Sisters finally put to rest soldier who died overseas
Army Cpl. Joseph William “J.W.” Fontenot left his home in southern Livingston Parish more than 61 years ago.
On Saturday, Fontenot will return home to rest for good.
A strawberry farmer in Whitehall, Fontenot left his family to join the U.S. Army in 1949 and soon found himself fighting in the Korean War, where he was captured in North Korea and died of dysentery in a prison camp on June 28, 1951. He was one of several hundred unknown U.S. soldiers subsequently buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.
While the 20-year-old soldier lay unknown more than 4,000 miles away, his relatives back in Louisiana hoped that one day he would be found.
“We honestly couldn’t really believe it after all these years,” said Melonie Fontenot Picou, one of two surviving sisters of 12 siblings. “Like I told my mother, I was going to see it through to the end.”
“I’m so glad that they found him. It just brings closure,” said Barbara Fontenot Noel, the other surviving sister.
The sisters, both residents of Gonzales, were just children the last time they saw Fontenot before he left the community of Whitehall for the war. Picou, who was 6 years old at the time, recalled that Fontenot brought her a baby doll after returning from a trip to Germany. He also brought a toy truck to the youngest child, 5-year-old Hubert, who died in January at 65.
By the time Fontenot had served in the Army for two years, Picou said, she and her younger brother didn’t recognize him when he returned to visit.
“We went and hid in the closet,” Picou said, laughing.
After two weeks on leave, Fontenot left home for good, and that was the last time any of the family members saw him. Picou said she was happy her brother was able to return home at last.
“We didn’t think this was ever going to happen,” she said.
The two sisters praised the Army for its efforts in helping identify Fontenot’s remains and returning them to buried Saturday with the rest of his relatives in Livingston Parish’s Whitehall Community Cemetery.
“They need a gold medal,” Noel said.
First Sgt. Robert Craven said the Army went through a “painstaking process” to identify the remains. The sisters submitted blood and DNA samples, but those were unable to be used. Ultimately, Fontenot was identified through his Army dental records, Craven said.
“This was a unique case in that 98 percent of his remains were recovered — or so we thought,” Craven said. “He had two teeth missing, but they were recovered. One hundred percent of his remains were recovered, which is almost unheard of.”
Picou said she was so young when Fontenot died, that she didn’t have too many memories of her older brother. Noel, who was 9 at the time Fontenot left for Korea, said one thing stood out about him.
“We lived on a farm, so we were all hard workers, but he was always smiling,” she said. “He always had such a beautiful smile. He was so happy-go-lucky.”
Craven said U.S. soldiers live by the creed of never leaving a fallen comrade behind, and being able to return Fontenot to Livingston Parish for a proper burial is important.
“What it means to the Army and the family is immense,” Craven said. “It means accountability for the Army and closure for the family.”
A funeral service for Fontenot is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at the Ourso Funeral Home in Gonzales. Family members will then travel about 25 miles to Whitehall to bury him among family members.