NEW ORLEANS (AP) — More than seven decades after being killed during World War II, Pvt. Earl Joseph Keating is finally coming home to his native New Orleans after his remains were discovered on the Pacific island where he died in 1942.
It's a journey long in the making.
Keating's nephew, Nadau "du Treil" Michael Keating Jr., was only 6 months old when his 28-year-old uncle was killed Dec. 5, 1942. The private died at a place that came to be known as the Huggins Roadblock on the island of New Guinea just north of Australia — part of the bloody campaign to defeat the Japanese in the Pacific theater.
But the nephew remembers his grandmother's message to him when he was just 12 years old and she was on her deathbed.
"She said 'I want you to remember to please find Earl with your Dad. Help your dad find Earl,'" he said.
Pvt. Keating was part of a group manning the roadblock when it came under withering attacks by the Japanese. The group repelled the onslaughts but suffered heavy casualties, including Keating and fellow Pvt. John H. Klopp, 25, also of New Orleans. Fellow soldiers buried them together.
But for Keating's mother back home, the loss of one of her three sons never left. She wrote the military repeatedly, beseeching them to find her son's remains, and the family frequently remembered him in prayers.
It wasn't until decades later that the younger Keating Jr., who lives in Lafayette, Louisiana, was able to answer that death bed request with the help of villagers in Papua New Guinea. A villager out hunting came across the remains of the two men and some personal effects.
"He dug around and found a helmet and some artifacts such as the dog tags," said Tyler Lege, Michael Keating's young nephew. Word that some remains and effects had been found was eventually passed along to the U.S. military, which sent a team to investigate.
The U.S. military runs an extensive effort to recover the remains of missing troops from conflicts around the world. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency investigates reports of service members missing in action from Vietnam, World War II, the Korean War and other conflicts. There are 82,729 people unaccounted for from all conflicts, according to the organization's website. Yet troops from World War II make up the vast majority — 73,159.
To help identify Keating's remains, the U.S. military needed more DNA, said Keating, a search that eventually led him about a year and a half ago to Tulane University where he tracked down a cousin, Sue duTreil. Both she and her brothers also provided DNA samples and eventually the military was able to positively identify the remains.
"I'm so glad that he's getting the attention that he deserves. He went through a lot from what we've learned," said Sue duTreil. "I wasn't born yet when Earl died and du Treil was only 6 months old but somehow we have become the ones to help bring him home."
Pvt. Keating will actually be buried in two places. Some of his remains were so intertwined with that of his friend, Pvt. Klopp, that they were buried side by side with Klopp's remains at Arlington National Cemetery in March. The remains that were positively identified as Keating's are arriving Monday.
The family has planned an extensive ceremony to honor their long-lost relative.
The remains will be met at the airport by family and a U.S. military honor guard and transported to the funeral home where an opera singer will sing "Amazing Grace."
During the May 28 funeral services, Keating plans to read a letter written by his father to Pvt. Keating; it was never read by the young soldier because he died before it arrived. Instead the letter was stamped "Deceased" and returned to sender. After the funeral service, the soldier's remains will be driven by the city's World War II museum where the American flag will be lowered to half-staff and taps sounded before the procession continues to the cemetery.
"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," said Keating.