U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Karl R. Loesche was just 22 when he died in a Japanese POW camp on Nov. 16, 1942.
The young serviceman from the Salem County hamlet of Monroeville was buried with seven other fallen American soldiers in a common grave at Cabanatuan, in the Philippines.
Remains later exhumed from that grave were reburied in the Manila American Cemetery, but his were not positively identified until a DNA match last Sept. 13 — 76 years after Sgt. Loesche, who had endured the Bataan Death March, succumbed to dysentery.
"I am so overwhelmed," his youngest sister, Marion Atkinson, said recently. "I never expected this."
On Nov. 9, Sgt. Loesche's remains will arrive at Philadelphia International Airport and will be carried by an honor guard to a waiting hearse from the Adams Funeral Home in Elmer, Salem County. And following a Nov. 17 service with full military honors at Emanuel Lutheran Church in Elmer, he will be laid to rest in the grave of his parents, Paul and Lucia Loesche, in the church cemetery.
"I was 8 years old the last time I saw him," Atkinson, 87, told me at her Bensalem home.
Her brother, who had played football for Woodstown High School, enlisted in the Army Air Corps on Aug. 8, 1939. After basic training, "he wanted to see my mother" before shipping out to the Philippines, said Atkinson.
"My mother and I were the only ones at home that afternoon," she said. "Karl was only there for two hours and then he had to take a bus back to Philadelphia to get the train to New York. I remember walking with him to the bus stop on the Bridgeton Highway. I was actually the last one in our family to see my brother, the last one to walk with him."
A mother of two, grandmother of four, and great-grandmother of two, Atkinson — the retired food services director of the Glassboro school district — was the youngest of the family's 11 children. She and her brother Richard Loesche, 90, are the only siblings left.
"I never thought we would ever get any information," said Richard Loesche, a retired Lutheran minister living in Florida. "I never thought they would find anything."
Richard Loesche remembers when the telegram arrived, telling his parents that their son
— who served in the Third Pursuit Squadron, 24th Pursuit Group – – had died.
"It didn't seem real," he said.
In that house on a lonely stretch of the Monroeville-Swedesboro Road, there was no electricity or running water. Times had long been tough, and their stoic parents rarely expressed emotion.
But pictures of Sgt. Loesche "were in every house in the family when I was growing up," said their niece Elizabeth Zollner, 66. Her late mother was an older Loesche sister named Gertrude.
"Karl was a constant presence in our lives."
Postwar correspondence from the Army essentially stopped by the late 1940s and contained no information about the existence — much less the location — of remains that might have been those of Sgt. Loesche. A request for his "civilian dental records" did not explain these were being sought for identification purposes. And in any case, no such records existed, because the family couldn't afford to send the kids to the dentist.
But information declassified and made available in 2010 proved more helpful, and in 2014 Zollner requested that the Army disinter the remains that had been reburied in the cemetery in Manila.
DNA test kits were sent to Atkinson and Loesche, and the samples matched those from a right fibula bone originally exhumed from the common grave at Cabanatuan.
"Stories like this give hope to other families," Jeanette Gray, a mortuary affairs officer with the Army, said from Fort Knox, Ky.
Noting that the Army has identified about 70 such remains this year, including 30 from World War II, and is working to resolve all cases of those still unidentified, she said: "I tell families not to give up."
Wes Hughes, a Cherry Hill resident whose mother is a friend of the Loesche family, contacted me to see if I was interested in writing "this wonderful story."
I was glad to do so, in part for personal reasons: My father, Thomas J. Riordan (may he rest in peace), was a turret gunner's mate aboard the USS Wisconsin in the South Pacific during World War II. I grew up with a framed photo of my dad's ship mounted high on the wall behind our black-and-white Motorola TV.
For the Loesche family, reminders of the war were far less cheerful.
"This was the last letter my mother got from him," Atkinson said, picking up a photocopy from one of several stacks of correspondence, photographs, and other memorabilia about her brother. She has his medals, too, including the Silver Star and the Purple Heart.
"Don't worry about my safety," Sgt. Loesche wrote in that last letter, dated Feb. 5, 1942. He had not been home since the day he saw his mother and baby sister in the fall of 1939.
In the letter, he also requested cookies and asked if their mother received the $50 he sent for Christmas. The Depression years had been hard on the family, and as a teenager, Sgt. Loesche often worked odd jobs, such as cleaning the chicken house at a nearby farm, and gave the money to his mother.
He always thought of others, Atkinson said, and his family never stopped thinking of him.
In 2014, she and Zollner and other relatives visited the Manila American Cemetery, and Cabanatuan. Atkinson said she wanted her brother to know "he had not been forgotten," and also hoped that while at Cabanatuan she might walk "somewhere he had walked."
On Nov. 9, "we will finally have something of him back," she said. "I'm happy, not only for myself but for my mother. I felt Karl needed to be returned to his mother."