Pfc. Eugene L. "Gene" Erickson of Brainerd finally has the identity he lost in death more than half a century ago.

In mid-May of 1951, Gene and other members of Company B, 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division were overrun by the Chinese army during the Korean War.

Gene was captured, and after months of captivity he died of starvation that summer at the age of 21. His body was missing, and his parents only learned of his true fate when a fellow Brainerd prisoner of war (POW) returned home in 1953 and told them what happened.

Since then, his family waited for Gene himself to make the final trip home. Through the work of a special unit of military scientists, Gene's remains were identified among hundreds of other casualties from the Korean War.

Gene's nephew, Bruce Erickson, said word that he had been identified took the family completely by surprise.

"We had no thought that this was a possibility," he said. "We were just kind of shocked... we had no idea it was coming."

K208

In the early 1990s, North Korean officials submitted 208 containers holding more than 400 sets of American remains to the United States, much of them "co-mingled," or mixed together. Scientists at the Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) began the process of identifying the remains in the shipment, dubbed "K208."

After the DNA in a set of remains matched that of blood samples given by members of Gene's family, the DPAA was able to name him among scores of anonymous fallen comrades.

The DPAA spokesperson Sgt. 1st Class Shelia Cooper said Gene's match makes 128 people identified so far from K208.

The vast spectrum of variables that go into identification make it an incredibly painstaking process. Since the remains are mixed together, often the DPAA needs some kind of circumstantial evidence like dental records or X-rays as a starting point before it makes a DNA match, Cooper said. When the DNA matching step is reached, the DPAA uses samples from multiple family members and multiple types of DNA tests in order to get as conclusive of a match as possible. In Gene's case, the DPAA found a match with Gene's brother and niece in mitochondrial DNA analysis, and a match with his brother in Y-Chromosome Short Tandem Repeat (Y-STR) DNA analysis.

Clayton's vigil

Although Gene's identity disappeared for six decades, his personality remained firmly etched in the memories of his older brother Clayton. Clayton remembers him as a lanky, good-natured lad.

"He really misses him, even today," Bruce said.

He kept waiting for Gene, even as decades went by and their parents passed away. He kept the same phone number at his home in Albuquerque, N.M., in case the Army ever called. Finally in March, they did.

Clayton insisted on attending when Gene was interred with military honors Wednesday at the national cemetery in Santa Fe. He wanted to be there, Bruce said, even though he's fighting a case of pneumonia that requires extensive care.

"The doctors are working around the (memorial service) schedule to give him treatment," he said.

In addition to receiving military honors at his service, Gene also was to receive his service decorations, including the Purple Heart.

Although the Ericksons finally received closure, hundreds of other American military families have yet to be so lucky. More than 83,000 Americans, including both service members and civilians, remain missing from World War II onward, Cooper said.

For more information on the DPAA and its mission, visit www.dpaa.mil or call 703-699-1420.

ZACH KAYSER may be reached at 855-5860 or Zach.Kayser@brainerddispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ZWKayser.