Remains of Hampton man killed in Korean War to be brought home

Army Sgt. Willie Rowe, 22, of Hampton, Virginia. Credit: U.S. Department of Defense.

HAMPTON, Va. (WAVY) — A Hampton man killed in the Korean war has finally been accounted for and will be laid to rest this month, the Department of Defense says.

Army Sgt. Willie Rowe, 22, fought in Korea in 1950. His family says he joined the Army after he was unable to find steady work on the Peninsula after graduating from a Hampton high school.

His nephew Charles McKeller, then just five years old, remembers seeing him off.

“I remember him getting in the taxi cab and my grandmother took me out there and he said, ‘Buddy, you take care of grandma,'” McKeller told 10 On Your Side.

Just a few months later, McKeller’s grandmother received a telegram from the Army telling her her son was considered missing in action.

“She never gave up hope that he was deceased or anything. She always thought that he would be back home,” explained Yvonne Perry, one of Willie Rowe’s nieces.

But four years later, a letter came in the mail from the War Department, telling the Rowes that Willie was dead. They stated the date of death as January 20, 1951. The letter said he likely died of pneumonia and starvation at a prison camp, citing testimony from others who were imprisoned.

“He went over there for conflict thinking he was coming back, and never did,” Perry said.

Because his remains were never found, Perry’s grandmother kept hope her baby boy would come home.

“She would sit there and look out the window, wonder where her son is.”

Twenty-three years ago, Yvonne Perry’s daughter began her quest for information. She answered an advertisement in the paper asking for families of Korean POW/MIA soldiers to come forward.

But it wasn’t until 2005 that archaeologists uncovered American remains in a North Korean ditch. Rowe’s family says the military told them the ditch was not the site of the POW camp. The remains had likely been moved at least twice. Bones of several soldiers were recovered and taken to a facility in Hawaii.

In the early 2000s, Rowe’s relatives submitted DNA swabs. Just this year, the family got word DNA samples they provided matched three bones.

They finally fulfilled that promise five-year-old McKeller made to his uncle — to take care of his grandmother.

“She never gave up hope. By finding the remains, I know she’s just praising God in heaven that he’s there.”

The Department of Defense says more than 7,700 Americans remain unaccounted for from the Korean War.

Rowe’s family is encouraging loved ones to continue pushing for answers.

Rowe’s remains will be buried next Tuesday at Arlington National Cemetery.