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N.C. man home after 65 years missing in action

Nephews and nieces finally lay to rest the uncle they never knew
Jimmy Cannon of Old Fort sings during services Sunday at Laurel Hill Baptist Church for Sgt. Arnold Pitman. Cannon had never met his uncle, who was missing in action in 1950 in Korea.

ID=26439233DYSARTVILLE, N.C. -- Sgt. Arnold Pitman finally came home on a warm, rainy Sunday, more than 65 years after he left to fight in the frigid cold of Korea.His nieces and nephews didn't remember the uncle who joined the U.S. Army and died at age 22 somewhere in the frozen killing grounds of the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea.

But they gathered Sunday in the small Laurel Hill Baptist Church.

Niece Ann Harklerode ran her fingers across the stripes of the American flag draping her kin's casket. She studied the medals Arnold had earned and looked at the picture of a young man in uniform.

"All the folks who knew him never found out what happened. I think they all thought that he would just come home someday," said Mike Pitman, a nephew from Dysartville. "They never got the chance for any closure."

The Rev. Walker Tony grew up with Pitman on the farms south of Marion in McDowell County. His family and the Pitmans often lived in the same houses, as they moved around the countryside to work new farms and fields.

In a time long before television or texting, they talked and played as the dusk fell on a countryside without electricity. "We played hide and seek more than a few times."


Tony knew all of Pitman's family, his father and mother, the brothers and sisters. A younger brother, Oscar, died in a bar fight in Morganton in 1953. An older brother, Earnest, came home wounded from tank battle in France during World War II.

Tony buried more than a few of them in the Laurel Hill Baptist Church. On Sunday, he had the opportunity to welcome his old friend home again.

Pitman shipped out to Korea while Tony went to England to work with the Air Force.

He remembered coming in one evening from his work as a mechanic, sitting on his footlocker and flipping through the Stars & Stripes military newspaper.

"I read — Arnold Pitman, missing in action."


U.S. forces had pushed into North Korea before Chinese troops spilled across the border and surrounded the Americans at the brutal battle of Chosin Reservoir. With temperatures dropping well below zero, the Task Force Faith of the 7th Infantry held off Chinese attacks from the ridges east of the reservoir. Hunkered down, men were afraid to fall asleep lest they freeze to death. They had to fire their guns every 15 minutes to keep them working.

Bill Hensley, 84, had been in the same battle, his unit relieved by Pitman's troops. He suffered frostbite. "I froze up. I think about it all the time."

Hensley also understood why it took so long to find any remains from that terrible battle. "I'd seen them burying the North Koreans in long ditches with bulldozers," he said.

Today, there are 7,852 Americans still unaccounted for from the Korean War.

Last year, the veteran attended funeral services in Union Mills for Coleman Flack, who died in the same battle in Korea. "It's kindly odd," Hensley said, "they would be in the same unit and get killed about the same time and come back."

Of the 2,500 men, only 1,050 fought their way to safety, and only 385 of those survivors were deemed able-bodied. Pitman was declared among the missing on Dec. 12, 1950.


Years went by, but Tony hoped against hope.

"Maybe it was wishful thinking, but I always thought he would come walking back. I always knew he would be back some day."

Last October, Pitman's remains were finally identified by scientists from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

His nephew, Jimmy Cannon, was shocked when two men in uniform drove up his driveway in Old Fort. "I knew it had something to do with Uncle Arnold."

Cannon's mother had been Pitman's last surviving sibling, and she donated a sample of her DNA in hopes of getting her brother home. But she died before Arnold's remains were identified.

First Sgt. Redmond Smith and First Sgt. Michael Mee drove up from Fort Bragg with the news.

From the pulpit, Tony choked up in gratitude for the military and its code never to leave a fallen comrade behind. "Thank you for bringing my buddy back to Laurel Hill."

Smith and Mee were back with a military honor guard from Fort Bragg that accompanied the soldier's body. "It's a real honor to bring one of my brothers back and to give you a sense of closure," Smith said to the family.

Solemnly, the troops bore the flag-draped casket down the church steps and into the family graveyard.

They raised their firearms and fired a 21-gun salute. The bugler stood beneath an oak tree starting to leaf out and sounded taps.

As the guards carefully folded the American flag to present Cannon and his cousins, a honking sound came through the trees.

Three wild geese flew across the cloudy skies, like another salute to a long-lost soldier who had finally come home.