Technology, Persistence Lead to a Fallen Hero’s Welcome After Six Decades
Born in 1930, Paul Marshall Gordon played guard for the Crittenden High School basketball team and was known to sneak off sometimes and smoke hand-rolled cigarettes with his younger sister, Dorothy. Growing up in the Grant County community of Sherman, Paul loved to hunt and fish. He also idolized his older brother Aurtha, who’d been a paratrooper in World War II.
That’s one reason he convinced his parents to let him join the U.S. Army, even though he was just 18. His family knew that could mean the boy they loved might go to Korea, and might become a casualty of war who’d come home only for his own funeral.
Sadly, that is what happened to Paul. At 20, he became one of nearly 37,000 U.S. service members and 2.2 million Koreans killed in that war. What makes Paul’s story unusual is what came next: a 60-year journey from a distant battlefield to a burial with honors 10 miles from where he grew up.
Paul went missing after a battle, and his parents, Doll and Urie, received a series of communications from the Army detailing his status as it moved from missing in action (January 1951) to presumed dead (March 1954). The Army eventually determined that Paul had been captured and taken to a prison camp in North Korea. “While there,” a 1954 letter said, “he became ill and died on 30 June 1951 of causes which have not been established.” He was promoted to sergeant and awarded the Purple Heart posthumously.
The location of the camp and of Paul’s remains was unknown, so his family had no body to bury. While they accepted, reluctantly, that he was gone, they did not accept that he was lost.
Tony Gayhart is the son of Paul’s sister Dorothy. “When I was a kid, my (maternal) grandmother kept a scrapbook of information about Uncle Paul. Everything there was,” he says. “I remember Grandma always said that Uncle Paul was coming home one day, but nobody put a lot of faith in it.”
Urie wasn’t alone in that conviction, nor its pursuit. Paul was one of about 7,800 MIA service members lost in Korea who were the subject of research, negotiation, and no small amount of effort from a U.S. military agency known today as the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA—see sidebar). Technology and diplomacy were on the Gordons’ side as well. The advent of DNA identification in the 1990s gave DPAA researchers an important tool in their search to identify the bodies of service members.
In addition, the North Korean government later made a rare goodwill gesture to the U.S. by sending a cache of remains, mostly bones, thought to belong to about 200 U.S. service members. Eventually, the DPAA determined that Paul’s could be among those remains and asked for DNA samples from his siblings.
On January 3, 2014, Jerry Gordon, Paul’s nephew, got a phone call from the DPAA. They’d positively identified Paul’s remains.
“I said, ‘Say that to me again,’” Jerry says. “We’d anticipated this, of course, but you never really think you’re going to get that phone call.”
Jerry couldn’t wait to tell his father, Clifford, Paul’s oldest brother. (Aurtha had died in 2010. Their parents had passed years earlier.) Jerry planned to visit his dad in the nursing home the next day, but that night, Clifford passed away without hearing the news. Jerry says he likes to think of the timing this way: “They were together in the next world before we could get to him.” Jerry says he and his cousins then shared with Dorothy the bittersweet coincidence: “She’d lost a brother and found a brother in the same day.”
On June 20, 2014, Sgt. Paul Marshall Gordon finally came home. A plane carrying his flag-draped coffin touched down at Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport. Six pallbearers in military dress uniform carried him to the hearse and later to the memorial service at Sherman Baptist Church, where Paul had been a member.
The community turned out in force. The Rolling Thunder and Patriot Rider motorcycle clubs showed up, as did hundreds of friends, relatives, and strangers who wanted to pay their respects. The funeral procession to the Kentucky Veterans Cemetery North in Williamstown stretched more than a mile long.
Dorothy, 81, is the last of Paul’s siblings. She sat front and center and received the customary folded flag during the ceremony, a full military burial. “Do you know what it feels like to be happy and sad at the same time?” she says. “That’s how it felt.”
Speaking at the funeral, Paul’s niece Mickey Sanders—his brother Aurtha’s daughter—offered these words for Dorothy and for everyone who’d gathered to honor and remember Paul Marshall Gordon: “He’s finally at peace. He’s home at last. We will lay him to rest in the embrace of the good Kentucky earth.”
Sharing Paul Gordon’s journey home
Paul Marshall Gordon’s story inspired members of the public to attend his memorial service and members of the media to share his journey with readers and viewers.
The Cincinnati Enquirer produced this story and video about Paul’s return:
Korean War Veteran Paul Marshall Gordon
Read Paul Gordon’s obituary as it ran in the Grant County News, 63 years after his death: Sgt. Paul Gordon, 19
Note: If you’d like to inquire about a service member designated as missing in action, the first step is to contact the Service Casualty Officer in the appropriate branch of the military. Go online to Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.