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Former MIA soldier to be buried in Corinth


By Jebb Johnston


Joyce Tanner would never forget the missing soldier's face.

Army Sgt. Julius Ellis McKinney, her uncle, went missing on Dec. 2, 1950, at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War. The family had one photo of the young man in uniform, and her mother made copies of the black-and-white portrait for her sibling.

"My mother made sure all of those sisters had a picture of their brother so they didn't forget," said Tanner. "She framed hers, and it sat in our living room until she died in 2006. I grew up seeing that, and it's printed indelibly in my mind."

After 67 years of not knowing his fate, family members of McKinney will finally have an opportunity to say goodbye.

The family learned in March that DNA testing, combined with other evidence, confirmed bones recovered from North Korea are those of McKinney, who will be laid to rest with military honors at Corinth National Cemetery on June 8 following a funeral service at Magnolia Funeral Home.

"It's bittersweet," said Corinth area resident Bill Huff, whose mother was a sister of McKinney. "I hate the way that he got killed and the suffering that he did and the suffering of the rest of the family, but, in a way, it's a good feeling that it's going to be closed now."

Although McKinney never lived in Corinth, he has relatives buried here, including Huff's mother, Mary Etta Wayne.

Huff said McKinney was among the soldiers who went into the war zone as the allies tried to hold on to the Pusan Perimeter. He served in the Heavy Mortar Company, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division. Approximately 2,500 U.S. and 700 South Korean soldiers assembled into the 31st Regimental Combat Team, which was deployed east of the Chosin Reservoir.

In bitterly cold conditions -- as low as 35 below zero -- he was among those attacked by about 120,000 Chinese troops at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. As of Dec. 2, 1950, McKinney was missing at the age of 23.

In January 1956, the U.S. Army declared him "non-recoverable" due to the prolonged lack of evidence, according to the Department of Defense.

"For a long time, we thought he may be held in a POW camp," said Tanner, who lives in Lakeland, Florida.

Not knowing was tough for those back home.

"My aunts really went through a lot of anguish worrying about him, because they knew it was cold," said Huff. "Aunt Effie said she read articles about our troops starving over there in those POW camps, and she said that she couldn't take a bite of food the rest of her life without thinking that he was probably hungry."

Born in Brilliant, Alabama, McKinney moved at age seven with his parents to Clay County, Arkansas. McKinney tried to enlist in the U.S. Army at the end of World War II but was rejected because of a hernia. He later joined at 21 and had assignments to Ft. Benning, Georgia, and Camp Stoneman, California, before he was deployed to North Korea.

Tanner has fond memories of "Uncle Junior."

"He would get out there and play ball with us like he was one of the kids," she said. "He used to play a guitar and would sing."

Tanner's family lived in Birmingham, Albama, while McKinney was at Ft. Benning.

"He didn't have a car in those days and he would hitchhike to Birmingham," she said.

His last visit, she recalled, was about three weeks before he went overseas.

On Jan. 29, 1951, the family received an official MIA telegram from the military. McKinney was awarded the Purple Heart, Combat Infantryman's Badge, Korean Service Medal, United Nations Medal and National Defense Service Medal.

Tanner remembers searches for information with her mother and hearing stories from returning soldiers.

"A lot of his buddies that joined at the same time, some of them were coming home, and they would have stories of when they last saw him," she said.

In 1954, after the conflict, there was an exchange of war dead between the U.S. and North Korea. Huff said it was determined through comparisons of military and medical records that McKinney was not among them.

Family members were kept updated in periodic meetings with Army officials.

"Every time we go to one of those meetings, it's like it reopens the wounds," said Tanner. "You keep thinking, 'What if?'"

Huff is the family member who most recently served as the Army's point of contact regarding McKinney.

After several years of seeking information, "I hadn't lost hope, but I kind of lost track of where to look for any clues," he said.

In September 2004, the U.S. Army investigated burial sites on the east side of the Chosin Reservoir, and the remains of at least five individuals were taken to the Central Identification Laboratory in Honolulu. Around that time, the military asked family members to give blood samples for DNA testing. Tanner, Huff and his mother responded.

For Huff, the burial of McKinney will mean it's time to get a new cap. He has worn a POW/MIA cap in honor of McKinney for the last 15 years, and he has been given permission to place it with the soldier's remains.

The Army has encouraged Huff to continue telling McKinney's story, because there are other families who could benefit from DNA testing. Americans who are still unaccounted for from the Korean War number 7,702, according to the Department of Defense.

It is important "not to give up and to give DNA," said Huff, who was 11 years old when his uncle went missing. "If you are the third or fourth generation down, that doesn't matter. They can still trace it."

McKinney's remains are scheduled to arrive in Memphis Wednesday morning. Tanner plans to be among the survivors there to witness his return as plane-side honors are conducted before a convoy, including a Patriot Guard, escorts the hearse to Corinth.

"I's just been heart-wrenching really to think about what could have happened and what maybe did happen to him," she said. "It's been somewhat of a relief to know that we at least have some closure."

Services for Julius E. McKinney

Visitation: Thursday, 6 to 9 p.m., Magnolia Funeral Home

Funeral service: Friday, 11 a.m., Magnolia Funeral Home

Burial service: Friday, 1 p.m., Corinth National Cemetery