Staff Photo by Allison Kwesell A member of the U.S. Army honor guard presents a flag to Barbara Hobbs during the funeral of Sgt. 1st Class Lewis Brickell, her brother, at the Chattanooga National Cemetery. Her husband, Joe Hobbs, sits at left, and the sergeant's niece, Pam Burrows, sits at right.
Barbara Hobbs has a letter written 59 years ago about her brother — the only information about what happened to him on a muddy hilltop in the Korean War.
“When I saw Lewis well covered and firing his M1 rifle, he was in very good condition. He was not hurt,” wrote Carl Arbanas, squad leader of Sgt. 1st Class Lewis Brickell’s unit.
After heavy fighting, Sgt. 1st Class Brickell and the other soldiers in his unit disappeared. With no bodies found, they were considered missing in action and presumed to be prisoners of war.
“Now therein is the question: What have they done to Lewis Brickell?” Mr. Arbanas wrote. “There’s a thousand and one questions that could be asked about him but no answers. Nobody seems to know.”
Those questions echoed across decades, through Mrs. Hobbs’ life, and grew stronger after her mother died, never knowing what happened to her son. The family just wanted to know where he was, to have a place to visit, to mourn, Mrs. Hobbs said.
The family finally got its wish. After full military funeral honors Friday, the remains of the sergeant now rest in the Chattanooga National Cemetery.
Mrs. Hobbs, steadied by her husband Joe on one side and her daughter Pam Burrows on the other, listened Friday as an Army chaplain praised her brother’s strength, service and sacrifice. As tears rolled down her cheeks, she daubed them away with piece of tissue paper.
She later said that, throughout the ceremony, she could hardly believe the day had come.
“I’m just so glad he’s home. I just didn’t think it would happen in my lifetime, I really didn’t think they’d find him,” she said.
Military forensics teams with the Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command in Hawaii identified the sergeant’s remains with matching dental records in September.
Detailed reports provided to the family showed that Sgt. 1st Class Brickell was shot in the side of the head and in the mid-back. His body was one of many exchanged with the United States after the Korean War cease-fire in 1953.
Formaldehyde preserved all of his body except for one foot and a hand. Yet the chemical causes damage to the DNA, which prevented DNA matching. The sergeant’s remains also were found far north of where he was last seen, throwing off attempts to trace the body’s location and further delaying identification.
Unidentified, the remains were interred in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl, Hawaii.
The young sergeant joined the Army at age 17 just to get work. He was engaged to his high school sweetheart Louise Gentry Sprayberry when he left for Korea.
Mrs. Sprayberry, 78, attended services for her former fiancé on Friday. But she’d already visited him, stopping by the funeral home Thursday to talk to him alone.
“I just told him he was a hero,” she said.
Mrs. Sprayberry said the news that they’d identified his remains was “the biggest shock of my life.”
After he disappeared in 1950, she waited alongside family, friends and neighbors for four years until the conflict ended. She listened intently as, late one night, an announcer read a long list of POWs’ names over the radio.
Sgt. 1st Class Brickell’s name was never read, she said.
BY THE NUMBERS
* 1993: Year the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office was created
* 600: Team members
* $105 million: Annual budget
* 100: Identifications per year
Source: Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office
World War II: 78,000
Cold War: 125
Korea: More than 8,100
Source: Defense Prisoner of War/ Missing Personnel Office
ABOUT THE ‘PUNCHBOWL’
The remains of Sgt. 1st Class Lewis Brickell were kept for decades at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl, Hawaii. The cemetery was built in 1948 and dedicated in 1949 as a memorial to the sacrifice of men and women in the U.S. Armed Services. It is in the Pu’owaina Crater, which in ancient times was known as the “Hill of Sacrifice.” Among the first to be buried there were 776 casualties from the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor.
Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...