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Kentucky WWII soldier unidentified for decades comes home.

Army Pfc. Berton J. McQueen (Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency/Released)

Nannie McQueen was desperate to find out what had happened to her son in World War II.

Army Pfc. Berton J. McQueen had been badly wounded by artillery fire while his unit was fighting German troops near a small town in France in November 1944.

He died at an aid station set up in a barn, and amid the chaos of war, someone buried him in a garden.

American troops didn’t recover his body until after the war in Europe ended months later, and he couldn’t be identified.

The Army notified McQueen’s parents in Jackson County that he was listed as killed in action, but with few details and no one to bury, his mother couldn’t accept it.

She wrote letters to soldiers who served with him to try to figure out what had happened to him and put advertisements in a farming magazine and other publications seeking information, said his niece, Genevieve Palm.

When her grandmother went to town, she left the door at her house unlocked so her son could get in if he came home, Palm said.

“She couldn’t give up,” Palm said of her grandmother. “I can’t imagine what kind of torture that would have been.”

Now, Berton McQueen is home.

Based on historical research, dental records and analysis of DNA samples from Palm and other family members, officials with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency identified the body recovered from the garden in France as McQueen, according to a news release.

McQueen was accounted for in July, more than 76 years after he was killed at age 20.

He was reburied Saturday with full military honors in Jackson County, in the hillside cemetery at the Wind Cave Baptist Church. McQueen attended the small wooden church as a boy and was baptized in a creek nearby.

A bugler played “Taps,” and a bagpiper played “Amazing Grace” before members of the honor guard fired a 21-gun salute and folded the flag from his casket to give to his family.

McQueen was raised on a small farm in the Wind Cave community, the youngest of seven children of John and Nancy Jane “Nannie” McQueen, said Palm, whose mother was one of Berton McQueen’s sisters.

Like thousands of others who grew up on on Kentucky farms in those days, McQueen moved to Indiana to find work. He was living in Connersville when he was drafted, Palm said.

McQueen was wounded fighting in Italy in February 1944, spending 11 weeks in the hospital, and was wounded again in August 1944, spending several more weeks in the hospital.

His family hoped he would come home, but McQueen wanted to finish the job. He believed that if the U.S. and allies didn’t carry the fight to the Nazis in Europe, the war would come to America, said Palm, who has letters he sent to his family.

“He felt a strong duty,” Palm said. “He said, ‘I will come home when the rest do.'”

McQueen landed in southern France in August 1944 as part of Operation Dragoon, pushing north through the Rhone Valley to meet up with forces that had gone ashore in the massive D-Day invasion and then turn to the final assault on Germany.

McQueen saw plenty of combat but didn’t write about the horror of war in his letters home because he didn’t want to worry his parents, Palm said.

Instead, he wrote about the people and the beauty he saw, Palm said, though he did mention in one letter in mid-1944 that U.S. troops were driving the Germans back.

“He said, ‘We have’m on the run now,'” Palm said.

But his unit ran into stiff resistance in a battle in a hilly region near the border with Germany, according to the Army’s account.

As German infantry pursued his unit, McQueen was going to get more ammunition for his machine-gun platoon when he was hit by shrapnel.

One soldier later told Army investigators he helped carry McQueen to an aid station, and that when he asked later how the badly wounded man was doing, he was told McQueen had died, Palm said.

McQueen’s battalion, which suffered heavy casualties, was forced to pull back and was in “disarray” for a period before regrouping, according to an account from the Army, Palm said.

It’s not clear why McQueen went missing or who buried him. After German troops withdrew a few days later, U.S. troops didn’t find his body.

A woman who lived on the farm later disclosed that an American soldier had been buried there. The American Graves Registration Command recovered a body in April 1946 but couldn’t identify the soldier.

He was reburied under the designation X-6093 at the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, until science could solve the mystery.

Palm was born 10 years after her uncle died but lived close to her grandmother and heard stories about him.

“We really grew up with that grief for her, and that loss,” said Palm, a retired property manager who lives in Laurel County.

McQueen’s mother died in 1972. Years later, the local bank president called Palm’s mother to report there was money in an account Nannie McQueen had kept.

She had been putting money away for her son to use when he came home, Palm said.

Palm read a letter at the church Saturday from an Army buddy of McQueen’s that her grandmother had contacted just before Christmas in 1945.

Louie Hughes said in his letter back to McQueen’s mother that McQueen often talked of his home and his family while he was overseas, and that the two of them talked about the Bible into the night at times.

McQueen had drawn a sketch of how to get to his house in Jackson County in Hughes’ Bible so he could visit after the war.

The two later got assigned to different companies, and then Hughes was captured and spent 16 “horrible months” in a German prison camp, he said, so he hadn’t heard that McQueen had been killed before McQueen’s mother wrote him.

He told McQueen’s parents to be brave because that’s what their son would have wanted. The “brave deeds of such men as Berton” were the reason “that we enjoy peace today,” Hughes wrote.

Palm wishes her mother had lived to know her brother had been identified, but she died in 2008. Palm, a Christian, believes her mother and grandmother were reunited with McQueen in heaven long ago.

Family members felt new grief when the Army notified them McQueen had been accounted for but were also thankful.

“I consider it a miracle,” Palm said. “My whole lifetime I’ve waited for something like this.”


(c) 2021 the Lexington Herald-Leader

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