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Fallen Marine coming home

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MASH FORK – The body of a Magoffin County man killed in action during the Korean War is returning home tonight, 69 years after his death.

Marine Corps Pfc. Ray Palmer Fairchild, 21, of Mash Fork, in Magoffin County, was a member of Company D, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, and he was killed in action on November 27, 1950, at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir near Yudam-ni, North Korea, where his remains could not be recovered. 

Ray was the son of the late John H. and Allie Prater Fairchild and the brother of the late Bonnie Fairchild Cantrell. He was also a member of the First Baptist Church in Salyersville.

John Fairchild, Ray’s brother and only immediate family member still living, said he can still remember when the family received the telegram of his brother’s death.

“Fannie Patrick was the operator at the telephone service, and she got all the telegrams and she would deliver them, too,” John remembered. “One day she came to our door, and Dad was at work and my sister was already married and gone, but when Mom saw Fannie, she just fainted. My grandmother, my dad’s mom, was upstairs and she was 82 or 83 at the time, and she came downstairs and I will never forget that day.”

Their mother wrote countless letters to the war department, asking if they could get Ray’s body back to be buried with the family, but he was missing in action and troops couldn’t get to where he had been buried in a common grave, John said.

According to the DPAA’s release, in 1954, during Operation Glory, the United States and North Korea exchanged the remains of casualties. One set of remains, designated as Unknown X-13474 Yudam-ni, could not be identified, and were subsequently buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, known as the Punchbowl, in Honolulu.

“I’ve received letters my whole life, asking me to come to Pennsylvania or New York for meetings, but no one was really doing anything,” John said. “Why go if it’s just propaganda?”

In 2012, the Joint Personnel Accounting Command (the predecessor to DPAA), disinterred the unidentified remains and sent them to a laboratory, where scientists used dental and anthropological analysis, as well as circumstantial and material evidence and DNA testing, to attempt to identify the soldier. On July 29, 2019, the department officially determined the remains were Ray’s. 

 “Our family was sitting on the porch four weeks ago one evening, talking with the neighbors, when the phone rang at about 8:30 at night,” John told the Independent last month. “My wife answered first and then I got on the phone and the lady asked if I knew Ray Fairchild. I told her if she’s talking about the Marine killed in 1950, I’m his brother, and we set up an appointment for her to meet with me three weeks later.”

John said he really couldn’t believe the woman on the other end of the phone until she showed up at his home in Portsmouth, Ohio. She was with the Department of Navy and she had a book detailing Ray’s two years in the military.

“I’ve waited 69 years and I wasn’t sure if it was true or not, but just figured we should wait and see and if she comes to my home, then I’ll know for certain,” Fairchild said. “She came right on time.”

John said, though he was skeptical, he did submit his own DNA and that, paired with Ray’s dental records, led to his official identification.

More information about Ray’s death came from a man named Fred Fletcher, now 89 years old and living in Jacksonville, North Carolina. 

Not long after the war, several people had written the Fairchild’s, but none had really panned out. In 1961, Fred wrote a letter to Allie Fairchild, and she asked him to tell her about Ray’s family.

“He knew all of us by name!” John said. “He knew who we were and all about us.”

The Fairchilds loaded up and went to visit Fred, who was living in Oceana, West Virginia, at the time. 

“Dad was going into a filling station and asking about Freddy, but the clerk just knew he had been in the Marines a long time, but hadn’t seen him,” John said. “A lady was standing there and asked, ‘What do you want him for?’ Dad told her and she said, ‘Yep, you’re Ray’s dad.’ She was Fred’s mother.”

Ever since then, the Fairchilds kept in contact with Fred, through Christmas Cards, letters and the occasional visits when Fred came to town.

Fred had been in the foxhole with Ray at the time of his death, and when asked, was able to describe to John how Ray had died.

“He’s a military man, in the Marines for over 30 years, but he would answer if you asked him,” John said. 

Within the book given to him from the Navy, John said there are pictures of Ray’s remains, but noted that everything Fred had told him matched the remains.

“He’s coming home, where he was born on the same property, to be buried with Mom, Dad, our sister, Grandpa and Grandma,” John said. “I guess it hadn’t really soaked in, but 69 years is a lifetime for most people. They all waited for us to be able to bring him home, and at 80 years old, I really didn’t think I would see it happen, either.”

John said he was a little boy when Ray enlisted in 1948, but he can remember his brother picking him up from the grade school on a motorcycle.

“I thought I was something, getting picked up from school by a marine on a motorcycle,” John laughed. “He loved motorcycles, but that ran in the family.”

John said he got to see his brother a few times after he enlisted and before he went to Korea, but he still has every letter Ray sent home, as well as the 13 medals and bars he would have received from his service.

“He was an infantry fighter,” John said. “He was not a hero and he didn’t do anything great, but he was to me. He really wasn’t a hero and he didn’t do something outstanding, other than giving his life for his country. Which is big, yes.” 

Ray’s body will arrive at 8:29 p.m. tonight, November 21, at the Bluegrass Airport in Lexington, where military honors will be given. His body will be escorted by the Rolling Thunder KY5 (motorcycle group comprised of military men and women), the Magoffin County Sheriff Department, and the Salyersville DAV Chapter 15. Firetrucks with a raised flag will be set up to be at the Gifford exit on the Mountain Parkway to welcome him back home. Viewing will begin at 10 a.m. on Saturday, November 23, 2019, and funeral services with full military honors will be conducted at 1 p.m. at the Magoffin County Funeral Home, with burial to follow in the Fairchild Family Cemetery on Fairchild Branch at Mash Fork, Kentucky.

Magoffin County Funeral Home Director Paul Burchell explained that with full military honors, which are only for soldiers missing in action, killed in action or for high-ranking officers, include representatives from each branch of service to act as pallbearers, a 21-gun salute, “Taps,” and the folding of the flag, with everything performed by active-duty military.

“This is a story of a marine coming home and it’s a lot,” John said. “A military funeral is a big thing and I’ve waited 69 years for this.”

According to the DPAA, today, 7,607 Americans remain unaccounted for from the Korean War. Fairchild’s name is recorded on the Courts of the Missing at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, in Honolulu, along with the others who are missing form the Korean War, but a rosette will be placed next to his name to indicate he has been accounted for, now.
 

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