afternoon, just as a torrential downpour stopped and the sun broke through — 68 years after the 24-year-old died in a North Korean military prison camp — Shaw was buried with full military honors at Biloxi National Cemetery.
“We said, ‘The Lord is going to bless us.’ And he has. Look at the sunshine now!” John Allman said following the ceremony. “We’re so proud to be a part of this, to help our uncle find his last rest. We’re so proud we got him back to Mississippi.”
A prisoner in North Korea
John and James have only fuzzy memories of their uncle, considering how young they were when he headed off to war.
They remember Shaw visiting their family home in Prattville, Alabama, before he left. John recalled that he wore a thick wool Army coat and played them a few songs on the guitar.
“I didn’t really know — I knew he was in the (Korean War),” John Allman said. “But being a kid, I didn’t really put it all together until just recently, when we got really involved.”
Shaw served in the Army for the end of World War II before heading off to the Korean conflict, where U.S. forces backed South Korea after it was invaded by the Soviet-backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
It was Dec. 3, 1950, when Shaw’s company was attacked and forced to withdraw its position in North Korea, according to an account by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
Their retreat was slowed by icy roads and heavy equipment the soldiers carried with them. Shaw’s company was captured after fighting much of the night. They were sent to a North Korean prison camp.
Months later, many of the men were released, said Mississippi Army National Guard Capt. Sean Smith, a casualty assistance officer. But there were four or five missing, including Shaw, who died of malnutrition and were buried behind the camp.
“We know he only lived for about seven months,” said U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo, who attended the funeral. “And we know that our North Korea treated American soldiers pretty bad.”
This could have been the end of the story: The U.S. government is still trying to convince the North Korean government to turn over the remains of thousands of missing soldiers from the Korean War. Many may never be returned.
But Shaw’s body and numerous others were recovered in 1954, shortly after the war ended, in a transfer known as Operation Glory. His remains ultimately were buried alongside hundreds of other unidentified Americans in Hawaii.
The Army contacted Shaw’s mother back then, Smith said, asking for any identifying information such as X-rays and dental records that might help identify her son’s body. But “they just couldn’t confirm it,” Smith said, likely due to limited forensic technology of the time.
John and James never knew their uncle’s remains might be buried in Hawaii.
Finally, an identification
Shaw was identified in 2016, though the brothers didn’t learn about it until last year. They were stunned.
“It’s been a long (journey), and the Army was diligent in making a positive ID,” said John Allman. “They have been diligent and supportive. We are well pleased.”
In recent years, military officials have sought to identify old remains buried in Hawaii using DNA technology and other means. And the medical records Shaw’s mother handed over to the Army in the 1950s turned out to be the key that unlocked the mystery.
James Allman said Shaw broke his collarbone in boot camp, and an old X-ray from the injury was crucial to confirming his identity. Unlike many other bones recovered from war, Smith said, Shaw’s skeleton was largely intact.
On Friday, John and James each received folded American flags and a salute. John ran his thumb across the top of the cloth as he watched his brother receive the same military gesture, and the 77-year-old could hardly believe the moment was real when it was over.
“That was something that I’ve always seen, but I’ve never been able to feel it,” he said. “And it just feels great. To get that flag, to touch it, to have that honor of being saluted. It’s just great.”
A small crowd gathered for the ceremony. Extended family were in town to see the homecoming, and several of the Patriot Guard Riders and other veterans attended, too. A South Korean film crew was there, working on a documentary about the war.
The brothers wish their mother could have had the same closure they now do. John’s mother and aunts had been on his mind much of the day, “how great it would have been if they could’ve been here.” For years, their brother was one of thousands of Americans who fought and died in the Korean War, and were never accounted for.
But no longer.
“This is a story that needs to be out,” John said. “If anyone else has lost (a family member in war), the parents should talk to the children, because sometimes it takes a pretty good while to identify people. With Alvin, if it hadn’t come to me and my brother, he would have been put somewhere where no one would ever know.”
Instead, Shaw’s final resting place is a white headstone in his home state of Mississippi, with a few words engraved at the bottom:
“He gave his all for his country.”