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Remains of Pennsylvania WWI soldier Henry Weikel return home for burial

When he was drafted into the Army in the summer of 1917, he became an instant celebrity in Mount Carmel, Pa.

When he was drafted into the Army in the summer of 1917, he became an instant celebrity in Mount Carmel, Pa.

Henry A. Weikel was the first of 88 men from his area called to serve in the "Great War," and many residents wanted to shake his hand. A story in the local paper described the 28-year-old as a "fine young fellow."

A year later, Pvt. Weikel was killed during a heavy artillery barrage in the woods of Bois de Bonvaux, near Jaulny, France. His remains were temporarily buried with a marker, then lost track of.

Ninety-two years later, the World War I doughboy has come home to a hero's welcome. His unmarked grave was found in 2006, and his remains were identified through dental records.

Weikel will receive full military honors during his interment at 11 a.m. Thursday at Indiantown Gap Cemetery in Annville, Pa.

Remarkably, Weikel is one of only five soldiers from that war who have been identified by a special Defense Department unit that has accounted for missing Americans since the Vietnam War, a spokesman said.

"It's very unusual," said Weikel's great-niece Debra Coleman, 48, of the Shenandoah section of Schuylkill County, daughter of Weikel's niece Rose Mary Wesner of Frackville, Pa. "I couldn't believe it. I was shocked.

"It's amazing what they were able to do to identify him after all this time."

Weikel's identification was made by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), said Larry Greer, a spokesman for the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office, which oversees JPAC.

Only four soldiers and one Marine from World War I have been identified, compared with hundreds from other wars.

At least 1,700 are still missing from the Vietnam War, 125 from the Cold War, 8,000 from Korea, and 78,000 from World War II, Greer said.

There's no database of the missing from World War I, but the Defense Department still has dental records that allowed officials to identify Weikel's remains.

They contacted Wesner, 80, with the stunning news about three months ago.

She wasn't sure what to make of it, Coleman said. Her mother's Uncle Henry had died 12 years before her mother was born.

"But she said she's glad that he's finally being laid to rest," said Coleman, whose mother will be unable to attend the service because of ill health.

"He had been killed by the Germans and buried there, but the marker on the grave was destroyed by more fighting," Coleman said.

In 1931, Weikel's mother, Eliza, and other Gold Star mothers who lost sons in the war sailed to France aboard the President Roosevelt to find the remains.

"She was deaf and in ill health but still wanted to look," Coleman said. "The mothers banded together for their search, but [Weikel's mother] returned without him."

Weikel's remains had to wait until September 2006 to be found by French residents hunting for metal and artifacts.

They discovered the remains along with those of other American soldiers who died when an artillery shell fell in their midst Sept. 16, 1918, during the Battle of Saint-Mihiel in northeastern France.

Weikel, Pvt. Carl H. Willig, Pvt. Thomas Costello, and Sgt. William Wood had been listed as missing in action. Along with the human remains, investigators found mess kits, gas masks, shoes, and other items, Coleman said.

"The remains had suffered a great deal of trauma," Greer said. "Uniform items identified them as World War I veterans, but they did not personally identify" Weikel, Greer said.

"There was a military ID tag, but only some of the numbers were readable," he said. "Those you could read were consistent with his service number."

The French residents notified U.S. authorities, and a JPAC team already working in the area recovered the remains.

Over the next few years, the scientists and other officials found and compared the dental records and examined other effects. They also tracked down the families.

"The Army works with the family to see when and where they wish to have the burial," Greer said. "Some choose to have it at Arlington National Cemetery, and others closer to home."

On Thursday, members of the military will honor Weikel at the funeral, along with the Patriot Guard, a motorcycle club that attends the funerals of service members to shield mourners from the presence of protesters who sometimes turn out.

Coleman will accept Weikel's medals: the Purple Heart, the Mihiel Battle Crest with a Bronze Service Star, and a Silver World War I Victory Button.

"We're grateful to the military that they helped us with the recovery of our relative," said Coleman, who will receive a folded flag at the burial Thursday. "We're proud that my great-uncle gave his life fighting in the war for his country."