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Saturday, Dec 08 2012 10:00 PM

Soldier's remains coming home after 62 years

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    By Courtesy Bakersfield High School

    Roosevelt Clark attended Bakersfield High School from the fall of 1947 to April of 1950, when he dropped out and joined the Army his junior year. He graduated from Mountain View School in 1947. His father, Willie Clark, was an agriculture worker. This picture comes from his high school transcript.

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BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

Imagine sending off an 18-year-old loved one to fight a foreign war in some faraway land -- only to learn a few months later that he's been declared missing in action following a great and terrible battle.

Sixty-two years pass with little word.

You experience grief without closure, loss without truly having the chance to say goodbye.

Then the phone rings one day and an official-sounding voice on the other end tells you the long wait is over.

"I was shocked, absolutely shocked," said Rosa Rentie, a first cousin of Bakersfield High School student-turned-Army infantryman Roosevelt Clark.

The fresh-faced teenage Army private, who played for the 1949 Driller football team before enlisting, was reported missing in action Nov. 28, 1950, while fighting with the 35th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, in North Korea.

It was just a few days after Thanksgiving.

Michael Mee, chief of identifications at the Army Casualty and Mortuary Affairs center at Fort Knox, Ky., confirmed Friday that the remains in question have been positively identified as Clark's through DNA analysis.

A briefing will be held next week in Louisiana with some members of the extended family, Mee said. At that point, family members will learn additional details, and may decide at that point where they would like Private Clark's remains to be buried.

"It's an honor and a privilege to assist families in this way," said Mee, who during his career has attended scores of similar meetings, where old memories of those lost are often spontaneously shared and cracked and yellowing photographs are passed around.

"The prevailing emotion, the prevailing theme," Mee said, "is one of closure."

Now 71 and living in Palo Alto, Rentie has a few memories of her own.

"I was just 9 years old when Jack died -- we all called him Jack," she remembered.

"We were all raised in Arvin, out on a ranch," she said. "I remember when Jack went into the Army, my Aunt Sarah (Jack's mother) gave him a big going-away party."

Unfortunately, there would be no joyous homecoming for young Roosevelt.

It was maybe six or seven years ago, Rentie said, that she and her mother were asked to provide DNA samples for use in the identification of remains. But Rentie never believed her cousin would ever be found.

And her mother died before she ever learned of the positive outcome.

Although Mee couldn't be sure, he said it's likely Clark's remains were among 208 boxes turned over by North Korea in the 1990s. Those remains have been in the possession of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, or JPAC for short. Based in Hawaii, JPAC conducts global search, recovery and laboratory operations to identify unaccounted-for Americans from past conflicts.

A JPAC spokesman declined to comment Friday.

Rennie Hunter, 69, another of Clark's cousins now living in Dallas, Ga., said there's talk among several extended family members about whether Arlington National Cemetery would have a plot available.

Other possible choices for a final resting place are Arvin Cemetery and Bakersfield National Cemetery, located not far from Clark's hometown.

Ken Hooper, historian for the Kern Veterans Memorial Foundation and a history teacher at Bakersfield High School, said should Clark's remains be returned to Kern, it's only right that they be met by a local color guard and any area residents who want to be there when Arvin's lost soldier finally comes home.

"I know back in the 1940s and 1950s when people were shipping bodies home from World War II, the people of Kern never allowed a body to arrive alone or unescorted," Hooper said in an email.

And he'll be damned if he will allow it to happen in this case.

For Hunter, learning that her cousin is finally coming home after all these years is truly "a blessing," she said. But it also has opened old emotional wounds.

"It's like a new death all over again," she said.

Hunter grew up with the other cousins on the ranch in Arvin, where Willie Clark, Jack's father, worked as a farm hand and many of the youngsters helped with the work.

As she remembers her older cousin, her thoughts keep returning to Sarah Clark.

"I don't think his mother ever got over it," Hunter said of Sarah's grief over the loss of her only son.

Neither parent would ever fully recover, she remembered.

Sixty-two years later, no one has.

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