by Tom Parker
First came the lilting notes of a distant siren, rising and falling in a lulling, rhythmic modulation that seemed organic, as if formed from the air itself, windborne, or from the undulant earth rising and falling in ridge after ridge to an indistinct horizon. Then, more felt than heard, a throaty roar of engines.
A collective ripple of anticipation stirred the crowd clustered around an open-walled tent in St. John’s Catholic Cemetery in Hanover. Dozens of VFW honor guard members and military personnel snapped to their respective positions, rank upon uniformed rank, their flags and banners furling and unfurling in the breeze. Bystanders gravitated toward the fence for a better view of the approaching motorcade. Off to the side, a WIBW reporter swiveled her video camera toward an entrance lane bordered with flags.
The motorcade passed beneath two large American flags hoisted on cranes above Highway 148 before slowing to turn into Hanover. On their right a rust-streaked metal sign read “WELCOME HOME PVT HERYNK.”
It was a long time coming. Seventy-nine years after being killed in action on the island of New Guinea, U.S. Army Pvt. Robert J. Herynk, K Company, 3rd Battalion, 126th Infantry Regiment, 32nd Infantry Division, would be laid to rest on American soil.
That his remains were here at all was a testament not only to modern forensic technologies but to the unflagging determination of researchers at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency to locate, identify and recover the remains of American soldiers killed in action. The Department of Defense agency receives critical support from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, including the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory.
Herynk was killed in action in 1942, and reportedly buried near Buna, New Guinea. Following the war, extensive searches by the American Graves Registration Service were unable to find his remains. They concluded their search in 1948 and issued their findings on Dec. 19, 1949: Herynk was declared non-recoverable.
Further searches from 1995 and 2012 by DPAA predecessor organizations recovered the remains of four additional unidentified soldiers, leading them to request reviews of other unidentified remains associated with the campaign. In 2017, using dental and anthropological analyses, circumstantial evidence and mitochondrial DNA analysis, scientists from the DPAA were able to positively identify Herynk’s remains. The family was notified on Oct. 1.
On Saturday, Nov. 20, the motorcade pulled into the cemetery and came to a halt. An almost preternatural silence fell as family members assembled in the tent. Following a short service, an officer presented the flag to Colleen Behrens, one of Herynk’s great-nieces.
Herynk’s original headstone stood beside the casket. The inscription read,
Killed in action
Robert J. Herynk
Aug. 12, 1915 - Nov. 26, 1942
Pvt. Co. K 126 Inf.
Buried in New Guinea
And now reburied in Hanover, his hometown.
For Behrens and the rest of the family, it was an emotional experience.
“This means closure,” Behrens said. “When I was growing up, my grandmother always talked about her brother and how they had never found his remains. Even as near as 1987 my mother petitioned the Army to see if they found out anything else. Our family talked several times about this and we never thought they’d find his remains, and when I got the call that they had, I was stunned, totally flabbergasted. I couldn’t believe it at all.
“But it’s just amazing. It’s a wonderful thing that happened. We’re very thankful for everybody who came and helped bury him again.”