- Associated Press - Sunday, February 12, 2017

ALEX, Okla. (AP) - No friends were in the crowd on the day they buried Melvin Hill.

No old schoolmates gathered by his grave, trading stories about when Hill was a boy. No former teachers watched, dabbing tears from their eyes as they lowered the Army corporal’s casket into the ground.

In fact, no one in town knew Hill at all. But still, people here came out in their dozens to watch a hero who wasn’t their own come home to a town he never knew.

“It’s the least we could do,” Jason James, superintendent of the Alex school district, told The Oklahoman (https://bit.ly/2lwJhnP ). About a dozen students from the district placed hundreds of flags along the funeral procession route on the morning of Saturday, Feb. 4.

Hill was born in 1931 near Rush Springs. When he was a boy, the family moved to California, like thousands of other Oklahomans who headed west in the mid- to late 1930s. He grew up in Pomona, in California’s San Gabriel Valley.

In 1950, Hill served in the Korean War with the 31st Regimental Combat Team, better known as Task Force Maclean. In late November of that year, the task force was deep in North Korean territory, pushing northward toward the Yalu River, which marks the border between North Korea and China.

On Nov. 27, 1950, thousands of Chinese troops surrounded the task force near the Chosin Reservoir and attacked. The battle lasted for 17 days and proved catastrophic for American and South Korean forces. By Dec. 15, about 1,500 wounded soldiers were evacuated. Any soldiers that remained were either captured or killed.

Hill, then 19 years old, was reported missing in action. His name never appeared on any prisoner of war list, and no American soldiers who made it home could give officials any information about his fate. On Dec. 31, 1953, months after the war’s end, the U.S. Army declared Hill dead.

For decades, Hill’s family was left to wonder what had become of him. Then, between 1990 and 1994, the North Korean government sent 208 boxes of human remains from the battle back to the United States, along with documents showing some of the remains had been recovered from the area where Hill went missing.

Over the next two decades, Department of Defense officials looked at DNA evidence, as well as the circumstances in which the remains were found, to try to identify remains of about 400 servicemen. DNA samples taken from two of Hill’s nephews matched a sample from one of the sets of remains that returned from North Korea.

When Henry Lancaster, Jr., one of Hill’s nearest living relatives, got the news that his great uncle’s remains had been identified, he knew he wanted to have Hill buried in Alex. Although Hill had never lived there himself, several of his relatives are buried there, said Lancaster, of Old Town, Florida. At only 19 years old, Hill never married and had no children of his own, so burying him alongside other relatives made the most sense, Lancaster said.

“I wanted him to be with family,” Lancaster said.

Cathy Swanson, the city manager in Alex, said the town didn’t even know the funeral was scheduled until a week before. After being contacted by a reporter about the funeral, Swanson began looking online for more details about Hill. Then, she started making phone calls. She called the city treasurer, who agreed to tie yellow ribbons around trees in town.

Others offered to come out and line the highway as Hill’s funeral procession passed by. Still more agreed to put up flags along Main Street. Townspeople wanted to make sure there was no way a visitor could drive into town the day of the funeral without seeing a flag, Swanson said.

“It’s quite an honor for our town,” she said.

At 9 a.m., about a dozen fifth- and sixth-graders from Alex Elementary met at the school, then spread out up and down State Highway 19, lining the route with small American flags.

By noon, people were already beginning to assemble along the route the procession would take from the funeral home in Chickasha to the cemetery. Semi trucks parked alongside the road, and other onlookers sat in their cars in parking lots and pullouts along the highway.

David and Amy Blackburn, of Alex, sat in a parking lot near a convenience store with their two children, Brandon and Montana, and their nephew, Mason. The family had flags and poster board signs saying “God Bless Our Troops.”

David Blackburn said he’d read about the funeral on Facebook, and he and his family wanted to do something to show respect. He remembered seeing people line highways during Operation Desert Storm to recognize soldiers headed off to Fort Sill. It seemed like an appropriate way to pay tribute to a man who has waited 67 years to come home - even if he came to a town that never knew him.

“It’s a long time to wait,” Blackburn said.

A few minutes before 1 p.m., the funeral procession made its way down a county road just off the highway and turned into the cemetery. An Army funeral detail snapped to attention, saluting as the hearse bearing Hill’s remains passed, before returning to parade rest once the procession had passed.

A few minutes later, the funeral detail walked to the hearse and unloaded a flag-draped casket, marching it gently over to the grave. Dozens of relatives, veterans and other supporters gathered around the graveside through the eulogy, a 21-gun salute and the playing of “Taps.”

No one spoke as members of the funeral detail stripped the flag from Hill’s casket, folded it and presented it to Carol Bush, Hill’s niece. The only sound that could be heard was that of the many flags around Hill’s grave whipping violently in the fierce winter wind.

Bush, who is likely the last surviving relative to have met Hill, said she was pleased at how her fellow Oklahomans responded to her uncle’s homecoming.

“It’s absolutely inspiring,” she said.

Hill was buried just a few yards from a memorial bearing the names of the veterans who are buried in Alex Cemetery. Among them is Johnny Swanson, the late husband of Cathy Swanson, the city manger. Johnny Swanson died in 2012, after being exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

The memorial is a testament to a tradition of military service upon which the town prides itself, Swanson said. Still, she acknowledged that the town’s reaction to the news of Hill’s funeral was different than it had been for others.

When Sgt. Mycal Prince, of the Oklahoma National Guard’s 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, was killed in Afghanistan in 2011, the grief was personal, she said. Prince wasn’t from Alex - he grew up nearby, in Ninnekah - but he had many friends in Alex.

But that isn’t the case for Hill, who died more than 65 years ago.

So what, then, is the town’s relationship to Hill, a man it never met?

“I don’t think we have a relationship with this man. We just have a relationship with our community,” Swanson said. “If somebody needs to come home, then this is a good place for them to come.”

___

Information from: The Oklahoman, https://www.newsok.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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