Jesse Richard has gone through life never knowing his father. To him, he was a picture on a bedroom wall who never got old. Richard’s mother was only a few months pregnant when his father, Thomas Breunig, was one of 13 Marines who died when a river of fire engulfed his barracks at a Japanese training base in October 1979.
The teenage couple weren’t married, and for years the Breunig family thought it wasn’t possible that Richard could be one of their own, or even that he existed at all. For decades, there was no connection.
But the redemptive power of time and the connective strength of social media have come together 37 years later to close a circle in Richard’s life.
On a little hilltop cemetery in Jordan, Minn., last week, Thomas Breunig’s family and Jesse Richard, reunited through Facebook, came together in a ceremony to recognize what had been missing.
A one-sheet program indicated the service was to honor Lance Cpl. Thomas J. Breunig, who was buried at Calvary Cemetery in Jordan next to relatives almost four decades ago. It included a picture of the somber 19-year-old in his Marine dress blues.
But the reading from 1 Corinthians, the three-volley salute from an honor guard, the singing of “God Bless America,” the playing of taps and the presentation of the flag were really for Richard’s benefit. He wiped a tear as he accepted his father’s flag, cradling it to his chest afterward.
“I always wondered where the flag was,” he said. “You see the movies and the flag being presented to the loved ones. I always wanted that. It’s all coming together now.”
It wasn’t lost on him that, at 37, the first funeral he could ever remember attending would be for his 19-year-old father.
River of fire
Typhoon Tip, the strongest storm to reach mainland Japan in 13 years, brought 115 mph winds and heavy rains to Combined Arms Training Center, Camp Fuji, that October. More than 1,250 Marines from Camp Schwab, Okinawa, were being housed in Quonset huts on the installation’s upper half. Just up the hill sat a fuel farm of two rubber storage bladders kept in place by a retaining wall. But over time, the pounding rains eroded the wall and the bladder broke free, springing loose hoses and 5,000 gallons of gasoline.
The fuel skimmed the water’s surface and ran across upper Fuji and into the huts. Shortly after 1:40 p.m., a heater inside one of the huts ignited the gasoline.
More than 70 Marines were burned. Four died in Japan. Thirty-eight were airlifted to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. Tom Breunig died en route. Eight others would die at the hospital.
For Jerry Holt, a Marine who survived the horror, the connection to Richard has become equally profound. Holt, a 19-year-old lance corporal at the time, was in one of the Quonset huts when he heard explosions. He opened the front door to a wall of flame. He ran to the back door. Another wall of flame. When a kerosene heater inside exploded, he frantically took his chances, running through the front door into the inferno. An officer grabbed him and put out the flames that engulfed him with a coat.
“The whole base pretty much exploded,” Holt recalled recently.
Suffering burns over 70 percent of his body, Holt was whisked off to a military hospital in Texas, where he underwent painful treatment. He was eventually sent home to Mississippi, where his military career unceremoniously ended, leaving him unconnected to his fellow Marines.
“There was never one event where we all got to say ‘goodbye’ to each other,” Holt said. “Back in Mississippi it took me a year, a year and a half, to heal my body. During that time there was no connection to those Marines that were involved.”
Holt, who is now a Star Tribune staff photographer, was on assignment in San Antonio several years ago and decided to visit the hospital where he was treated. It has since been torn down, so he went to the public library and looked up news stories about those who had been killed and injured. He noticed Breunig’s name and that he was from South St. Paul. Holt had known Breunig but was unaware where he was from.
Back home in the Twin Cities, Holt went to Fort Snelling National Cemetery thinking Breunig might be buried there. When he couldn’t find his name, he gave up the search.
Not long ago, Holt got a Facebook message from a Marine he had served with asking if he was still living in the area and telling him about the service that was being planned. Holt got in touch with a sister of Breunig, who also put him in touch with Richard.
At Thursday’s ceremony in Jordan, Holt and Richard sat together. Holt put his arm on Richard’s shoulder to console him, and afterward, lingered to reflect over Breunig’s grave.
“I found it an extreme necessity to be part of this,” Holt said. “I guess the word is closure probably. ... The only thing I have is that.”
Knowing what had happened to his father, Richard says he never liked fireworks as a kid. He admits a simple burn would freak him out. Even movies with fires would affect him.
Growing up, Father’s Day and father/son baseball games were always tough.
“My mom did her best to be both the mom and dad for a long time, but there was only so much she could do,” he said.
While Richard had the names of some potential relatives on his father’s side and had even looked up their possible addresses, he could never work up the courage to contact them.
“I always wondered what their lives were like and if they would accept me,” he said.
On a whim, he recently sent a “friend” request to an aunt, Carol Breunig. Within a week another aunt, Patty Thornton, sent him a message, saying they were happy to hear from him and that they knew he was their nephew.
“When she saw my picture she knew right away, and then I knew it was going to be very overwhelming from that point on,” he said.
Over the years, there had been some questions about the paternity, including a legal action in the 1980s to exhume Thomas Breunig’s body that was ultimately dismissed. Richard said his mother, Tammy Dunham, had made attempts to reconnect with the family over the years, but eventually moved on.
For Thornton, who was 14 when her brother died, there was no doubt when the family connected with Richard in May that he was Tom’s son. The picture Richard shared over social media was testimony enough. When they met in person, the mannerisms and speech were eerily similar. As they have talked, she has been impressed with his sincerity and lack of bitterness.
After Thornton’s mother died, she was given the U.S. flag that was presented to the family 37 years ago, displaying it with a picture of her brother and a framed copy of a poem a neighbor gave them when he died. She suggested it would be right for the family to present the flag to Richard.
The ceremony on the hilltop cemetery grew out of that.
At the grave site Thursday, newly discovered cousins crowded around Richard. His mother and stepfather and younger brother and sister were there as well. So was his girlfriend. Folks from his father’s old neighborhood gave him hugs and said how much he reminded them of his dad.
“I see someone searching, ‘Where did I come from?,’ ” Patty Thornton said. “I think we helped him make some of those connections.”