Against immense odds and with the help of an unlikely organization, the remains of a World War II veteran will soon return home to McCracken County.
Descendants of PFC William T. Carneal, whose death on the Japanese island of Saipan was reported nearly 70 years ago, had the chance Friday to thank the people who discovered their relative's remains.
"It would be like hitting the lottery," nephew J.T. Carneal said of the likelihood of finding his uncle's body. "We're lucky that we're alive to see it, that we get that blessing."
As of Dec. 19, there remain 73,640 World War II personnel from the United States whose bodies have not been recovered, according to data collected by the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office.
But thanks to a chance discovery by Kuentai, a Japanese nonprofit dedicated to finding the bodies of Japanese soldiers who died in World War II, William Carneal no longer numbers among the lost.
The nonprofit discovered Carneal's remains and personal belongings during an excavation last March on Saipan, located in the Northern Mariana Islands. Carneal's dog tags, American coins, and a 1939 Heath High School class ring helped identify him.
Kuentai's secretary general, Usan Kurata, visited Paducah with translator Yukari Akatsuka on Thursday and Friday in order to meet with Carneal's relatives, including J.T. Carneal; niece Mary Carneal Christian; great nieces Beverly Fields Swift and Carol Ann Fields Lindley; and great nephew Jimmy Fields.
Sandy Hart, curator of the Kentucky Veteran and Patriot Museum in Wickliffe, World War II veteran and childhood friend Maurice Gibson, and Jim Vance, a retired Marine who served in Vietnam, also joined the family to personally thank the organization during a meeting at the Paducah Sun.
"You cannot be grateful enough for these people," Vance said. "They both have jobs and they have kids and homes to take care of, and they're digging, every month they're digging in Saipan somewhere."
Kurata and Akatsuka said they've uncovered the remains of five American soldiers during their work on Saipan, which began in 2011. Many of the Japanese bodies Kuentai discovers lack identification and can never be returned to their families, Kurata said, so he takes comfort in the fact that the group is able to bring individual soldiers of any nationality back home.
"What we are hoping is that all the soldiers who died (can) come back to their home," he said.
The two try to meet with all the families of the deceased American soldiers they find - an idea that was nerve-wracking at first, Akatsuka admitted.
"We didn't know what their reaction would be, if they would be angry," she said.
But families have received them with gratitude, she said. And in meeting with the relatives of another deceased veteran in Virginia, the two managed to make contact with Hart, who helped connect them with Carneal's family.
J.T. Carneal said that bringing his uncle home has proven a lengthy process. After Kuentai discovered the body, the nonprofit turned the remains over to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, which matched relatives' DNA to that of the remains. The positive results of that test didn't arrive until Dec. 4, but given the Heath ring, family members felt certain their relative had been found.
"That made us all elated," Carneal said.
William Carneal's remains have yet to arrive in Kentucky, but the family has already decided where he will be interred. The military gave relatives the option of burying Carneal in Arlington National Cemetery or a site of their choosing, and they unanimously decided to bury Carneal next to sister Ruth Anderson at Palestine Methodist Church in West Paducah.
Carneal, the youngest of 10 children, was raised in the Grahamville community of McCracken County. Parents Plummer Carneal and Johnnie Ella Hite Carneal passed away when he was young, so Anderson and her husband, L.O., helped to raise him.
Carneal, known to family as Teetum, joined the United States Army in 1941 and was sent to Hawaii in January 1942. His company in the 105th Infantry Regiment, 27th Infantry Division, was forced to withdraw from its position in Saipan when counterattacked by the enemy on July 7, 1944 - the same date he was reported missing in action. A year later, he was declared dead at the age of 24. He was awarded the Purple Heart Medal.
Relatives say the thought of bringing Carneal back to Kentucky after more than 70 years has given them a sense of closure. For some, the efforts of a Japanese organization to return the body of an American soldier hold a lesson of healing.
"I think as a people sharing the same planet, we learn lessons from history, and hopefully we all learn to go forward as friends," Lindley said.
Veterans and their advocates also find hope in Carneal's long journey home.
"When Teetum is brought home, a part of them (the missing) are all going to be brought home," Hart said.
Contact Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641, or follow @LaurelFBlack on Twitter.