BILLINGS – Members of the Patriot Guard and local law enforcement gave a hero’s welcome Thursday for a Korean War veteran who finally made it home after nearly 70 years.
Army Cpl. DeMaret Marston Kirtley was a native of Kaycee, Wyo., who was last seen in Dec. 6, 1950 in North Korea.
He was reported missing in action following a Chinese attack in the Battle of Chosin Reservoir in North Korea, a 17-day battle in bitterly cold weather. Kirtley was a member of the 57th Field Artillery Battalion.
Kirtley was last seen near Hagaru-ri in the Hamgyeong Province in North Korea, according to an obituary from the Kane Funeral Home.
He was never listed as a prisoner of war, and the Army declared him deceased Dec. 21, 1953.
“The army showed us the remains and what they concluded is that he had an injury to his leg and he probably froze to death would be my guess,” his niece, Zena Husman, told Q2 Thursday.
In 1954, the U.S and North Korea traded remains in what was known as Operation Glory. Four hundred sixteen sets of unidentified remains, including Kirtley’s, were buried at the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.
Husman said the Army sent her father, who also served in the Korean War, a DNA kit a couple years before his death in 2008. In 2018, the family got the call they had waited over a half-century for.
“The hopes always there, but you don’t ever know if it is going to happen so. I just wish he (her father) could be here today,” she said.
After Kirtley’s plane from Hawaii landed Thursday in Billings, his remains were escorted to the state line by the Montana Patriot Guard, Montana Freedom Riders, the Montana Vietnam Legacy Veterans, the Montana Highway Patrol, Billings police and Yellowstone County sheriff’s deputies.
They were met there by their Wyoming counterparts, who escorted him to the Kane Funeral Home in Sheridan, where people lined the streets to welcome their hero home.
“I was overwhelmed by all the support. People waving flags on overpasses. In Sheridan, people were lining the streets,” Husman said.
A public visitation will be held at the Kane Funeral Home in Sheridan from 9:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. Friday.
On Saturday, his remains will be escorted back home to Kaycee.
A memorial service will be held on Saturday as Kirtley is laid to rest beside his parents at the Kaycee Cemetery with full military honors. A reception will follow at the Harold Harrard Park gymnasium.
Kirtley was born in 1929 and enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1950. His parents and siblings are deceased, but he will be welcomed by nieces, great nieces and great nephews, according to his obit.
“He was only 20 when he died and when I read about the horrible war and what he went through it really made me sad,” Husman said. “He didn’t die in vain, though. You know if his life affects one person to let us know that freedom comes at a high price to many and not just to soldiers but to their families as well. Maybe his life wasn’t in vain. Maybe my grandchildren and some of the children along the way will realize the price we pay for freedom.”
Additional reporting by Russ Riesinger, MTN News