Wilson Thibodeaux Sr. spent most of his adult life yearning to discover the fate that befell his younger brother during the Korean War, writing letter after letter to government officials.
But the World War II veteran died before ever getting an answer. Now, after more than 60 years, the remains of U.S. Army Sgt. Clement Thibodeaux are returning to Louisiana.
“It’s a shame,” said Gary Thibodeaux, son of Wilson Thibodeaux Sr., referring to the fact his father is not around to see his brother’s remains returned and laid to rest.
Sgt. Clement Thibodeaux died in 1951 in a North Korean prisoner of war camp that surviving POWs called “Death Valley,” according to Lt. Col. Melinda F. Morgan, a Department of Defense spokeswoman.
She said Thibodeaux was taken prisoner along with other members of the 25th Infantry Division by Chinese troops on Nov. 28, 1950.
U.S. forces engaged Chinese forces in North Korea, north of the Ch’ongch’on River, suffering heavy casualties in the fighting and subsequent withdrawal
It was then that Clement Thibodeaux was captured.
Wilson “Jay” Thibodeaux Jr., said his uncle spent his 18th birthday, Dec. 1, 1950, as a prisoner of war during an especially harsh winter.
“That was a terrible war; those guys went through hell,” Wilson Thibodeaux said.
Army officials listed Clement Thibodeaux as missing in action and his family never learned his fate, even though U.S. soldiers returning from the war told Army officials in 1953 that Thibodeaux died in 1951 of starvation and pneumonia.
Morgan said Thibodeaux’s remains were not among those of soldiers and prisoners returned by communist forces in 1954.
“It’s always been intriguing to me and it’s been a missing part of my heart, knowing that I have an uncle that I never met and that he died so young,” Gary Thibodeaux said. “He died for this country at 18 years old in a uniform.”
Clement Thibodeaux’s father got him enlisted in the Army in February 1950 at the age of 17, to the dismay of Wilson Thibodeaux Sr., who had served in North Africa and Europe under Gen. George Patton and knew the harsh realities of war, Gary Thibodeaux said.
Clement Thibodeaux was wounded in action in the summer of 1950 and upon returning to Korea, wrote family members that he believed he would die in combat once he was returned to the frontline.
Years later, Wilson Thibodeaux Sr. began a one-man crusade to find out what happened to his brother. Year after year, he wrote letter after letter to government officials and politicians, trying to enlist their help in getting closure.
Gary Thibodeaux said his father believed his brother died in a prison camp.
He said his father donated his own DNA to officials in hopes they could match it to any remains they found during excursions to areas rumored to have been camps.
Then in 2005, a joint U.S.-Democratic People’s Republic of Korea team excavated a site in Unsan County in North Korea, found several remains and sent them back to the U.S. for identification.
Scientists from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory identified Thibodeaux’s remains by matching mitochondrial DNA that Wilson Thibodeaux Sr. had donated shortly before he died.
Now Clement Thibodeaux is returning home.
Family members will welcome him home Friday when the plane carrying a coffin bearing his remains — seven small bones from his neck, jaw and hip — touches down in New Orleans.
He will be entombed in Church Point with full military honors in the same above-ground crypt as his grandfather once the U.S. Army refurbishes the tomb.
“It’s kind of relieving to have closure on it,” Gary Thibodeaux said. “Finally we can bring him home. It just didn’t seem fair that he never made it back.”
Although Clement Thibodeaux was born in Church Point, he enlisted in the U.S. Army while living with Wilson Thibodeaux Sr. and his family in Baton Rouge.
The family does not have a time or date set for the burial.
His two remaining siblings won’t be able to attend because of health reasons.
For Gary Thibodeaux, his uncle’s return is bittersweet.
While it will be a joyous and emotional occasion for the family, he said, he wishes his father were alive to see this day.
“I’m feeling the emotions my dad had and I guess it’s just been passed onto me knowing what my dad went through worrying about his brother and he enlisted that concern in me,” he said.
Thibodeaux is the third man with Baton Rouge-area ties who died during the Korean or Vietnam wars to have his remains found and identified in the past year.
On Oct. 27, Army Cpl. Joseph William “J.W.” Fontenot, of Whitehall, was buried in Maurepas, more than 60 years after he died of dysentery in a prison camp on June 28, 1951.
The Army identified Fontenot’s remains through his dental records.
Then in December, one day after the 71st anniversary of the attacks on Pearl Harbor, military officials announced they had identified the remains of Army Capt. James M. Johnstone, who was born in Baton Rouge and grew up in South Carolina.. He died when his OV-1A Mohawk aircraft crashed in Attapu Province, Laos, on Nov. 19, 1966.
A team from a joint U.S./ Lao People’s Democratic Republic operation found the remains in 2007 and they were identified through dental records and a thumb print.