After more than 65 years of knowing nothing more than a family member was missing in action and presumed dead during the Korean War, a family gathered on Tuesday to hear the Army’s account of Lavern Ullmer, and make decisions on the soldier’s remains finally being laid to rest.
Ullmer’s closest living relatives, all nephews and nieces and some of their spouses and children, came together at the Eagles in Greenfield, as the village is home to local preacher John Gray. Gray said he knew his uncle as “Boom Boom” and was 10 years old when Ullmer died. The Greenfield resident is the eldest living descendent of the Dayton soldier whose remains were recently identified through the United States’ ongoing efforts to recover the remains of soldiers.
Jim Bell, human resources commander at Fort Knox in Kentucky, came to the family on Tuesday with a thick file containing the evidence that had been gathered — a summation of what had likely happened to Pfc. Ullmer more than 65 years ago.
Bell said he is the one that does the research when remains are identified. “I get to bring the story to you,” he said.
Bell relayed history of the Korean War as well as history of where Ullmer’s unit was fighting. He said following the Battle of Kunu-ri, where Ullmer’s unit guarded the rear of retreating U.S. infantryman, Ullmer was classified as missing in action on Nov. 30, 1950.
In the coming months, Bell said Ullmer’s family was notified of his MIA status, which eventually became the status of presumed dead.
It wasn’t until the end of the war in 1953, more than two and half years after Ullmer’s fate became unknown, that prisoners of war were released. Two POWs had information on Ullmer, and one of those was Dr. William Shadish. Bell said Shadish treated the wounded as he could, but also kept a running record of when a soldier died, recording that soldier’s name, serial number, and cause of death.
Bell said that when the doctor was released after the war he had Ullmer’s name recorded among the more than 300 other soldiers’ names he had written down during his time as a captive. The doctor wrote that Ullmer died in a temporary POW camp on Jan. 21, 1951, nearly two months after he had been captured. Shadish wrote that Ullmer died of “starvation, exposure and pneumonia.”
Shadish’s account, Bell said, paints the picture of the deplorable conditions suffered by those in captivity forced to march at night in the harsh conditions and given little food and no medication.
Bell said that after the war North Korea turned over more than 4,000 soldiers’ remains, but it wasn’t until 2005 that Ullmer’s remains were recovered “deep” into North Korea with the country “watching everything” the search team did.
It was years before scientists put together everything they learned and compared DNA evidence requested from family members to positively identify the remains as those of Ullmer.
According to Bell, there was no record of Ullmer being wounded prior to the Battle of Kunu-ri, but his skeletal remains showed “projectile trauma” to the right femur, which possibly indicated Ullmer was wounded prior to being captured. Whether the wound contributed to his death is not known because the only record is what Shadish kept, Bell said.
On a “modern-day” death certificate, Bell said Ullmer’s death is classified as undetermined.
Bell said the Army is still processing awards for Ullmer. He named more than a dozen honors the soldier will receive when he is given a full military service next month. Among those honors are two medals bestowed by the South Korean government, the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, as well as recognitions for his service in World War II.
According to Bell, the United States’ Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency and the branches of the armed forces continually search for “unaccounted for soldiers.” At war sites across the globe, the searches go on, he said, and when remains are recovered, historians, anthropologists and scientists working independently attempt to identify the recovered remains.
Bell said there are currently more than 83,000 unaccounted for soldiers, with more than half of those Army.
Ullmer’s remains are currently in Hawaii at one of two laboratories in the United States devoted to identifying soldiers’ remains recovered from war sites, Bell said.
Bell was accompanied on Tuesday by Sgt. 1st Class Melissa Williams, the family’s casualty assistance officer. Williams will be available to the family throughout the process of receiving Ullmer’s remains and interring them.
In the coming weeks, Ullmer’s remains will be flown from Hawaii to Ohio in a flag-draped casket and with a military escort.
According to Gray’s wife, Joan, the family decided Tuesday that they will be present at the plane when Ullmer’s remains arrive in Dayton. She said the family had the option to have him buried at Arlington National Cemetery, but decided he should be “home.”
Ullmer was unmarried and had no children. He died when he was 23. Following a full military service and almost 66 years after his death in a POW camp, Ullmer will finally be laid to rest beside the graves of his parents in Dayton in November.
Reach Angela Shepherd at 937-393-3456, ext. 1681, or on Twitter @wordyshepherd.