32 Veterans’ Remains Reburied in Kentucky
RADCLIFF, Ky. -- When Korean War veteran Sgt. Ronald Tharp died in 1986, his daughter chose to have his remains interred at Louisville's historic Eastern Cemetery, home to soldiers and civilians stretching back before the Civil War.
Instead, Tharp's ashes have sat the past nine years largely forgotten on a shelf at the University of Louisville -- among hundreds of remains taken there to guard against vandalism and neglect after Eastern's owners were indicted for burying multiple bodies in the same plot.
On Monday, Tharp's daughter, Lisa Hutchings, of Jeffersonville, Ind., watched as her father and 31 other Korean, World War II and World War I veterans whose remains were on those same shelves, were once again laid to rest with the ceremony, honor and dignity that their families say they so richly deserve.
Recently identified and rescued by a veterans' group, the remains were reinterred at the Kentucky Veterans Cemetery near Radcliff with full military honors, including a color guard, a 21-guns salute, a C-130 flyover and hundreds of supporters.
"It's very emotional," said Hutchings, who wiped tears after a soldier from Fort Knox handed her a folded flag and "Taps" was played. "Until a few weeks ago, I didn't even know his remains were lost."
The funeral, which Fort Knox garrison commander Col. Rick Schwartz said marked the nation's largest single recovery of cremated veterans, was the work of the Missing In America Project, which helps locate, identify and bury unclaimed remains of veterans.
Dale LeMond, MIA's Regional director, said he was thrilled with the public outpouring of support, which included a miles-long caravan from a Dixie Highway funeral home, 40 police cars and nearly 400 motorcycles from a veterans group. They passed onlookers who stopped their cars to salute, or stood at intersections with U.S. flags.
"It's no fault of the families these remains were abandoned," said LeMond, whose aim was to provide "a final resting place that honors their service."
LeMond said he hopes to do the same with other veterans among the nearly 300 cremated remains from Eastern that are being stored at the University of Louisville Archaeology Department warehouse, many of which haven't been claimed by relatives and some of which are still unidentified.
"We're hoping this is only the first group," he said.
In the roughly two decades since Eastern, a former Methodist burying ground near Cave Hill Cemetery, was abandoned, its rutted grounds, sagging gravestones and graffiti have been a sore spot for local veterans, who cited it as disrespectful to veterans from the Civil War to Vietnam who were buried there, along with civilians.
The cemetery's trouble began in 1989, when a gravedigger alleged that old burial lots were routinely reused at Eastern, owned by Louisville Crematory and Cemeteries Inc.
After a state attorney general's investigation, the company and three of its officers were indicted on 60 criminal charges, including theft, corpse abuse and grave desecration. But problems with the evidence led to the charges being dropped, and the owners left.
In all, about 100,000 people were buried at Eastern, which could hold only 30,000 graves at most, said Philip Diblasi, a University of Louisville forensic archaeologist who has worked to identify the remains.
About ten years ago, Diblasi worked with the state authorities to remove remains to protect them from vandalism and neglect, housing them at the university's archeology department.
Kentucky has no state law requiring cities or counties to care for abandoned cemeteries. A receiver appointed by the court to oversee the cemetery was removed in 2000 amid an investigation over improper use of funds.
With volunteers often scarce, a tiny state-managed "perpetual care" fund barely covers gasoline, mower blades and a supervisor for free prisoner labor to cut the grass every couple of weeks.
Distraught over the cemetery's disrepair, several of the local members of Missing in America, including former police officer and Army veteran Walt Oster, have been rallying volunteers to clean up the cemetery, placing flags, removing trash and shooing away teenagers who like to drink beer there, or vandals who spray-paint the columbarium and push over gravestones.
They also worked to identify some remains they'd come across at the cemetery and then began to examine those at U of L, checking to see which ones could be veterans.
Diblasi gave them a list of basic information, and Oster's group began checking for military histories, cross-referencing death certificates with Social Security and military records. In February, a Louisville judge issued an order giving LeMond's group custody of the 32 remains and remains of nine spouses.
Most of the veterans died decades ago, and LeMond said finding relatives has been difficult -- in fact, they were able to track down family for only six of the veterans.
One was Hutchings, who said her father rarely talked of his time fighting on the frontlines in Korea, but told stories about being cut during a close-quarters battle.
LeMond's group also found Ellis Olliges, of Mount Washington, Ky., who learned that his brother, Army Pvt. Ollie Dean, also a Korean War veteran, had been displaced from Eastern.
Olliges said he'd lost touch with his brother over the years, and didn't remember the exact year that he had died -- but he was glad he was getting the honors he deserved.
"This is very significant," he said. "It means a lot."