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For more than a half century, the families of two Minnesota servicemen worried, wondered and waited.
Second Lt. Harry L. Bedard, of Dayton, disappeared when his B-25 aircraft crashed in the Philippines on April 3, 1945. Six years later, just weeks after telling his family in a letter that "the going is tough, pray for us," Sgt. Ralph William Carlson of Braham was reported missing in action in Korea.
On Wednesday, caskets containing the remains of the two men finally came home to a military salute, offering closure for waiting relatives.
"It enforces the idea that you never leave a man behind," said Pfc. John Wescott, a 21-year-old Marine who flew from California to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to help bestow military honors on Carlson, an uncle he never knew.
Bedard, a navigation-bombardier in the Army Air Force, was killed in action when the B-25J Mitchell that carried him and five others went into a power stall, plunged 1,000 feet and crashed in a swampy woodlands near Cebu City in the Philippines. He was 22.
Only one body was recovered immediately after the crash. The unidentifiable remains of the others, including Bedard, were recovered two years later and buried in a common grave in an Air Force cemetery in Leyte in the Philippines. In 1951, additional remains from these members of the 13th Air Force, 42nd Bomber Group, 100th Squadron were discovered at the crash site. The remains of the five unidentified crew members were buried in a single grave at the Jefferson Barrack National Cemetery in St. Louis in 1953.
"I remember my father talking about [Harry], and not sure he died," said nephew Tom Bedard, 60, of St. Paul. "Whenever it came up, my father, who was Harry's older brother, always left it with a question mark."
Harry Bedard was the ninth of John and Clara Bedard's 11 children. His mother often met trains of returning servicemen at the Milwaukee Road railroad depot in Minneapolis, hoping that Harry would come home.
Harry's parents and siblings have died, but his wartime correspondence with them offers glimpses into his life. He had written in a letter to his sister Bernice that he kept busy playing cards, digging foxholes, playing chess and pingpong and reading "Drums Along the Mohawk." He joked in a letter to his brother George that he wanted to "peek my nose into Asia and Europe to see how the rest of the world lives."
But war's cruelties also crept into the writing of the DeLaSalle High School graduate. A letter to sister Ethel in late 1944 described small bombs exploding 150 yards away and "planes caught in huge searchlights' rays, enveloped by anti-aircraft fire." A letter to sister Rose in January 1945 described his 31 missions as "sorta rough."
It wasn't until the 1960s that the mystery of the unidentified remains took on new momentum. Mary "Mickey" Beard, of Huntington, W.Va., was not convinced that her brother, Sgt. George "Rip" Winkler, another crew member, was really buried in St. Louis.
"She wanted proof and she wouldn't let up," recalled Jack VonFeldt, Bedard's nephew.
After nearly 50 years of Beard's persistence, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command agreed in 2008 to exhume the remains for DNA testing. Bedard's nephew Fran VonFeldt provided mitochondrial DNA that helped bring the conclusive identification of Lt. Bedard last year.
"A miracle," said Larry Bedard, one of nearly three dozen relatives who watched Wednesday as a casket, draped with a 48-star U.S. flag and carrying the serviceman's remains, was lowered from Delta plane N585NW.
Recalled from the farm
Ralph Carlson was born in 1928, on the eve of the Depression. He entered the Army in January 1949, less than three years after graduating from Braham High School. He was released from the service a year later and resumed farming with his parents until his Reserves recall on Sept. 29, 1950.
He arrived in Korea on Dec. 1, where he would serve as a tank driver in Company 5, 2nd Battalion, attached to the 27th Infantry Division. In his last letter home, just before the end of the year, he asked his parents to pray for him.
The next words were from the Army, on Jan. 22, 1951, telling his parents that Ralph had been missing in action since Jan. 4.
The Carlsons heard little for three years until they were notified on Jan. 14, 1954, that American prisoners of war released by the North Koreans had information that Carlson had been captured and died from dysentery in a North Korea POW camp in April 1951. He was 23 when he died.
A memorial service was held in Braham in 1954. Two years later, the U.S. government declared Carlson's remains nonrecoverable.
But in 1991, the North Korean government turned over 11 boxes containing remains of what were thought to be U.S. servicemen. The boxes were shipped to Hawaii for DNA analysis. On March 2 this year, the Carlson family was notified that Ralph's remains had been identified and would be sent home for burial.
"It's more than closure," said Laurie Carlson, Ralph's niece. "This whole process has given us a chance to know Ralph.
"He's finally home. And now we know his story."
A funeral service for Carlson will be held at Braham Evangelical Lutheran Church on Saturday, at 11 a.m. Among family survivors are a brother, Marvin Carlson, 79, of Braham, and sister, Florence Shebetka, 74, of Elk River.
Mass for Bedard will be on Saturday at 10:30 a.m. at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Dayton.
Both services will have full military honors.
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419