‘Uncle Berton is home’: Remains of Kentucky WWII soldier identified after 75 years

Kentucky

MCKEE, Ky. (FOX 56) – The family of a missing Kentucky soldier finally has closure after spending more than 75 years searching for answers.

Genevieve Palm and Berton Griffin are celebrating the return of their uncle, Army Pfc. Berton McQueen, after he went missing and was never recovered during World War II.

Griffin, who was named after his uncle, still has distant memories of his “Uncle Berton.” The story begins with a handmade knife.

“When war broke out, he was made out of pretty tough stuff,” Griffin said. “He said the Germans are trying to take over, and we’ve got to stop them, we can’t allow that. And he went out to Pa’s blacksmith shop.”

McQueen’s father was a blacksmith by trade. He forged himself a dagger or as “Uncle Berton” referred to it a “dirk” knife, but it didn’t take him far.

“He thought he could go to the Army and just take his own knife with him, and he come back, and he was very disappointed. He said, ‘Ma they won’t let me take my knife.’ He said, ‘they’ve got better equipment,’” Griffin said. Unfortunately, the knife was lost to time. McQueen entered the Army in April 1943 before leaving for Europe that November.

“The last time I seen ’Uncle Berton,’ he was out of basic training, and I looked up the road, and I must’ve been – I don’t know if I was 10 years old or what, you know it was a long time ago. But I remember ‘Uncle Berton’ come running. He’d just come out of basic training, and I’d never seen anyone run like that before,” Griffin continued.

“He said, ‘I thought if I run hard and get here quicker I could stay a little bit longer but said I can’t stay long as it is, there’s a bus waiting on me. We’re getting ready to ship out.’ He went back the same way, in a long stride, military-style. And I’d never seen that before, and I was so impressed with my ‘Uncle Berton,’ and I loved him,” Griffin said.

That was the last time McQueen’s family would see him on Kentucky soil, but he kept in constant contact, writing over 100 letters home in the year he spent overseas.

McQueen was wounded twice before the battle that killed him. The first injury happened in February 1944 in Italy during the Battle of Cassino. The second happened in August 1944 during Operation Dragoon in France. Despite both injuries, McQueen continued to fight.

“Grandma got a letter that he had been wounded, and he could come home, but he says I can’t leave my buddies to fight the war without me. He said we come over here to do a job and this jobs not finished. He had that kind of determination, I was proud of him, very proud of him,” Griffin shared.

On Nov. 23, 1944, Berton McQueen was killed in action fighting in the Vosges Mountains. McQueen was wounded late at night on Nov. 22, 1944, and later carried to an aid station, a French farm. McQueen died the following morning at 4 a.m.

An eyewitness account from someone who assisted the aid-men helped the military pin down an exact date of death, but none of them knew the identity of the fallen soldier before them.

Genevieve Palm was born 10 years after McQueen’s death. Despite never knowing him, she has spent years cataloging her family’s history and continuing the search for answers begun by her late mother and grandmother who died without ever knowing what happened to McQueen.

“At the time that he was wounded and the Germans put up a fierce fight there at that same moment. And they were ordered–his unit, the 36th infantry division–was ordered to withdraw to another area. And after they returned, they could not find him,” Palm said.

For years, McQueen’s body remained buried in a garden at the same French farm where he died. Palm said her grandmother, McQueen’s mother, continued sending letters to the military describing his features in hopes one day McQueen’s body could be found and identified. Unfortunately, McQueen’s description was too similar to other missing soldiers to identify him conclusively.    

“The grave registration service had been told that there was an American soldier buried in the garden, and they did recover him but was unable to identify him. And so they took him and buried him in Normandy,” Palm said.

In 2017, Palm, Griffin, and their older sister were contacted by the military about the possibility of identifying McQueen’s remains.

“And I really thought it was another scam,” Palm said. “Because on older people, there are so many scams out there, and I was very skeptical of that. So I called the person that contacted them, and I still didn’t believe it. I called Fort Knox, I called the casualty department at Fort Knox and spoke with the lady there and found out it really was true. And they had just started everything rolling. And they sent DNA kits, and we did the DNA testing. And then we’re hoping and afraid to hope.”

On July 9, 2021, McQueen’s remains were finally identified. Fast-forward to October and the preparations were set to welcome McQueen home with pomp and circumstance.

“Just standing there on the tarmac and waiting for the plane, it just did not feel real,” Palm said. “And I still wake up every day and remind myself ‘Uncle Berton’ is home.”

On Oct. 16, 2021, McQueen was laid to rest in a family plot at Wind Cave Cemetery in Jackson County.

FOX 56 reporter Bode Brooks will have the full story at 6 p.m. on Nov. 11 in honor of Veterans Day.

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