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‘They thought he was never coming back’: Allentown WWII vet whose remains were recently identified set to be buried Saturday

Flowers on a casket. (Unsplash)

In 1941, Earl Seibert of Allentown joined the 803rd Engineer Battalion.

He was eager to serve, and he was soon sent to the Philippines, where he would work to lengthen airfields for incoming planes and other aircraft.

Less than a year after he enlisted, Japanese forces invaded. Seibert, an Allentown High School graduate, and his battalion were captured and subjected to a 65-mile march, known today as the Bataan Death March.

He died on July 27, 1942, at the Cabanatuan POW Camp 1, where more than 2,500 POWs died during the war. He was 23 years old. His family was notified in August 1945 that Seibert had died of diptheria at the camp, according to Morning Call reporting.

It would be nearly 80 years, however, before Seibert’s family would find closure.

On Saturday, Seibert finally will be laid to rest in his hometown, with full military honors. His remains were identified late last year, thanks to ongoing efforts to recover and identify the remains of more than 80,000 missing U.S. servicemen and women.

A family’s tragedy

Seibert, who was a mechanic, grew up in Allentown and was the second oldest of 10 children. Like some of his family before him, Seibert wanted to serve in the military.

An injury from a bike accident, however, prevented him from being able to serve in a combat unit. When the 803rd Engineer Battalion was created, Seibert, who was qualified to join that unit, jumped at the opportunity. He and six of his friends, all from the area, joined up.

Any money he earned he had sent home to his family.

“It wasn’t just a sacrifice for our country,” said his niece, Ginny Lee Henry. “He did it for his family, too.”

Henry never knew her uncle, but she grew up close to some of her mother’s younger siblings, and to her grandparents, who spent many years contacting the military to try and get their son’s remains returned to them. Seibert’s mother contacted the military about it as late as the 1980s, roughly 40 years after his death.

Seibert’s parents knew he was missing and presumed dead; he was among U.S. and Filipino service members who had surrendered to the Japanese after months of fighting that began in December 1941, hours after the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor.

He was buried along with others in a common grave at the Cabanatuan Camp Cemetery. After the war, the American Graves Registration Service exhumed those buried in the common grave and relocated the remains to a temporary U.S. military mausoleum near Manila. Only three personnel were able to immediately be identified.

Over the years, Seibert’s parents put out pleas to the public and the military to find out what happened to their son, and have him brought back to Allentown.

While the military was able to confirm that Seibert had died, the exact location of his remains were unknown until just last year.

Henry’s grandmother, before she died, gave her a gold star necklace with Seibert’s photo attached. Henry kept the search for Seibert going years later.

In 2017, she learned about The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), whose mission is to account for missing personnel in the country.

Not long after, Henry donated her blood to see if it could be used to identify Seibert later. Seibert’s youngest sibling, as well as a cousin, donated blood, too.

Finally, the wait is over

The family assumed it would be held for years until they could identify remains. So the news last August that he had been found was something of a surprise for Henry, who was one of three relatives who donated DNA samples to help identify him.

“None of us ever thought this was going to happen,” she said.

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, or DPAA, helped identify the remains.

The DPAA has helped in identifying the remains of 1,045 United States service members from various wars, starting with World War II. During the fiscal 2023 year, the organization identified 158, according to spokesperson Sean Everette.

As of earlier this month, the organization has identified 69 service members just this year.

Everette said 81,000 service members have not been recovered. The majority of them, about 71,000, are from World War II alone, Everette said. The reason for that, he said, is because of the size of the conflict, which spanned all over Europe and the Pacific.

“World War II was just huge,” he said.

The ability to recover service members was not as robust back then as it is now, Everette said.

The DPAA partners with the armed forces’ DNA lab and forensic anthropologists to identify remains. Once an identification is made, the specific part of the service that the member was part of will contact the family about the identification.

Finding remains and identifying them brings closure to families, some of whom, like Henry’s, have been waiting decades to find out where their loved one was. These families have actively kept tabs on the situation, Everette said, noting that a lot of them were not alive when the service member was.

“There is generational grief that has carried through these families because of the family members who were missing in these cases,” he said.

Stories from their families about the missing person existed throughout the decades, Everette said.

“It does leave a hole in some of these families,” he said.

When someone signs up for the service, they swear to protect the country, and the country makes a promise to never leave them behind, Everett said.

“We haven’t forgotten them and forgotten that promise,” he said.

Their efforts were not lost on Henry, who saw her grandparents’ attempts to find out where their son was over a period of decades.

“They thought he was never coming back,” Henry said of her grandparents.

These are the stories that the DPAA have been seeing over the years. Henry said she believes that Seibert’s story can help inspire other people in her family’s situation to not give up hope.

In the months since his identification, Seibert has received a number of commendations for his service. The medals include a Purple Heart for the injuries he suffered during the war and a Bronze Star for ground combat between Dec. 8, 1941, and May 6, 1942.

“It was shocking that he got all these medals,” Henry said.

Seibert’s funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Jordan United Church of Christ, 1837 Church Road, Allentown. Friends and family may call from 9 a.m. until 11 a.m. Entombment will be at the Grandview Mausoleum, with military honors, according to Stephens Funeral Home, which is handling arrangements.


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