By Rose L. Thayer
Killeen Daily Herald
Standing shoulder to shoulder in one long line, members of the Patriot Guard watched silently as the casket covered by an American flag was removed from the hearse, finishing yet another leg of Sgt. William Travis Barker’s more than 60-year-journey to his final resting place.
“You can’t (describe it),” said Dennis Smith, an Army retiree and member of the guard, of the emotions surrounding such a welcome home.
Barker, born June 2, 1929, enlisted in the Army in Rockwall County and went on to serve as a medic in the Korean War with the 503rd Field Artillery Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division, an all-black unit, with which U.S. Sen. Charles Rangel, D-New York, served and received a Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
On Dec. 1, 1950, Barker was tending to the wounded when he was taken prisoner by North Korea in the city of Kunu-ri, during what is known as the Battle of the Ch’ongch’on River, said Ted Barker, of Dallas. He is not related to the deceased, but serves as an administrator for the Korean War Project.
“They almost destroyed 2nd Infantry Division,” he said of the attack the Chinese made in the narrow river valley. “The majority of the men were killed or taken prisoner.”
In 1953, the men who were imprisoned with him were released and debriefed during Operation Big Switch said Sgt. Barker’s death occurred Feb. 18, 1951, at Puktong Prisoner Of War Camp, North Korea.
Ted Barker said North Korea took more than 7,900 American prisoners, and only about 4,600 came home.
More than 800 men who did not survive came back in the way that Sgt. Barker did — as unidentified remains buried at the Military Cemetery of the Pacific at the Punchbowl in Honolulu, Hawaii.
For the past 17 years, Ted Barker has been working with the Defense Department to gather DNA from family members of the missing to try and identify some of these unidentified service members.
“Every family that gets closure for this, it’s very important for them,” he said.
Sgt. Barker’s family was unavailable for comment, but Ted Barker said this is how he was identified.
On Wednesday, Sgt. Barker will be buried at Central Texas Veterans State Cemetery, and his four surviving siblings will finally know where their brother lies.
The Patriot Guard said at the family’s request, members will also be at the service, protecting and supporting.
Mary Gregory, deputy state captain for the guard, said it’s very rare to see a prisoner of war make their way home.
“It’s an honor,” she said. “I don’t know how else to describe it.”
Shawn Ferguson, who retired from the Army this year and is a member of the Patriot Guard, said he went into North Korea in 1999 on one of the recovery missions for POW remains. He said some people question the resources spent on finding and identifying remains, but he does not.
“It’s just nice to know that no matter what happens to you, we’ll find you and bring you home.”