Finally, a WWII POW is home to rest in Illinois — after 73 years
CHICAGO — U.S. Army Private Arthur Herman “Buddy” Kelder was laid to rest in his final resting place July 18 in a family plot at Union Ridge Cemetery at the northwest side of this city.
Members of the Patriot Guard, an honor guard of war veterans, escorted the funeral procession in their signature motorcycles festooned with patriotic colors. Surviving relatives from all over the U.S. came for the funeral.
With specific instruction from next of kin, no members of the U.S. military were allowed to be part of the ceremony — for a good reason. More of this later.
Pvt. Kelder would have been 99 years old last June 18. Meanwhile, rewind to 73 years earlier back in the Philippines.
U.S. Army Private Arthur Herman “Buddy” Kelder died of diphtheria, pellagra (severe malnutrition) and malaria on November 19, 1942 in a Japanese prison camp in Cabanatuan, Nueva Ecija. He was buried in a common grave No. 717 along with 13 American soldiers who presumably perished on that same day. He was 26 years old.
The army sent Kelder to serve with U.S. Armed Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) in Manila shortly before America declared war against Japan in December 1941. He was an ambulance driver assigned in an army hospital.
He later became part of the Second Hospital Corps that set up 7,000 beds in the jungles of the Bataan peninsula where USAFFE held on for almost four months after Philippine Commonwealth President Manuel L. Quezon declared Manila an “Open City” in December 1941.
Bataan Death March
On April 9, 1942, Bataan fell to Japanese hands. No fewer than 76,000 and American Filipino troops were forced into what is now known as the “Bataan Death March,” and only 54,000 made it to Camp O’Donnell in Capas, Tarlac. About 10,000 died on the march and the rest escaped.
There were more casualties in the six-day, 60-mile journey than in the four-month period the troops defended Bataan and Corregidor from complete Japanese takeover.
Pvt. Kelder who was assigned as a driver by the Japanese survived the death march only to be transferred from Capas to Cabanatuan with the rest of the surviving American soldiers. During the first year alone at Cabanatuan prison camp, 2,644 prisoners died from malaria, dysentery, pellagra and other tropical diseases. One of the casualties was Pvt. Kelder.
A few years after Filipino guerrillas and U.S. liberation forces rescued 513 surviving Allied POWs of the Cabanatuan prison camp from a planned massacre by the retreating Japanese soldiers, dead POWs were disinterred including those of common grave No. 717 where Pvt. Kelder’s remains were buried.
Of the 14 soldiers in that grave, four were identified and 10 were reinterred individually at the American Military Cemetery at Fort McKinley (now Fort Bonifacio) in Makati, just south of Manila.
Although the names of the 10 are known, the remains couldn’t be positively identified individually. Pvt. Kelder’s grave was marked with a white cross no. A-12-195 with an inscription, “Here rests in honored glory, a comrade in arms, known only to God.”
John Eakins, a cousin of Pvt. Kelder, and a Texas resident only remembers the departed soldier with his photo hanging in their home in Chicago. As a boy, Eakins recalled his teary-eyed grand uncle, Herman Sr., telling him about their failure to get the remains of his son from the Philippines.
Eakins would also get access to the Kelders’ voluminous family throve of clippings and letters from their son, their many letters to the U.S. Army dating back to Jan. 1, 1946 asking for the return of their son’s remains, the military’s correspondences with the family, stating Pvt. Kelder was a POW, a July 22, 1943 letter informing them of their son’s death and a letter in 1949 stating with finality that Pvt. Kelder’s remains were unrecoverable.
In 2009, Eakins availed himself of the army’s declassified war documents including those meticulously recorded by the U.S. POWs in Cabanatuan. From the National Archives came a 35-page file on Pvt. Kelders. Eakins discovered that the U.S. Military knew all along where his cousin was buried.
His protracted fight to get the remains disinterred and positively identified got into a maze of bureaucratic denials and delays. Eakins got help from sympathetic media like CBS and FOX News and National Public Radio. Thanks to the Pvt. Elder case, these news organizations did in-depth stories about the sad plight of thousands of families caught in the web of slow-moving military personnel responsible for recovery and identification of some 83,000 missing-in-action soldiers from World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War.
J-PAC or the Joint Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command has an annual budget of $100 Million, but barely 150 MIAs are identified and returned to their families yearly for proper burial. Critics find their process outmoded. It still has to use modern forensic methods. (Advocates want to share the information they have collected on WWII MIA’s and encourage other MIA families to contact us at [email protected])
There are 35,000 WWII MIAs, and critics pointed out that blood relatives of these soldiers are dying, and crucial DNA samples are increasingly unobtainable. In the case of Pvt. Kelder, Eakins provided the necessary evidences to make the identification easier for the military.
A dental chart showing the work done by Pvt. Kelder’s brother who was a practicing dentist at that time, blood samples from both sides of the Kelder family and even a letter envelope licked by Pvt. Kelder were submitted. Still, for five long years the J-PAC hemmed and hawed.
Then, Eakins sued the Department of National Defense in 2013. Only then did discoveries of more documents pertaining to Pvt. Eakins came to light. Expert witnesses testified that positive identification of the remains of Pvt. Kelder was possible. The military finally relented.
The vault containing the remains of Buddy Kelder was exhumed after 70 years of being marked as unknown. The long journey home to Norwood Park in Chicago, where Kelder once lived and once wrote about returning to in his letters in 1941, finally came to an end on July 17, 2015—74 years after he left for the Philippines.
In a memorial service at M.J. Suerth Funeral Home on July 18, veteran and U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (Rep, Illinois.) brought in the long-overdue Bronze and Purple Heart medals that Pvt. Kelder earned. As earlier noted, no member of the military was invited.
Later that day at the Union Ridge Cemetery, Deputy Consul Romulo Israel and Cultural Attaché Liezl Alcantara of the Philippine Consulate General in Chicago came with four medals in recognition of Pvt. Kelder’s distinguished service to the Filipino people. These were handed to Douglas Kelder, a nephew, and member of the Patriot Honor Guard.
Finally, Pvt. Arthur “Buddy” Kelder was interred in the family crypt where his parents, Herman and Julia Kelder, and his brother, Dr. Herman Kelder, were also laid to rest. No taps and no gun salute—just a closure to bring home a fallen soldier.
A local writer, Anne Lunde, who followed the Kelder story for these past years for a local neighborhood paper, wrote that Pvt. Kelder’s “coming home” was a fitting memorial as the U.S. marks the forthcoming 70th year anniversary of the Japanese surrender on August 15, 1945.
(Highly recommended reading: Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission [Doubleday, 2001] is a non-fiction book written by Hampton Sides. It is about on the World War II Allied prison camp raid at Cabanatuan in the Philippines in 1945.)
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