Friday marked the end of a 70-year journey for Pvt. First Class William T. Carneal, a World War II casualty whose remains were finally laid to rest in the western Kentucky county he called home.
Carneal's descendants gathered at noon for a memorial service at Lindsey Funeral Home in downtown Paducah. Family friends, about 50 members of the Patriot Guard Riders, county officials, representatives from local law enforcement and members of the Japanese non-governmental organization Kuentai made up the diverse crowd that turned out to honor the soldier.
"It is the most gracious act of patriotism we have seen in many, many years," Carneal's nephew J.T. Carneal told listeners at the memorial service.
The Carneals chose to hold the funeral on the day that William Carneal - affectionately known as "Teetum"- would have turned 94. They emphasized that Friday was a day of joy for the family.
"The grieving was over a long time ago, and this gives everyone in the family closure," said Carlton Carneal, the soldier's oldest nephew.
Along with a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and other medals, the soldier earned a place at Arlington National Cemetery. But the family thought it best to bury him next to his sister Ruth Anderson at Palestine United Methodist Church in West Paducah.
After the service, the community watched as the funeral procession took Carneal's casket to Palestine Cemetery, where he was interred with full military honors.
Carneal's final journey captured the attention of many. Visitors to the American Quilters Society's Quilt Week stopped on downtown Paducah's sidewalks to witness the procession. Students at McNabb Elementary waited outside to sing as the cortege drove by. And Gov. Steve Beshear directed that flags at all state office buildings be lowered to half-staff in Carneal's honor.
William Carneal, a 1939 graduate of Heath High School, was inducted into the U.S. Army in October of 1941 and was sent to Hawaii in January 1942. He served in the 105th Infantry Regiment, 27th Infantry Division. After a battle on the western Pacific island of Saipan in July of 1944, the infantryman was reported missing in action. A year later, he was declared dead at the age of 24.
The odds of finding their ancestor were stacked against the Carneals. 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.
Carneal would have stayed buried more than 6,000 miles from home were it not for the efforts of Kuentai, a nonprofit group that searches for the remains of Japanese soldiers. The group stumbled upon Carneal's remains, along with those of four other American soldiers, during an excavation in March 2013. The organization turned the remains over to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, which requested samples of DNA for identification purposes.
Even before they received the DNA test results last December, the Carneals felt certain their relative's body had been discovered. He was found with his dog tags and his Heath High School class ring - a possession he held dear, J.T. Carneal said, as he was the first of the family to graduate from high school.
Members of Kuentai met with the Carneal family in January and returned to Paducah this month for the funeral. The family joined them for breakfast Friday morning and thanked them publicly during the service that afternoon.
"We are eternally grateful," Carlton Carneal said.
Rev. Robert Saywell, who presided over the service, said the story of Carneal's journey home shows the importance of acting in the spirit of love and goodwill.
"The goal of war is victory, but victory does not achieve peace. Victory makes it possible for both sides to put goodwill into action," he said.
Contact Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641, or follow @LaurelFBlack on Twitter.