Kellett buried with honors


October 7, 2019

Tom LaVenture/Daily Globe A member of the Michigan National Guard Military Funeral Honors Team presents a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart to Pat Werner, of Melrose Park, Ill., at Ironwood's Riverside Cemetery on Saturday, where her late brother Walter Kellett, was buried 77 years after dying in a prisoner of war camp in the Philippines during World War II. Kellett was posthumously awarded the medals and was buried in the family plot with full military honors.

IRONWOOD - Walter Kellett is now at eternal rest in the family plot at Riverside Cemetery in Ironwood.

The 12,500-mile journey came 77 years after military historians say Kellett died at the Cabanatuan Prisoner of War Camp in the Philippines on July 19, 1942. The last mile of his journey was a drizzly cool morning drive in a funeral coach from the McKevitt-Patrick Funeral Home to the cemetery, where people gathered along the route to pay respects.

The hearse entered the cemetery gate underneath an American flag hoisted between two fire trucks with ladders extended. The procession went to the rear of the cemetery where members of the Michigan National Guard Military Funeral Honors Team waited to provide full military honors.

The rain did not prevent Dan and Dawne Peterson, of Bessemer, from waiting with flags to watch the procession go into the cemetery gates.

"This is a little bit of bad weather, but that guy went through a hell of a lot more than that," Dan Peterson said.

The technology finally caught up to bring these people home, he said. The Bataan death march, the sacrifices of those soldiers and the commitment of the nation to never give up on these guys is what brought them out, he said.

"It's about being a citizen of these United States and being admirable to all these people who put forth these efforts," he said.

During a memorial service at the funeral home the Rev. Paul Heykes said pastors know they will be called upon to perform ministerial services they had not learned about in the seminary. When he was ordained in 1986 the idea of identifying someone long dead through DNA profiling was not possible.

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The church and the military both recognize the importance of closure and both have powerful rituals to declare it, Heykes said. The church has a funeral service to provide comfort with the gospel proclamation that the deceased is commended into the eternal care of the Lord, he said. The military has the final ceremony with the presentation of the flag and the sound of the bugle playing "Taps."

"We rejoice that surviving families and loved ones will finally experience a sense of closure knowing that, like Walter, their loved one is finally at home, and at rest," Heykes said. "Today, we experience this closure and although it brings Walter's earthly story to an end, we know that it also marks a beginning that happened for Walter 77 years ago, and that will one day happen for all of us as well."

A funeral homily ordinarily addresses the strong grief that loved ones feel, which is very deep and painful, as most funerals occur days after someone dies, he said. With Kellett, the immediate grief came in the days after he was declared missing and presumed dead, with a service performed years ago in Ironwood, he said.

"A lot of us here today were either too young to understand or not even born yet when he died," Heykes said. "But despite this, something important has been missing all these 77 years and that is what we call closure. Closure comes when we finally know that all of the loose ends have been tied up and when we ritually recognize this."

Ethan Puisto sang for the ceremony accompanied by Holly Kluhsman.

Members of Ironwood American Legion Post 5 Honor Guard all saluted Kellett's coffin, one by one. They formed an honor guard together with members of Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, and Vietnam Veterans of America posts from surrounding cities in Michigan and Wisconsin.

"This is different, of course," said Arvid Sivula, treasurer of the VVA. "Most of the time it's a local guy who's been in the community for years and years and then he passes away. But he's a veteran. We always honor the fallen."

Kellett was raised in Ironwood and enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. He was stationed in the Philippines in 1941, when the Imperial Japanese Army cut off the island chain and allied units surrendered in spring of 1942 after months of heavy fighting.

Kellett was 22 years old when reportedly died of malaria and starvation after the infamous Bataan death march of more than 60 miles. As many as 650 American soldiers and 18,000 Filipino soldiers died along the way.

Kellett remains along with those of other soldiers were disinterred by the military following the war but remained unidentifiable until a DNA match was made with the family on July 23, 2019.

There were family at the cemetery from all around the country, said U.S. Army Col. Deborah Olson (Ret.), who was present with her husband, Lt. Col. Rick Read (Ret.). Olson is a niece of Kellett who was raised in Ironwood.

"This is a huge event that has become a family reunion of sorts," Olson said. "It's really brought everyone together as there are families here who haven't seen one another for 30 to 40 or more years."

Olson grew up next door to Walter Kellett's, father, also named Walter, who she said was the Ironwood fire chief in the 1950s and 1960s. She knew his entire family but said she never heard many stories about Walter missing in action, as she was young and the perhaps the family just didn't want to talk about it, she said.

Pat Werner, now 89, and the surviving sibling of Kellett, was just 10-years-old when he went off to war and was just 12 when he was declared missing, she said. There were at least 10 men in the family who went off to fight in World War II and Walter didn't come back, she said.

"We just grew up knowing he died and we didn't expect that he would be returned and so this was wonderful news," Olson said. "We are honored to be here."

Michigan Patriot Guard Riders members Sharon Skjolaas and Nancy Gage were present to hold flags during the graveside service and honors ceremony. Gage, the Upper Peninsula ride captain, said it's amazing what the military can do to identify someone and give closure to the family.

"It's just an honor and to be able to do this two years in a row with a World War II returning last year in Baraga last year," she said.

The Michigan National Guard Military Funeral Honors Team performed the graveside ceremony. Several flags were presented to surviving relatives of Kellett.

Pat Werner, Kellett's sister from Melrose Park, Ill., was presented with a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart that Kellett was posthumously awarded. The team also presented a rifle squad and a bugler to play "Taps."

Tom LaVenture / Daily Globe Members of the Michigan National Guard Military Funeral Honors Team fold the flag that had draped the coffin of World War II soldier Walter Kellett, to present to family at Riverside Cemetery on Saturday, where the recently identified POW/MIA was buried in the family plot with full military honors.


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