To the sounds of a gun salute and a mournful bugler's "Taps," the remains of an 18-year-old infantryman who perished in a North Korean prisoner-of-war camp 63 years ago were buried by his mother's grave Monday at a Farmingdale cemetery.
Pfc. Anthony La Rossa was fighting with the 3rd Battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, when his unit was overwhelmed by Chinese soldiers near Hoengsong on Feb. 11, 1951. He died at the Suan Bean POW camp a short while later, but his remains were not returned to the United States until 1992, and not positively identified until this year.
Though his parents and siblings are all deceased, the two dozen family members who came from as far as Georgia said the teenager they remember as "Buddy" had never been forgotten, and that his repatriation brought them a measure of comfort.
"I never met Buddy, but I grew up looking at his pictures in the family photo album," said Vivian Gallo, 57, of Franklin Square, whose mother was La Rossa's first cousin.
In the early 1990s, North Korean officials turned over 208 boxes of commingled remains of American soldiers. Using mitochondrial DNA testing and other forensic techniques, the Defense Department's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command was able to positively identify portions of leg and arm bones as belonging to La Rossa earlier this year.
La Rossa was taken prisoner during one of the Korean War's most brutal battles, in which a vast Chinese assault sent South Korean troops fleeing through the American ranks in retreat. Weeks later, when an Associated Press reporter was able to visit what U.S. Marines were calling "Massacre Valley," he wrote, "The exact number of killed still is not known, but . . . more are missing . . . Hundreds of frozen bodies of Chinese, Korean and Americans carpeted the roads and valleys."
Relatives say La Rossa's mother, Marie, pressed the government for information on her son's fate, even writing to President Dwight D. Eisenhower asking for help. They say she never stopped grieving, and spiraled into depression before she died in 1974.
After examining a box containing the remains of at least nine individuals that had been turned over to U.S. officials in 1992, JPAC investigators took a DNA sample from La Rossa's brother, Donald, who lived in Farmingdale. Donald La Rossa died in Georgia in 2001.
The only member of his family still alive who remembers La Rossa is Tony Zupo, 72, of Sheepshead Bay, who was 9 years old when cousin Buddy went off to war.
Zupo looked up to his older cousin, who would sometimes allow him to sit in the saddle of a motorcycle La Rossa kept at his parents' Bensonhurst home.
"The grief goes away, but you need closure," Zupo said. "This is the end. This is closure. I'm glad he's home."
La Rossa's remains were recovered as part of a Department of Defense effort to bring closure to the families of the 84,000 U.S. GIs who remain unaccounted for from conflicts dating back to World War II. Employing more than 500 military and civilian personnel, JPAC sends forensic investigators to battlefields from Belgium to Burma, to sift the earth to locate clues to missing GIs.
Critics have said the recovery effort is slow and disorganized, and that Department of Defense efforts to locate remains have amounted to "military tourism." They say relatives of missing soldiers who could help guide investigators may all die off before missing soldiers can be identified.
"It would be nice for them to have the remains of their sons and have them buried with the honors they deserve before they pass on," said Ann Mills-Griffiths, chairman of the National League of POW/MIA families. "But it needs to be a cohesive effort."
La Rossa was buried with full military honors at St. Charles Cemetery, not far from where his brother, Donald, had lived in Farmingdale.