BOURNE – He grins out from under the brim of his US military cap — preserved forever mid-smile — looking off to his left, a handsome young man from Brighton who marched off to war in a cold, unforgiving, and faraway place.
And never returned.
At long last, the remains of Army First Lieutenant Thomas J. Redgate have come home, where his body was prayed for and incensed Friday morning at St. Ignatius Loyola Church in Chestnut Hill and, after a procession over the Cape Cod Canal, buried here at the Massachusetts National Cemetery.
“He’s finally getting the military honors and the welcome home he deserved,” said Kathleen Redgate, his niece, who lives in this Cape Cod town.
“It’s bittersweet,’’ agreed Andrew Redgate, Lieutenant Redgate’s nephew. “There are a couple of emotions. We’re able to bring closure, but it’s also sort of a celebration of sacrifice. And of a life not fully lived.’’
Just 24 years old when he was killed in combat during the battle of the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea in early December 1950, he had been reported as missing in action across the decades.
His remains were not recovered at that time. In 2018, a US and North Korea summit meeting led to the return of the remains of US service members who were lost at the Chosin Reservoir. Using modern forensic techniques, analysts were able to identify his remains.
“They turned over those 55 boxes and Uncle Tommy was in Box 25,” Andrew Redgate said. “You’d hear stories about teams going into North Korea and looking for remains. And every so often they’d come up with some remains and we always kept an interest.
“We thought: ‘Maybe they’ll find Uncle Tommy one day.’”
Uncle Tommy. That’s how they knew him. And they never forgot him.
Stories about him became part of their family’s history and lore.
“He loved life,” Kathleen Redgate told me the other day. “He wrote a letter home and he said he prayed the rosary to the troops. So, he kept his faith when he was serving his country and he shared it with his fellow troops.”
“His mother expected a knock on the door one day and for Tommy to walk in,” Andrew Redgate said.
But that never happened.
Instead, his name was recorded on the Courts of the Missing at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, there next to others missing from the Korean War.
And his memory became a beloved part of his family’s personal history.
“We knew Uncle Tommy went off to war and he never came home,” Andrew Redgate said. “We knew he was a hero and it was a tragedy.”
“We were proud of him,” Kathleen Redgate added. “Proud of how he served our country and was a hero. My father would say he didn’t have a fighting chance. It was just an ambush.’’
The 1950 battle involved some 15,000 allied ground troops. Most of them came from the First Marine Division and the Army’s Seventh Infantry Division.
Surrounded by some 120,000 Chinese, they suffered enormous casualties, including 3,000 deaths. Survivors had to fight their way out in a blizzard across 78 miles of unpaved roads.
A yellowed newspaper clipping noted that Redgate was missing in Korea, where he had arrived on Aug. 8, 1950.
In a letter home in mid-November 1950, he provided details of his life in a war zone, chronicled in a careful ink pen script that has become a precious family heirloom.
“As you know I spent a lot of time on a boat,’’ he wrote. “(We) came ashore on LSTs and since then have been doing nothing but moving all over the country. All we do is go into an area and set up and send a few men out to look the place over and if we cannot find anything we move on to someplace else. The only thing wrong with the whole set up is the cold, and the living out in it.”
In one letter, he signed off this way: “Give my love to everyone, Tommy.”
Now that love is being returned by the family who never forgot him. His family gathered on Friday to pay long-overdue last respects.
“He gave the ultimate sacrifice and my family feels that acutely,” said Peter Bloniarz, a nephew, who remembers the photograph his mother kept on her bedroom bureau of her youngest sibling.
“He disappeared in early December 1950 and that cast a pall over Christmas every year,” Bloniarz told me. “My mother would have a Mass for both my grandmother who lived with us at the end of her life and they would have a Mass remembering Tommy. He was always present with us.”
The identification was accomplished by using DNA from family members to compare with DNA from two of Lieutenant Redgate’s remaining bones.
“It’s like finding a needle in a haystack the way they break down the DNA,” Kathleen Redgate said. “It was like a process of elimination and they were able to pair it with our father and it was an exact match.”
“I was stunned,” said Andrew Redgate. “I got off the phone and I’m like, ‘Huh? What?’ And I had to step outside. I was speechless. It took a little while to process what had happened.”
So on a gray morning it was time for a proper farewell for the young man from Brighton, who was a well-liked student at Brighton High School, a member of St. Columbkille’s Church, and who attended social events at St. Gabriel’s Monastery.
He entered the freshman class in the College of Business Administration at Boston College in 1946. He studied at BC for two years before enlisting in the US Army in late November 1948.
At his funeral Mass Friday at the spectacular church of wood and stone and stained glass, there were solemn prayers, words of remembrance, and biblical readings including one that read: “I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.’'
“There’s so much we take for granted because of people like him,” Andrew Redgate said. “You have 25 million people in South Korea, in the Republic of Korea who are now leading normal lives because of the sacrifice of thousands, including Uncle Tommy.”
He was buried with full honors at the Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne.
“This is not just our story,” Andrew said. “It’s the story of a thousand of other families who are still waiting for the next box.”
At the Massachusetts National Cemetery, his flag-draped casket was carried by a ramrod-straight honor guard, servicemen and servicewomen who saluted First Lieutenant Redgate under a leaden September sky.
There were volleys of rifle fire and then the mournful strains of Taps.
The six-member honor guard, wearing black face masks in the face of a pandemic, folded the Stars and Stripes into a crisp triangle and presented it to the family.
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.