LEOMINSTER – Private First Class Norman Dufresne returned home to a hero’s welcome Wednesday, 63 years after he left this working-class city and his 11 siblings for South Korea.
His close, Franco-American family never saw him again, Dufresne’s fate relegated simply to “missing in action” during the first, fierce weeks of the Korean War. But his mother, seeking hope where none seemed to exist, said the Rosary every night and looked out the window for a glimpse of her 20-year-old boy.
On Wednesday, after painstaking forensic work, the long-lost private returned to Massachusetts in a flag-shrouded coffin, an impeccably tailored uniform and medals covering his skeletal remains.
“They always say we leave no solider behind,” said Claire Weber, 81, Dufresne’s only surviving sibling, as she awaited the arrival of her brother’s remains at Logan Airport. “After all this time, it’s unbelievable.”
Minutes after Weber spoke, a seven-member honor guard lifted Dufresne’s casket from the belly of a commercial Delta Air Lines flight from Atlanta and into a waiting hearse.
‘They always say we leave no soldier behind. After all this time, it’s unbelievable. . . . I can’t describe this. I’m joyful, sad but glad.’
Weber, warmed by a black shawl, wiped away tears as an Army sergeant major held her arm. State Police cruisers, lights flashing, then led a procession of nearly two dozen relatives, under highway bridges lined with saluting police and firefighters, to the French Hill neighborhood where Dufresne was raised.
In Leominster, where flags had been lowered to half-staff, hundreds of townspeople lined the streets from Route 2 to the Simard Funeral Home to pay their respects. A bank billboard flashed a digital message: “Welcome Home, Pfc. Dufresne.”
“He was just a small-town boy,” said Norman Membrino of Lunenburg, who was born the year after his uncle, for whom he is named, disappeared near the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.
“We’ve had a lot of tragedy in the family, but this is one of the rewards,” Membrino said.
Until September, Dufresne had been only a number in the vast Punch Bowl military cemetery in Honolulu. No name and no visitors, either, to a grave containing only pieces of skeletal remains that frustrated the best efforts of investigators to link them to a fallen warrior.
This summer, however, a small clue emerged from teeth belonging to one group of remains, whose identity had been narrowed to three possible soldiers.
Finally, Army officials said, more tests led to conclusive evidence that linked those bones to Dufresne.
On Sept. 19, his sister received the unexpected, overwhelming news that Norman Dufresne, at long last, had been accounted for.
“I can’t describe this,” Weber said. “I’m joyful, sad but glad.”
After Dufresne’s coffin had been laid in the hearse, Weber leaned in and gently touched the flag atop the box that held her brother.
Airport ground crews stopped their work, hands folded in front, and silently watched a procession of cousins, nephews, and nieces walk by the hearse’s open rear door.
“This is a dream come true for the family,” said Mayor Dean Mazzarella of Leominster.
Sergeant Major Pamela Duggan, assigned to comfort and accompany Weber, said she had never been involved with repatriation of remains from the Korean War, a bitter conflict that did not receive the public attention granted to World War II or the Vietnam War.
“I get chills to bring him home,” said Duggan, who is stationed in Fort Sheridan, Ill.
Dufresne joined the Army in 1948, the same year he graduated from the former Saxton Trade School in Leominster. He was discharged in January 1950 but reenlisted that May because he believed he might be assigned to West Germany, where another brother in the military was stationed.
Instead, as tensions mounted between North and South Korea, Dufresne found himself in a country that would be at war almost immediately.
Although Dufresne fell in battle, Duggan said, she had no other details of his death. The soldier’s nephew, Al Guilmette, said his body appeared to have been riddled by machine-gun fire.
The Army officially labeled Dufresne “presumed dead” on Dec. 31, 1953.
The city of Leominster is welcoming Dufresne with an array of pageantry and tributes. In addition to Wednesday’s motorcade, a ceremony is scheduled for Thursday at the Leominster Veterans Center, where a white cross that symbolized Dufresne’s “missing” status will be retired.
On Friday, visitation hours will be held from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at City Hall. On Saturday, a funeral Mass will be said at St. Cecilia Church, which Dufresne attended as a child, followed by burial with full military honors.
After the services and ceremonies, Weber will return home to Lake Zurich, Ill. She visits Leominster every year, however, and said the city “will always be my home.”
For her brother — “as handsome as can be” — the city now will always be his home, too. That is a scenario she rarely thought possible in the many years, stretching into decades, during which her parents died and then all of her other siblings.
“We were a happy-go-lucky family that lived in French Hill,” Weber said. “I’ve had quite a life.”
And now, the unknown about Norman, the kid who reenlisted so he might serve near a brother, has been answered.
“He would never have believed this,” Weber said at the airport, absorbing all the precise, solemn ritual surrounding her brother’s return.
“He comes home to a well-deserved rest.”