Army Staff Sgt. Karl R. Loesche — a World War II casualty whose remains could not be identified for 76 years — was buried with full military honors in a picturesque Salem County graveyard, not far from where he grew up.
About 150 people, including members of a local VFW post and a delegation of motorcyclists from such organizations as the Rolling Thunder POW-MIA advocacy group, paid their respects at Emanuel Lutheran Church in Alloway Township, near Elmer.
"We've buried many veterans, but this was a first — he had been unidentified for so long," said Mark Adams, whose Adams Funeral Home in Elmer handled the arrangements. "We're glad for the family to have closure. But it's sad to think what they went through all these years, and what he went through."
Loesche had just graduated from Woodstown High School when he took a bus to Camden in August 1939 and enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He survived the Bataan Death March in the Philippines and died of dysentery in the Japanese POW camp at Cabanatuan on Nov. 16, 1942. He was 22.
The young soldier was first buried in a common grave with seven other fallen American servicemen at Cabanatuan, and was later reinterred at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial. Loesche's remains were identified Sept. 13 after DNA analysis of his last surviving siblings, Marion Atkinson, 87, of Bensalem, and Richard Loesche, 90, of Ocala, Fla.
"The church, the pastor, the whole community opened up to us so freely," Atkinson said after the Saturday funeral. She and other relatives had pursued identification and repatriation of the remains for many years.
"The funeral was about my brother," Atkinson said. "But in all honesty, it was about what the Lord did for us. He made it possible for my brother Richard and I to have this day."
Said Loesche, a retired Lutheran clergyman: "It was overwhelming — a wonderful day. It was a way of thanking everybody, and thanking the Lord."
The two siblings also had high praise for Aidan Peterson, 12, who played "Taps" at the graveside — as he has done at 150 military funerals and events for the last four years throughout the region. "It was perfect," Loesche said.
"I didn't even realize it was a boy playing it," said Atkinson, who insisted that Aidan take home a plate of desserts from the post-funeral reception at a local fire hall.
"I couldn't help but give him a big hug. I was just amazed with him, and I wanted him to know how much our family appreciated what he did."
An accomplished multi-instrumentalist from Ardmore, Aidan is a volunteer with Bugles Across America, an organization that provides trumpeters to play at the funerals of veterans. The seventh grader also is active with the Pennsylvania-based A Hero's Welcome; volunteers from that group also attended the funeral.
"It was a great honor for me," Aidan said after the service. "The generation of World War II had the strength and courage to fight for their country. [Sgt. Loesche] went to war when he was fresh out of high school. It's hard to get that thought out of your head."
Aidan, who also plays cello and piano, is supported by the Primavera Fund in Philadelphia. The organization helps exceptional students of limited means pay for lessons and attend music camps, said his mother, Amy Shumoski, an administrator at Harcum College.
"He's played taps at so many funerals of veterans. But this one was different," she said.
"Aidan told me, 'I'm fine, Mom,' and he played flawlessly. I was so proud of him."
Wes Hughes, a Loesche family friend who lives in Cherry Hill, was impressed with Aidan's rendition of "Taps," and with the turnout at the funeral.
"That slogan, 'Never forgotten'? It's for real," he said. "Even after 76 years."
Said Atkinson: "I am so thankful that my brother is now at peace and at rest with my mother and father and my sister.
"It definitely feels like he's home. This is where he belongs."