DUNKIRK, N.Y. -- U.S. Army Sgt. Gerald B. Raeymacker turned 21 on Dec. 6, 1950.
There was never any time to celebrate.
The Erie native, who grew up in Dunkirk, New York, was killed that day in fierce fighting between United Nation coalition troops and Chinese forces near the Chosin Reservoir area at Hagaru-ri, North Korea.
In early August, nearly 70 years after that famed Korean War battle, Raeymacker's family was notified by the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency that Gerald's remains had been recovered and identified through DNA testing.
On Saturday morning, hundreds of military veterans joined family members and friends of the fallen soldier in honoring his life during ceremonies in Dunkirk at Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church and Willowbrook Park Cemetery.
"We always knew this day was going to happen," Erie resident Martha Kloecker, 79, said of her brother, Gerald. "We never gave up and we waited a long time for this. There is a lot of sadness and happiness. Sadness because of the circumstances of his death, but we're happy that we do get our closure."
Donald Briggs, 82, of Fredonia, New York, clutched an American flag presented to him by an honor guard member and smiled as he spoke of how he and Raeymacker -- his brother -- grew up on Dunkirk's Seel Street, just a few blocks from Willowbrook Park Cemetery on Central Avenue.
The boys often played there in their childhood when it was a park before it became a cemetery.
"When it was a park, it was all trees, and we would climb the trees," Briggs said. "We would fight with each other like regular kids do. We'd pound each other and get back up and laugh at each other. He was a fun guy.
"I kept hoping that his remains would one day be identified, but I had given up thinking that was going to happen," said Briggs, who served in the U.S. Army from 1952 to 1954. "Then the military called me in the summer and told me they had Gerald's remains and they were able to identify him positively through DNA testing. The military people told us to get everything set up. That really got to me. It's been almost 70 years. How do you think about all those things that happened? I know what he went through in Korea."
Kloecker attended Saturday's ceremonies with her husband, Roman, 82.
Raeymacker was one of 10 siblings in his family, five of whom are still alive. Martha Kloecker is the youngest of the five surviving siblings.
"I was 8 when Gerald enlisted in the Army," Martha Kloecker said. "He was very good to us girls. I remember we would play games outside, and I would help my mom make cookies and send care packages to Gerald on the holidays."
Many members of Raeymacker's family were at Buffalo Niagara International Airport on Thursday when his remains arrived there and were returned to the family.
Hundreds of military veterans filed into Dunkirk's Holy Trinity Catholic Church on Central Avenue from 8:30 to 10 a.m. on Saturday to pay their respects. A funeral mass followed from 10 to 11 a.m. before Raeymacker was interred in the nearby Willowbrook Park Cemetery. He was buried with full military honors.
During Saturday's funeral services at Holy Trinity Catholic Church, about 10 members of the Patriot Guard Riders of New York stood solemnly outside, each holding an American flag in honor of Raeymacker.
"When a KIA or MIA has been positively identified, I know the relief it brings the family," said Patriot Guard Riders captain Bill Brainard, 59, a U.S. Navy veteran, who resides in North Java, New York. "When the family sees people who care about what their loved one did for the nation and they see total strangers standing outside whether it's cold and raining or 100 degrees with a flag, we want the family to know their loved one is being honored for what they did. We want to give him the respect that he is due and has earned."
As Raeymacker's funeral procession made its way on Central Avenue from the church to the cemetery, about a half-mile away, it passed under a huge American flag hoisted above the street by two tower fire engines, from the Dunkirk and Fredonia fire departments.
Several firefighters standing nearby saluted as the procession slowly passed.
Raeymacker's cemetery ceremony included a 21-gun salute and the playing of Taps, which was carried out by members of the Army's 10th Mountain Division Sustainment Brigade military honors team stationed at Fort Drum, New York.
Raeymacker's remains were placed in a small wooden box.
"This ceremony tops any ceremony I've ever seen in my life," Briggs said.
Raeymacker could have been buried at Arlington National Cemetery, but his family chose to inter him in Dunkirk and honor his mother's wishes.
"My mother always said that if his remains were ever recovered and identified, she would like to have him buried next to her," Martha Kloecker said.
Raeymacker was born on Dec. 6, 1929, in Erie. When he was 1, his father, who worked for a roofing company, accidentally fell off the roof of a residence in Erie and died from his injuries. Raeymacker's mother remarried about a year later, and the family moved to Dunkirk, New York.
Raeymacker enlisted in the Army on Aug. 3, 1948. He served with Battery B, 57th Field Artillery Battalion, 7th Infantry Division, 31st Regimental Combat Team.
Raeymacker was part of a 30,000-member United Nations Command military force that found itself surrounded by about 120,000 Chinese troops in the Chosin Reservoir campaign.
From Nov. 27 to Dec. 13, 1950, both forces clashed in a 17-day battle fought in rugged terrain and brutally cold weather. His remains could not be recovered following the battle.
The U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency notified Martha Kloecker and other family members on Aug. 9 that Raeymacker's remains had been identified after nearly seven decades.
"That was a very happy day," Martha Kloecker said. "That news came on my birthday, and I couldn't have asked for anything better."
On July 27, 2018, following the summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un in June 2018, North Korean officials agreed to turn over 55 boxes, purported to contain the remains of American service members killed during the Korean War.
The remains were turned over to officials at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii on Aug. 1, 2018, and were accessioned into the DPAA laboratory for identification.
To identify Raeymacker's remains, scientists from DPAA used anthropological analysis, and circumstantial and material evidence. Additionally, scientists from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System used mitochondrial DNA, Y-chromosome DNA and autosomal DNA analysis.
Roman Kloecker began extensively researching information from Raeymacker's Army records in 2000. He said Saturday's ceremonies honoring his brother-in-law were "one of the highlights of my life."
"I never knew him, but I feel like I did," Roman Kloecker said. "I feel as though I really do know him as a brother and a brother-in-law. (Saturday) was a very happy day for everyone because of the closure. His family doesn't have to wonder anymore if he is or isn't going to be identified."
The Army initially informed Raeymacker's family shortly after the Chosin Reservoir battle that Gerald had been reported as missing in action. The Army re-classified his status as a confirmed killed in action in 1953.
Roman Kloecker said each of the 55 boxes of remains that North Korean officials turned over to the United States in 2018 contained the remains of several servicemen.
Martha Kloecker and her brothers and sisters each gave blood draws to medical personnel sent to their homes by the U.S. Defense Department to assist in the DNA analysis.
"We can't express enough appreciation to the Defense Department, the recovery team and the U.S. Army," Roman Kloecker said. "They have been with us, supporting and assisting us, the whole time."
There are 7,609 Americans who remain unaccounted for from the Korean War, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
Raeymacker's name is recorded on the Courts of the Missing at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, along with the others who are missing from Korean War. His name also appears on the Dunkirk Memorial in Dunkirk, New York, and the Dayton Memorial in Dayton, Ohio.
He was awarded the Purple Heart, the Republic of Korea War Service Medal by the Republic of South Korea in 2000, and numerous other military medals.
"He earned all of his medals, every damn one of them," Briggs said.
Briggs was drafted by the Army in 1952.
"The thing is I trained at Camp Gordon in Georgia, and Gerald trained for the same thing that I got trained for -- radio," Briggs said. "There were 32 guys in our class and when we graduated, our orders were all to go to Korea. When I got to go on the truck and they asked me if I was private Don Briggs, I said yes. They said that my orders had been pulled. They said, 'We don't send two brothers into action.' Theoretically, he saved my life. I think about that every day. Every day."
This article is written by Ron Leonardi from Erie Times-News, Pa. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.