Seventy-three years after he went missing from a North Korean battlefield, Army Cpl. Rex Warner Powell has made it back home to North Carolina.
On Tuesday afternoon, five members of the Rolling Thunder advocacy group for POWs and MIAs provided a motorcycle escort for Powell as the flag-draped casket bearing his remains was transported from Piedmont Triad International Airport to Thomasville, where his only surviving family members live.
“This is about bringing our men and women home,” said Rolling Thunder ride captain Tom Glasscock. “They’ve been over in a foreign land, representing our country, and we’re trying to do the best we can for this man’s final ride.”
When the procession reached J.C. Green & Sons Funeral Home, the five bikers helped unload the casket from the hearse, then solemnly saluted as it was rolled into the funeral home.
Powell will be laid to rest with full military honors Friday at Salisbury National Cemetery, bringing closure to a mystery that has haunted a North Carolina family for nearly three-quarters of a century.
“It’s been a bittersweet journey,” said Jatonna Hunt Garner, of Thomasville, who is Powell’s niece. “I really, really wish they could have solved this before my mother passed, but better late than never.”
Garner’s mother, Barbara Williams Hunt, also of Thomasville, was Powell’s younger sister by about five years. She died last year, and it wasn’t until this February that the young soldier’s remains were positively identified.
Ironically, Garner — now Powell’s closest living relative — never even knew her uncle, because she wasn’t born until 1962, but she knows his story and says she’s honored to pay tribute to him.
Powell was from Valdese, a small town in Burke County, where he was born in 1932. As a teenager, he struggled to fit in.
“My grandmother (Powell’s mother, Isa Powell Williams Epley) said he was trying to find his place,” Garner said. “That’s why he went in the Army. She said he was kind of a wandering soul, and he felt like there was something there for him.”
Powell was only 17 when he decided to enlist, asking his mother to sign for him at a local recruiting station. She refused.
“She didn’t want him joining the Army,” Garner said. “But then her brother-in-law signed for him, and my grandmother was really upset about that.”
Powell served as a rifleman with L Company, 3rd Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division. He was deployed to North Korea.
On Dec. 12, 1950, Powell — still only 18 at the time — was reported missing in action when his unit was attacked near the Chosin Reservoir. There was no evidence of him being held as a prisoner of war, nor were any recovered remains ever identified as him. The Army issued a “presumptive finding of death” in December 1953.
Family members held out hope Powell was still alive — or at least that his remains would be identified — but it seemed doubtful. In 1954, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea returned the remains of more than 2,900 Americans, many of which were positively identified — but not Powell. He was officially declared “non-recoverable” in January 1956.
Though officials didn’t know it at the time, Powell’s remains were among the 848 unidentified remains that ultimately were buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii.
In 2018, with DNA analysis techniques vastly improved, the Army began disinterring some of those Korean War unknowns for further testing. Powell’s remains were disinterred in March 2021, and he was officially accounted for on Feb. 13, 2023, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
Garner was stunned.
“We never thought he would be found because his whole battalion was wiped out, according to my grandmother,” she said. “But the man said they were extremely confident that it was Rex Powell.”
In the process of making final arrangements for Powell’s remains, Garner received her uncle’s eight medals, including a Purple Heart.
Even though Powell was from Valdese, Garner decided to have her uncle buried at Salisbury National Cemetery, where her father — Navy veteran Oscar Lee Hunt — and mother are buried.
“I think my mom would be very happy Rex will be in the same cemetery,” Garner said. “With him being in the military, I feel like he deserves to be there. And he’ll be close to my mom, too.”
Garner said Friday’s funeral for her uncle would be a sad occasion, but also one of closure and relief.
“I’m just glad it’s happening,” she said. “He can finally be brought home and put to rest and honored for his service, and that’s the most important thing for us at this point.”
(c) 2023 The High Point Enterprise
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