Orange family finally gets to bury family member 63 years later
Like many young men of his generation, 17-year-old Clement Thibodeaux Jr. joined the military to fight in the Korean War and was killed in action. However, it would be more than 60 years later before his family would have the chance to give his remains a proper burial.
Clement Thibodeaux Jr. was the youngest child in his large family and it was his father who allowed his to enlist at the age of 17.
He was wounded in action in the summer of 1950 and upon returning to Korea, it was like he knew his fate when he wrote family members saying he believed he would die in combat once he was returned to the frontline.
Over the years, the family has scattered from their Church Point, Louisiana home with several of the siblings calling Southeast Texas their home. His sister, Irona Mazzola, 88, calls Orange home. Her son, Gilbert Mazzola,of Orange, was only about a year old when his uncle went off to war.
Throughout his life, Gilbert Mazzola has been told the story of when “Uncle Jr.” was leaving to go off to war, his nephews climbed into the suitcase declaring they wanted to go with him.
On June 25, 1950, the Korean War began when about 75,000 soldiers from the North Korean People’s Army poured across the 38th parallel, the boundary between the Soviet-backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the north and the pro-Western Republic of Korea to the south. This invasion was the first military action of the Cold War. By July, American troops had entered the war on South Korea’s behalf. After some early back-and-forth across the 38th parallel, the fighting stalled and casualties mounted with nothing to show for them. Meanwhile, American officials worked anxiously to fashion some sort of armistice with the North Koreans. Finally, in July 1953, the Korean War came to an end. In all, some 5 million soldiers and civilians lost their lives during the war.
Thibodeaux, who fought on the front lines was reported missing in action on Nov. 28, 1950. U.S. forces engaged Chinese forces in North Korea, north of the Ch’ongch’on River, suffering heavy casualties in the fighting and subsequent withdrawal which resulted in his capture.
Later, one of his friends told the Thibodeaux family Junior had been captured along with other members of the 25th Infantry Division. He died of starvation and pneumonia in the Chinese prisoner of war camp, known as “Death Valley” in January 1951 just days after he turned 18 years old.
Thibodeaux’s remains were not among those of soldiers and prisoners returned by communist forces in 1954.
However, his family never gave up searching for their beloved baby brother. Wilson Thibodeaux, Junior’s older brother, was in his 90s when he died in 2008 and searched endlessly during his lifetime for what had become of Junior. He wrote letter after letter to government officials in hopes of getting relief to some long unanswered questions.
Before his death, Wilson Thibodeaux left mitrochondrial DNA for future examinations because of the rumors of excavations being done.
But, he would die before the bones could be confirmed as belonging to Junior.
His son, W.J., would carry on with his mission and inform the family when something new occurred.
In 2005, as part of an agreement, a delegation from the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea went into North Korea to search for more remains. Finally, a large number of bones were found when a ditch was excavated. Scientists from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory identified Thibodeaux’s remains after sifting through the bones. A jaw bone, hip bones and a few others were found to belong to Junior.
‘We never had any realistic hopes of recovering his body,” Gilbert Mazzola said.
Finally, he was brought back home. The airplane with the casket of his remains was met in New Orleans, La. with full military honors. People lined the streets proudly waving their American flags.
“It’s time he has gotten some recognition,” Gilbert Mazzola said.
Before he left his home town, he picked his burial site. Now, nearly 63 years after his death he will be laid to rest on Sept. 7.
“This is all bittersweet for my mother,” he added.
For the family, it will be a joyous and emotional occasion.
The U.S. Army is forming a military procession from Baton Rouge to Church Point. A service is planned at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Church for family members to attend and Junior will be buried with full military honors. In addition, there may be a packed house with all of the veterans organizations who also plan to attend the service in Church Point. The Louisiana governor’s office will have a representative and the family will receive two medals for the soldier. The local Veterans of Foreign Wars will host a lunch for the family and attendees after the ceremony.
“It’s turned out to be a very respectful to a fallen soldier,” Gilbert Mazzola said.
Clement Thibodeaux Jr. stands outside at his brother’s house in Port Arthur in 1950. He would later die in a prison camp during the Korean War. It would take nearly 63 years for his remains to return home to be buried with full military honors.