For many years, Mary Kolesar has kept a photograph of her father in the bedroom of her North Patchogue home. That way, the man who went away when she was a young child — the man she never saw again — would always be near.
“I hung his picture so it would be the first thing I saw every morning,” she said of the smiling image of Army Chief Warrant Officer Adolphus David Nava.
Kolesar never got to say a proper goodbye to Nava, who was captured during the Korean War in 1950 and died of pneumonia in a prisoner of war camp six months later.
But now she will.
On Monday, Kolesar and more than a dozen family members will travel to LaGuardia Airport to greet a coffin bearing Nava’s remains.
“It’s so joyous,” she said.
The remains were finally identified in February, after investigators sifted through 208 boxes of human bones, personal effects and other items that had been turned over by the North Korean government in the early 1990s.
Forensic scientists at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii were able to obtain trace amounts of DNA from arm and leg bones. The DNA matched that of samples that had been supplied by Nava’s other daughter, Anne Sanacora, of Apex, North Carolina, and other relatives who have since died.
“You never give up hope, but it’s shocking after all these years that he is finally home. said Kolesar, 69, a social worker at an elementary school in Shirley. “It’s been like 65 years now. I’m a grandmother. All these years have passed.”
The repatriation of a soldier’s remains holds particularly deep emotional value among Korean War veterans, many of whom feel their contributions were overlooked in what some call “The Forgotten War.”
“I think a lot of us will be pleased to see this,” said Donald Zoeller, past commander of the Nassau chapter of Korean War Veterans of America. “In many ways, the Korean War has been forgotten. So it’s good to see those who have taken risks on our national behalf be recognized. It means a lot.”
Adolphus Nava, a 38-year-old World War II veteran, was among the soldiers of B Battery, 38th Field Artillery Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division, fighting near Kunu-ri, North Korea, in late November 1950. Their mission was part of a United Nations offensive to advance north of the Yalu River.
But they soon found themselves engulfed in the Battle of the Ch’ongch’on River, which turned Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s plans for a lightning strike to push the Chinese army out of North Korea that might end the war by Christmas into a humiliating rout.
By the evening of Nov. 29, it became clear that the 2nd Division was in danger of being surrounded by troops from the People’s Republic of China.
Ordered to retreat, the U.S. soldiers fled on foot through a mountain chokepoint later termed “The Gauntlet” — destroying their guns so they couldn’t be turned against them. For more than a week, soldiers slipped through enemy lines and back to their units.
But the artillery units had taken especially heavy casualties, and Nava was reported missing. His death was confirmed in late 1953, when an American POW who was returned in a prisoner swap reported witnessing Nava’s death at Pyoktong/Camp 5.
The repatriated remains of scores of Korean War soldiers went unidentified for decades, before improved forensic techniques, including DNA testing, were perfected in the 1990s.
So far, the once-missing remains of 345 Americans who were killed, missing or captured during that war have been identified, according to a Defense Department website. But of the nearly 1.8 million Americans sent to Korea, 7,816 are still unaccounted for, more than 63 years after the war ended. More than 36,000 American troops perished there.
Kolesar said she learned of her father’s death when she was called into a room at her family’s home in Bellerose, and saw her older siblings weeping.
“My mother had kept it from me that he had been a prisoner,” Kolesar said. “She had always told me he was off bringing food to children who were starving in Korea.”
She said her mother, who has since died, moved the family to Uniondale, where she struggled to raise her four children on a telephone operator’s salary.
But Kolesar and her siblings revered their father’s memory. Her older brother, David Nava-Werner, earned four Silver Stars and two Bronze Stars for service in Vietnam. The Army staff sergeant died in 1982, and is buried at Calverton National Cemetery.
His father will now be buried there with military honors on Aug. 4, sharing his son’s grave.
Kolesar said she will place pictures of Nava’s descendants in the coffin before he’s laid to rest.
“It will just be comforting to me,” she said. “That in some way he has us with him.”