Remains of WWII soldier lost in New Guinea return home, fulfilling mum's dying wish

By Travis Andrews

An army uniform lies in the casket containing remains of Army Private Earl Joseph Keating after it arrived at the Schoen Funeral Home in New Orleans. Photo / AP
An army uniform lies in the casket containing remains of Army Private Earl Joseph Keating after it arrived at the Schoen Funeral Home in New Orleans. Photo / AP

Funerals are important in New Orleans. All Saint's Day is observed citywide, and many traditions, such as Mardi Gras second line parades and their brass bands, derive from them. But not everyone receives the opportunity to have a funeral.

That was the case for Private Earl Joseph Keating. The 27-year-old commercial artist enlisted in the United States Army in 1941, and although he was present at Pearl Harbour, he escaped the bombing unscathed.

His luck, unfortunately, turned a year later. He was killed in hand-to-hand combat with Japanese soldiers in Papua New Guinea on December 5, 1942, and was buried where he fell, just a few years after graduating from Jesuit High School in the heart of New Orleans, reported.

His nephew Nadau "du Treil" Michael Keating jnr, was 6 months old when Keating died at the Huggins Roadblock, a tactical choke point on the island.

Struck down with him was his best friend from childhood, then 25-year-old Private John Henry Klopp.

Nadau's grandmother - Earl Keating's mother - Cecile Keating received a War Department telegram 50 days later, stating that he was "killed in action in defence of his country in southwest Pacific area December 5."

She mourned her son, desperately wanting to give him a proper burial. But Keating's body, along with Klopp's, had all but disappeared in the mud of the former battlefield. She wrote to the military again and again in hopes they would locate him. Every night, she prayed that he would be found, WDSU reported.

Despite her letters and her prayers, 12 years passed with no luck, and she found herself on her deathbed.

Her final wish stuck with Nadau.

"She said 'I want you to remember to please find Earl with your Dad. Help your dad find Earl,'" Nadau told AP. "Of course, that was a big order for a kid who was twelve years old."

By this point, though, both Keating and Klopp's bodies had been lost on the Pacific island for nearly 12 years. The search seemed hopeless.

On Tuesday, more than 70 years after his death, Keating's body was returned to New Orleans.

"What a celebration there is in Heaven right now for him, you know, it's, he came home. After 74 years of laying in the jungle, he came home. What more of a miracle could we have," Keating's second cousin Sue Du Treil told WDSU.

Although the military does run a programme - the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency - charged with the mission of finding the remains of soldiers lost in foreign wars, the number of soldiers it seeks is staggering.

There are still 89,729 soldiers unaccounted for. Of that, 73,159 are from World War II, AP reported. In this case, a pair of local hunters in Papua New Guinea found Keating's remains, alongside his best friend Klopp's.

They were out hunting in 2011 when they stumbled upon remnants of two men, a helmet, boots and some dog tags. Eventually, the effects were given to the military, but it wasn't enough to identify Keating's body. Nadau and Sue offered their own DNA to researchers at Tulane University, which matched that of some of the remains, allowing for a positive identification. Klopp's daughter, Andrea Grega, did the same. Both men's remains were sent back to the United States.

"This is his body, but I think his spirit is with us, and has been with us through this whole process," Sue told WDSU.

Nadau seems equally pleased.

"It's a lifelong promise of my parents and my grandparents and it's being completed, and it's a great, great honor for me to be able to do this," he told AP.

A funeral for Keating will finally be held, 74 years later, on Sunday NZT. There, Nadau will read a letter his father wrote to Keating that the fallen soldier never had the opportunity to open.

"A lot of ancestors, great-great-grandparents who prayed every day for this to happen and it's finally coming together, so we are really happy. One last salute," Tyler Lege, Keating's great-great-nephew, told WDSU.

Klopp was laid to rest on March 24.

- Washington Post

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