DNA Matching Brings Korean War Vet Home


Fuzzy's coming home.

Those three words make tears flow in Jim Reimer's eyes.

After all, it's been more than 60 years since he saw his older brother -- a 16-year-old with a quirky sense of humor and a determination to serve his country -- leave their St. Cloud home to join the Army

Francis John "Fuzzy" Reimer was a young corporal in the Korean War in December 1950 when his unit was surrounded by Chinese soldiers in the bitterly cold Battle of Chosin Reservoir. Fuzzy, who had been in Korea barely two months and had just turned 18, was among hundreds of soldiers who didn't have much of a chance in the ambush that ensued.

The Reimer family would get a letter in January 1951 telling them Fuzzy was missing; another letter three years later informed them that Fuzzy had been officially declared dead.

Communication from the Army mostly ended there, until Reimer's sister received a call this summer telling the family that DNA samples submitted 11 years ago by Fuzzy's mother and older sister had been matched to remains returned to the U.S. military.

Fuzzy Reimer's remains arrived at Daniel Funeral Home in St. Cloud this week, and he will be buried today with full military honors.

"I never gave up hope," Jim Reimer said. "I always had hope that it would come about. But it was a shock and a release of emotions at that time."

"We never forgot Fuzzy," said his sister, Gail Tenvoorde. "When we talked about Fuzzy it was like he was still here. He was still with us; he was never gone in our minds or in our hearts."

You never stop hoping

Two older siblings entered the service before Fuzzy, and his father was an Army medic in World War I in France. Fuzzy dropped out of school when he turned 16 and needed his mother's approval to enter the Army early.

He did his basic training at Fort Riley in Kansas and spent some time in Washington state before shipping out to Japan in April 1950. About five months later, he was shipped to Korea.

Reimer was in the 31st Regimental Combat Team, known as Task Force Faith, which was advancing along the eastern banks of the Chosin Reservoir when its came under attack and began a fighting withdrawal to positions near Hagaru-ri, south of the reservoir. It was during that withdrawal that Reimer went missing.

"We knew where he was. We knew he was at the Chosin Reservoir," Tenvoorde said. "Then it just came down to a matter of watching the papers, because when they started releasing some prisoners, we would watch and read those articles probably three, four times. I remember thinking that I would see his name and that he had been released."

But the only thing that came to the family were the letters, one declaring him missing and one declaring him dead. The weekly letters that Fuzzy never missed sending to his mother suddenly stopped.

The last one came just after he and his fellow troops had finished a Thanksgiving meal.

"After he was declared dead, you know, you never stop hoping," Tenvoorde said. "You never stop praying, you never stop wishing."

It would be more than 45 years before the family would hear from the people who held the key to bringing Fuzzy home.

Between 1991 and 1994, North Korea gave the United States 208 boxes believed to contain the remains of 200-400 U.S. service members. North Korean documents turned over with some of the boxes indicated that some of the human remains were recovered from the area where Reimer was last seen.

The Armed Forces Medical Examiner System's Family Outreach Program called the Reimer family in 2001 and asked for DNA from Fuzzy's family members in hopes it would provide a match to those remains, which were being kept in Hawaii.

One of Fuzzy's sisters provided DNA, and his mother did, too. But she likely didn't know it at the time.

"She was in the nursing home. She had dementia," Tenvoorde said. "We didn't tell her why, because that might have set her off. She passed in 2001. Of course, I think when she passed and met up with family up there, she knew."

Scientists from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory used circumstantial evidence and forensic identification tools, such as mitochondrial DNA, to identify the remains. Tenvoorde said advances in DNA technology allowed for testing this year that wasn't available in 2001.

"If it weren't for the DNA, he wouldn't be coming home," she said.

They found Fuzzy

The DNA match was confirmed July 6, and four days later Tenvoorde was visiting her sister, who lives in a nursing home, when her sister's son walked into the room. He had been granted power of attorney for his mother and had gotten a call that day about the testing.

Tenvoorde remembers vividly what happened next.

He said 'They found Fuzzy,' " she said, before taking a long pause to gather her emotions. "And that did a number. When I left the nursing home, what I wanted to do and what I did do were two different things because I was driving. All I wanted to do was lay my hand on the horn and stick my head out the window and say 'Fuzzy's coming home.' "

Those three words

After getting home, she had to pause to collect her emotions before calling other family members. The way Jim remembers that call, her difficulty in telling him the news caused him concern.

"She had a hard time getting the message out," Jim said. "I thought 'Oh boy, there's problems.' I thought that someone had gotten into a car accident or something. And she said 'Fuzzy's coming home.' Those three words."

The siblings clutched hands and fought back tears as they discussed what it meant.

"You can be perfectly fine, and then something will hit you" to trigger the emotions, Tenvoorde said.

Fuzzy might not know it, but in addition to the family waiting here for him there was family already in Hawaii to help bring him home. Josh Leonard, Fuzzy's great-nephew is a Marine stationed in Hawaii. He asked for and was granted the time to escort Fuzzy home from Hawaii.

Family members were scheduled to meet the plane on the tarmac in the Twin Cities, with a procession bringing his remains to St. Cloud. Sentries will guard the remains when the local funeral home is open, and a full military service is planned for today at North Star Cemetery in St. Cloud.

Often, fallen soldiers or veterans are buried at Fort Snelling or Fort Ripley. Not Fuzzy.

"He's been gone 62 years," Tenvoorde said.

Jim finished the sentence.

"And we want him home," he said. "So he'll be at North Star."

There is a possibility that more of Fuzzy's remains will be found. The family will be notified, but any remains found in the future will be buried at sea, Tenvoorde said.

She and Reimer praised the military for its thoroughness in making sure the DNA match was solid. They also were grateful for how detailed and careful they were in completing the pathological reports and the plans for Fuzzy's return and ceremony for his burial.

Their message for other military families seeking lost loved ones is simple: Get your DNA to the right people who can match it to remains they have or remains they might get in the future.

It might have taken 11 years since they gave DNA and 62 years since Fuzzy died, but the homecoming is finally complete.

"It gives our family an appreciation for the Army, that they bring their men home," Tenvoorde said. "It may take a little time, but they bring them home. Sixty-two years is a long time in our time, but not in God's time. He apparently felt it was time for Fuzzy to come home."

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