BAYFIELD -- Merlin Allen returned home Saturday.
Home to the bucolic place where he grew up, played basketball, swam in Lake Superior, decided to enlist in the Marines and left to go to war.
For 46 years Allen has been gone, one of many American troops missing in action from the Vietnam War. A joint U.S. and Vietnamese recovery team last year found remains at a helicopter crash site in Thua Thien-Hue province that in February were positively identified as Allen's.
In the Bayfield High School gym where Allen played basketball for the Trollers, his family, friends, Class of '65 classmates, veterans and townsfolk turned out to honor a warrior who loved being a Marine.
The last two survivors of the helicopter crash traveled from their homes in Texas and Minnesota to honor their buddy and solemnly carry the folded flag and urn containing his remains.
Jeff Savelkoul, who suffered severe burns and broken bones in the June 30, 1967, crash promised one day he would make sure his comrade returned.
"It means the end of a 46-year quest to bring my brother home," an emotional Savelkoul said shortly before Saturday morning's funeral.
"The main thing is to be able to feel -- mission accomplished. I wanted to bring my best friend home to his family."
Savelkoul traveled to Hawaii and flew with his friend's remains to the Twin Cities, where an honor guard transported them to Bayfield. Law enforcement officers led the caravan of Patriot Guard riders and family members, switching off to waiting squad cars as the group passed through counties and communities. The Wisconsin State Patrol met the group at the state border.
Mariano "Junior" Guy came from Texas for Allen's funeral and tearfully described the fireball that engulfed the helicopter carrying the Marine Recon unit, his efforts to help his friends and the grenade he placed in Savelkoul's burned hand so he wouldn't be defenseless if they were overrun by enemy soldiers. Of the four Marines who survived the crash, one man died of his burns within days and another was killed in action a few weeks later.
"Now Merl is home. I'm sorry from the bottom of my heart it took so long to bring him home," Guy told the crowd, which stood and applauded.
Before Allen, whose nickname was Merl, enlisted in the Marines he was a kid with an infectious smile who liked girls, cars and hanging out with his friends. His room was messy. He snuck Mad magazines into the house. He liked to sleep late, somehow managing to listen for the school bus before leaping out of bed, dressing and catching the bus to school, said his younger sister Cindy Hawkins.
Sometimes when he drove his younger siblings to church he talked them out of the money they were supposed to put in the collection plate and instead of going to Mass, he and his brothers and sisters bought chocolate milk and doughnuts, stopping to pick up a church bulletin to take home as "proof."
Before he left for Vietnam, Allen went on a road trip with a friend to Alaska and liked the state so much he encouraged his family to visit. The Allen family was in Alaska when they received a message to contact the Canadian Mounted Police, who told them of Allen's death.
Spirit kept alive
Though their brother died more than four decades ago, the Allen family has kept his spirit alive. His oldest sister Marilyn Neff places his photo underneath her Christmas tree each year. Sean Allen still wears his oldest brother's high school class ring.
During the funeral, a montage of photos was shown to the crowd -- pictures of Allen as a baby, posing for school pictures, swimming, smiling with his siblings, wearing his high school letter sweater, proudly showing off his Marine dress blues uniform. The pictures showed Allen growing older, growing up, then stopping at the age of 20.
People in the crowd sniffled and fought back tears as the final photo showed his name on the Vietnam memorial wall.
After the funeral, the crowd followed the procession to Little Sand Bay, where they watched a Marine honor guard standing on the beach fire a 21-gun salute and listened to taps.
Two American flags were presented to Neff, who in turn gave them to Savelkoul and Guy, hugging them both.
Island resting place
Allen's father bought York Island in the late 1930s, and the family was forced to sell it to the federal government when the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore was created in the early '70s. But before they sold the island, they gave a few acres to the Town of Russell where Allen's parents are buried and a small memorial for Allen was installed.
Neff said York Island was her brother's favorite retreat, a place where he could leave his troubles behind.
And so on the eve of the 46th anniversary of Lance Cpl. Merlin Raye Allen's death, his family, Savelkoul, Guy and other well-wishers boarded a Landing Craft Tank that saw action in the D-Day invasion. Under sunny skies with waves gently lapping against the ship, they carried his remains to York Island.
Merl Allen was home at last.