By Jack Minch
LEOMINSTER — The remains of Army Pfc. Norman Dufresne returned home Wednesday to streets lined with flag-waving residents and schoolchildren paying respect to the fallen soldier who was killed in the first days of the Korean War.
A procession of police and veterans groups, including the F-Troop on motorcycles, led the hearse and Dufresne’s family from Logan International Airport in Boston to Simard Funeral Home on Walker Street.
“I was here to see my kid brother come home after 63 years,” his sister, Claire Weber, said on the airport tarmac.
Soldiers dressed in camouflage field uniforms entered the belly of Delta flight DL1200 from Atlanta with airport employees to retrieve Dufresne’s flag-draped casket.
Passengers aboard the plane peered out and took pictures with cellphones while travelers in the terminal stopped to look out on the solemn transfer.
An honor guard from Hanscom Air Force Base saluted as the casket was placed in a hearse for the ride home.
Weber, of Lake Zurich, Ill, walked to the hearse to lay a hand on the casket and pat it ahead of a line of family.
She took solace in learning from the Army that he had been killed instantly.
Dufresne’s body was riddled by bullets during the ferocious fighting, said his nephew, Al Guilmette.
The family had a private viewing at Simard Funeral Home. His uniform was laid over the skeletal remains which weren’t visible.
“It wasn’t as bad as I thought,” Guilmette said. “He had a gorgeous uniform. He had all the medals on him.”
The family wondered for decades what happened to the dashing young soldier.
He had already served an enlistment, but decided to reenlist with the expectation of joining his brother Charles in Germany.
The Army sent Dufresne’s brother to Germany, but sent him to Korea.
Dufresne was 20 years old when North Korean soldiers crossed the 38th Parallel on June 25, 1950. He was positioned with G Company, 2nd Battalion of the 19th Infantry Regiment in the 24th Infantry Division, on the hills along the Chinju-Hadon roadway west of the Nam River.
The rest of the battalion was a few miles west of Chinju when North Koreans attacked in late July.
Dufresne was lost during a running battle along the hills and declared missing in action on July 30, 1950.
The Army Graves Registration Service was able to get back to the battlefield in August 1951 to recover bodies but couldn’t identify Dufresne’s remains.
Without evidence that Dufresne survived the battle, the Army declared him dead on New Year’s Eve 1953.
The remains found in the hills were eventually buried in Punch Bowl Cemetery in Hawaii without a name.
The family didn’t know it, but the Army continued to study the unknown soldier’s remains and finally identified him on Aug. 13 following painstaking analysis over the course of years, said the casualty assistance officer, Sgt. Maj. Pamela Duggan, who is helping Weber through the funeral arrangements.
Officials first narrowed the possibilities to three soldiers.
Three sets of doctors separately determined the remains were Dufresne after a new study of his wisdom teeth, Duggan said.
Records showed the other two soldiers had had theirs removed, Duggan said.
“What amazes me is they were able to use forensic science to put him together,” Weber said.
Police officers and firefighters lined the overpasses as the procession went up the Massachusetts Turnpike and Route 2 toward Leominster, said Mayor Dean Mazzarella.
“This is an exciting, emotional day,” he said.
Dufresne’s childhood friends Dick, Eugene and Argentine Brideau were among the residents lining Mechanic Street Wednesday afternoon.
“We all knew him,” Eugene Brideau said. “We’re neighbors and used to play ball together.”
Friends felt badly when Dufresne disappeared in 1950 and Eugene Brideau admitted he had a funny feeling in his stomach as the hearse passed, 63 years later.
Recently retired Iraq War veterans Sgt. Paul Cole and his brother-in-law, Cpl. Eric Lavoie, turned out in dress uniform to pay homage.
“He was never brought home and he deserves the same respect 63 years later that he would have gotten if he was brought home then,” Lavoie said.
An estimated 500-600 people lined the streets, and there would have been more if it wasn’t during working hours, said Dave Bilodeau.
“It’s important to honor our dead,” Bilodeau said.
Steve Nelson, of Auburn, and Chet Burzenski, of Clinton, took part of the procession as members of the Patriot Guard Riders and Rolling Thunder motorcycle groups.
“This was a good trip. The state police did a tremendous job” leading the procession and clearing intersections, Nelson said.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher LeBlanc, of Louisiana, escorted Dufresne’s body from Hawaii.
He was in uniform at the Atlanta airport when a young woman and small child picked him out of the crowd and approached to say they are from Leominster, wondering if he was the escort for the soldier they had heard was returning home.
Leominster police Officer Randy Thomas coordinated the Central Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council motorcycle procession with State Police to Logan from the airport.
Riders who weren’t able to go the entire route waited at the Johnny Appleseed Visitor Information Center to join the procession.
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