Anne Sanacora tucked a tissue beneath her sunglasses and dabbed away a tear. Her sister, Mary Kolesar, sobbed noticeably.
Their father, who left what had been their Bellerose home to go off to the Korean War 66 years ago, and perished mostly alone in a North Korean prisoner-of-war camp in 1951, was finally home.
“I’m just thrilled he’s back on American soil, back where he belongs with us,” Kolesar, of North Patchogue, said of her father, Chief Warrant Officer Adolphus David Nava.
Kolesar and about 15 of Nava’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren were on hand as a plane bearing Nava’s remains from Hawaii arrived at LaGuardia Airport shortly after 11 a.m. Monday.
A pair of airport fire trucks greeted the Delta Air Lines plane with a ceremonial geyser shot from their water cannons. Some two dozen airport personnel — police officers, baggage handlers and grounds crew — stood to attention.
The family looked on in silence as Nava’s flag-draped coffin was delivered from the plane’s cargo hold and carried to a waiting hearse during a color guard ceremony on the airport tarmac.
Nava had been captured on the last day of November in 1950. His badly outnumbered unit had been surrounded by hundreds of thousands of soldiers of the People’s Republic of China during the Battle of the Ch’ongch’on River near Kunu-ri, just 50 miles south of North Korea’s border with China.
Nava, a member of B Battery, 38th Field Artillery Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division, had been among U.S. soldiers who had been sent into North Korea by Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the ill-fated Home By Christmas Offensive designed to end the war quickly by pushing China’s soldiers out of North Korea.
But the offensive was reversed into a humiliating rout, with outnumbered GIs fleeing through a valley grimly remembered as “The Gauntlet,” destroying their guns so the weapons would not be turned against them.
Nava’s and other U.S. artillery units had taken especially heavy casualties and Nava was eventually reported missing. His death was confirmed in late 1953, when a U.S. soldier returned in a prisoner swap reported witnessing Nava’s death at Pyoktong/Camp 5.
His remains were not recovered from North Korea until the early 1990s, when 208 boxes of commingled remains were turned over to U.S. officials for examination by the Joint PIO/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii.
The Joint Command, which is responsible for finding and identifying the remains of U.S. troops left behind from all wars, was able to positively identify arm and leg bones belonging to Nava earlier this year based on DNA donated by Sanacora, of Apex, North Carolina.
Sanacora said she was too moved by the return of her father’s remains, and declined to be interviewed. “My sister is better at that,” she said.
The repatriation of a soldier’s remains holds deep emotional value among U.S. veterans, who take seriously the military credo of never leaving a comrade behind, alive or dead.
Gerard Biscardi, of American Legion Post 1033 in Elmont, was among the airport personnel who paused as the plane bearing Nava’s body eased to a halt near the Marine Air Terminal. Though he did not know Nava, he said it was important for him to come to pay his respects anyway.
“For us, this is an amazing day,” Biscardi said moments after the brief ceremony.
Nava will be buried with military honors Thursday at Calverton National Cemetery, where he will share a grave with a son, David Nava-Werner, a decorated Vietnam War veteran who died in 1982.