BRAHAM, Minn. (AP) — Sgt. Ralph Carlson is coming home, 60 years too late.
Carlson left his hometown of Braham in September 1950 and arrived in Korea three months later.
A tank driver for the Army’s 25th Infantry Division, Carlson was stationed about 10 miles north of Seoul. He was 22.
Almost every day, he wrote letters to his parents, Alvin and Hilda Carlson. On Dec. 30, 1950, he wrote: “I got a package from the American Legion, two big cans of mixed nuts, so I’m pretty well supplied with things to eat.” In the same note, he pined for his hometown newspaper: “I haven’t gotten the Braham Journals you said you sent, but they should be along soon.”
Just a few days later he wrote: “The going is tough. Pray for us.”
That was the last letter Carlson ever sent.
A Western Union telegram sent Jan. 22, 1951, notified the family he was missing.
For three years, the Carlsons waited, not knowing whether their son was alive or dead. Finally, a letter dated Jan. 26, 1954, arrived with the news that Carlson had died of dysentery in April 1951, while a prisoner of war.
A memorial service for Carlson was held March 13, 1954, at Braham Evangelical Lutheran Church. His family placed a granite headstone at the Rice Lake Cemetery to mark his grave, which has remained empty all these years.
Now, Ralph Carlson is coming home.
Family members got word last month that the military’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii had identified Carlson’s remains using DNA, dental records and bone analysis.
The remains will be wrapped in a blanket, placed in a casket with a dress uniform and given a military escort home to Minnesota; a full military burial will be June 25 in Braham.
“It’s satisfying knowing that the family will be back together,” said Marvin Carlson, Ralph’s younger brother, who lives in Braham. “I didn’t think it would ever happen. But we never gave up hope.”
“When they say there’s no man left behind, they’re not just giving this lip service — they really mean that,” said Linda Carlson Wescott of Gig Harbor, Wash., who is Ralph’s niece. “When I think of being 22 and dying in a lot of pain, in another country, in horrible circumstances … I think that Ralph deserves to come home, and I think he would want to come. He wanted to be a farmer. He loved Braham.”
Ralph Carlson was born in 1928, the first of Alvin and Hilda Carlson’s three children. The family, which also included Marvin and sister Florence, owned an 80-acre dairy farm just west of Braham. Ralph and Marvin helped milk and feed the cows, clean the barn and put up hay.
“He was the one who you looked up to,” said Marvin Carlson, 79. “He was the leader. He was responsible.”
When Ralph was in ninth grade at Braham High School, he wrote an essay on why he wanted to be a farmer. “I have always lived on a farm,” he wrote. “I like farming and like to live in the country. I don’t like to live in the city. I like to hunt and there is lots of chances for good hunting in the country.”
Ralph Carlson graduated in 1946 and worked on the family farm until he was drafted in January 1949. After basic training at Camp Chaffee in Fort Smith, Ark., he was sent to Fort Bliss, Texas. In January 1950, after a year and five days in the Army, he was released.
He returned to Braham and bought a 40-acre farm, a baler and his first car — a 1950 Plymouth. He traded in his Winchester No. 67 rifle when he needed to buy fence posts, Marvin Carlson said.
Carlson was recalled to service and sent to Fort Lawton, Wash., and Japan. He arrived in Korea on Dec. 1.
Letters arrived regularly, until the day they stopped.
Family members have pieced together what happened to Carlson through letters, interviews with other POWs and a detailed report from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command.
According to the report, U.S. and United Nations forces in late 1950 and early 1951 were retreating from positions in North Korea. “The 25th Reconnaissance Company … was ordered to screen for the withdrawal of troops near Seoul. Records indicate that Cpl. Ralph Carlson went missing in action on 4 January 1951 when his platoon was cut off and surrounded by enemy forces south of Seoul,” the report said.
While missing in action, Carlson was promoted to sergeant.
An Army buddy of Carlson’s wrote to Hilda Carlson a few weeks after her son was reported missing. “I hadn’t known him too long, but in the time that I did, we got to be the best buddies,” Cpl. J.M. Campbell wrote. “We were in the same tank crew and worked together almost all the time. We spent the long hours of guard talking together about our homes, his car, what we had to go back to. The action took place in the center of Seoul city. We lost half the platoon there. Some of the guys got killed, others wounded, but I know Ralph wasn’t among this group. He was with a sergeant — an old-timer that knew what to do in a pinch. Their group just didn’t make it out. After we got organized, we went back, but couldn’t find nothing but enemy. That’s all I know. Everything always happens so fast.”
In 1953, three U.S. servicemen captured by the Chinese and later returned to U.S. custody told investigators that Carlson had been captured by enemy forces. Two of the men said they had witnessed Carlson’s death in captivity; the third said another POW told him Carlson had died, according to the JPAC report, which is dated Feb. 18, 2011.
Carlson is believed to have died from dysentery and medical neglect in early April 1951 while in captivity, the report states.
The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, on Oahu, boasts the world’s largest forensic laboratory. Crews search for the remains of American servicemen around the globe and bring them back for identification.
Founded in 2003, the command identifies between 70 and 85 soldiers — mostly men — each year. More than 1,700 missing soldiers from World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam have been identified.
The process is painstaking.
“We never I.D. an individual on one line of evidence,” said Steve Thompson, family and veteran liaison for the command. “We’re not going to make an identification on DNA only. Everything has to fall in place. We develop a biological profile, which includes the sex, the height, the weight and the age of the individual.”
North Korea turned over 208 boxes of remains to the command between 1990 and 1994. It took years to determine that the boxes contained the remains of more than 500 men, including those of Ralph Carlson.
“It was just an enormous puzzle,” Thompson said.
Marvin Carlson and his wife, Joan, and their daughters, Laurie and Linda, and their husbands visited the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii in 2009 to see Ralph Carlson’s name, which is inscribed on a wall. While they were in Oahu, they also met with Thompson at JPAC and toured the laboratory.
Although two of Ralph Carlson’s relatives had previously submitted blood samples for DNA testing, the lab workers asked Marvin Carlson to provide a cheek swab. That proved to be the key, Laurie Carlson said.
“It’s important for families to know that if they have someone who is missing and they haven’t provided DNA, they need to get their DNA in the database,” she said. “You just never know when and how that might become important.”
The veterans services officer for Isanti County, Jim Rostberg, has dubbed Ralph Carlson’s return “Operation Homecoming.”
Rostberg, a Navy veteran, said Carlson was the first POW he can remember whose remains have been brought home. “I’ll probably never see this again,” he said.
Ralph Carlson’s homecoming is important not just to the Carlsons, he said. “This gives hope to so many families who are still waiting for their loved ones to come home,” he said.
Rostberg is helping to arrange Carlson’s service on June 25. “For years, they’ve been going to that cemetery and remembering Ralph even though Ralph’s body wasn’t there,” he said. “Now, he will be there.”
The Rev. Rich Chronis, pastor of Braham Evangelical Lutheran Church, will be the presiding minister at Ralph Carlson’s service.
“I’ve talked to a few people who knew Ralph — even one that he dated,” Chronis said. “It’s a deeply moving time not only for the family but for the people who knew Ralph. It’s important for him to be brought to Braham. He’s one of our boys.”
Alvin and Hilda Carlson “prayed for Ralph’s return for a long time,” said Wescott, Ralph’s niece. “I do believe that God has answered our prayers.
“I think when you lose someone, you realize how deep love runs, and that it runs through generations,” he said. “It runs through your family. There’s a lot more to life than just our daily routines. We’re connected, somehow, by this love.”
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