After 63 years, Northampton family buries loved one killed in Korea
NORTHAMPTON — Sixty-three years ago, a Northampton family was stricken when news came from the Korean War front: Richard J. Archambeault, a 20-year-old son and brother to eight siblings, was missing in action.
The news was devastating not only to his family but also to many friends in his Market Street neighborhood, where he was known by his childhood nickname, T-boy.
After finding no trace of him for three years, the Army on Dec. 31, 1953, changed his status to presumed killed in action. His family placed a marker in St. Mary’s Cemetery for him, but their hope that he would turn up dwindled as time went on.
“All those years, you hope he’s just missing in action, you hope to hear something,” said Bernard Archambeault, 81, the only living sibling of Richard Archambeault.
About 10 years ago, the family learned through connections made in Internet POW forums that a soldier had seen Richard Archambeault killed in the Battle of Unsan. But they still didn’t have anyone to bury.
All that changed in April, when Bernard Archambeault got a call from the federal Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office. They had identified his brother’s remains from among sets of bones the North Korean government had sent to the states in the early 1990s. The key was DNA in blood samples that Bernard Archambeault and his late sister, Blanche St. Jean, had given in 2006.
“It’s really something how much the government has done to find him over all those years,” Bernard Archambeault said, emotion causing his voice to quaver over a phone line from his home in Salisbury, Maryland. Of all nine brothers and sisters, he and T-boy were very close because they were just three years apart. “He was a hero.”
Sixty-three years and seven months after his death, Richard Archambeault received a military funeral with full honors June 2 in a cemetery in Salisbury. Instead of Northampton, Bernard Archambeault chose to have him buried in Maryland so that he could be next to the grave of their oldest brother, Roland Archambeault.
There to honor him were family members who knew him, but more who had never met him. Richard Archambeault still has numerous relatives in western Massachusetts, though many of them have only heard stories of him told by his siblings or the nieces and nephews who knew him before he left for war at 18.
Among them is a grandnephew, William Winnie of Easthampton, who was astonished to hear that his granduncle was finally going to be buried.
“I thought it was great,” he said. “I’ve been thinking of him right along because my mother always talked about him.”
Winnie’s mother, Barbara Drury Winnie Watling of Maine, was one of Richard Archambeault’s oldest nieces. “She was about 10 years old when he left. He gave her a harmonica before he left and she still has it. She treasures it,” Winnie said.
He passed the news on to Steven Conner, director of veterans’ services for Northampton and nine other towns. Conner mentioned it at his Memorial Day address in Florence.
“Usually, we have the POW/MIA flag flying along with the American flag, and people say, ‘Isn’t that issue over now?’ Obviously, it’s not,” Conner said. “Sixty-four years later, they ID’d him — that’s why we still fly the flag.”
The Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office has been working to find out what became of approximately 83,000 Americans missing as a result wars going back to World War II. Matching DNA in relatives’ blood samples to remains is more efficient than the previous methods of identification the government used.
Conner said there has been a “steady stream” of remains being identified and buried in recent years.
“I guess it was Mr. Archambeault’s turn,” he said.
Bernard Archambeault’s son, Michael Archambeault of Granby, said he found out his uncle’s remains had been identified when a CD from the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office arrived at his house.
“It makes a difference, to go all those years and never know what happened, and then to get this CD,” he said. It included information about the remains and the battle that took his uncle’s life, as well as copies of the notification his grandmother received when her son was presumed dead.
“He was so young — he never really got to see life,” Michael Archambeault said. “He never got married, never made it through his 20s. I can’t imagine that. And all those young people were doing that. It wasn’t a choice like it is now.”
The U.S. Army posthumously awarded Richard Archambeault the Purple Heart, the United Nations Service Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Korean Service Medal, and several other medals and badges.
Michael Archambeault made the trip to Maryland to honor his uncle’s memory and to support Bernard Archambeault at the funeral. “They basically spent their whole lives together before he died and he always had praise for him,” he said.
The sequence of events that led to Richard Archambeault’s remains being identified started in Salisbury 10 years ago when Bernard Archambeault’s daughter, Northampton native Germaine Marshall, bought her son his first computer.
Andrew Marshall, then 13, had always heard his grandfather talk about Richard and started scouring the Internet for information about him. He learned what he could from government websites, then posted on a website based in Texas that sought to connect people looking for POW or MIA information.
Thanks to that website, he was able to present his grandfather with the phone number of a New York man who said he had served alongside Richard Archambeault. Bernard Archambeault — fairly skeptical — called the man and was shocked when he recited details about the Archambeault family. He even knew Bernard’s name.
“It was almost unbelievable,” he said. “He knew my brother so well because they had been buddies for two years over there.”
According to the New York man — Bernard Archambeault cannot recall his name — Richard Archambeault had been an instructor in a bazooka unit. They were both in Company L, 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division.
On the night of Nov. 1 and 2, 1950, the soldiers were overwhelmed by Chinese forces at the Battle of Unsan in present day North Korea.
“He saw a guy whose machine gun had jammed. He went over and grabbed it and right when he got it unjammed and firing, he got hit,” Bernard Archambeault said, adding he thinks he was hit by a bazooka shot.
“Up until I talked to the guy in New York, me and my brothers and sisters always felt, ‘Who knows? Maybe he is alive.’ You just don’t know,” he said. “I’m 81 years old, I’ve been to war, but I still broke down and cried.”
He called the government to tell them his brother was definitely dead. The government official he spoke to, as well as his persistent grandson, urged him to give a blood sample in the hopes that the DNA could help them identify the remains. He and his sister gave samples in 2006.
But life went on and the family did not think much about it until April, when the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office called Bernard Archambeault and told him his brother’s remains had been identified at a facility in Hawaii and were ready to come home.
“The very first person he called was my son,” Germaine Marshall said. “I don’t think anyone ever believed this would happen.”
Several government officials came to Bernard Archambeault’s home to show him photographs of the bones and explain the identification process. “I asked them how long it would have taken to identify the remains if I hadn’t given them DNA, and they said, ‘maybe never,’” he said.
Unfortunately, St. Jean, of Aiken, South Carolina, died March 28, days after the remains had been identified by the government but a few weeks before the family knew.
Bernard Archambeault said he hopes the story will encourage anyone with a relative who was missing or killed in action overseas to give a DNA sample. He also said his grandson’s Internet investigation yielded “miraculous” results. He had never imagined he could talk to someone who was with his brother when he died, he said.
“I think if people realize what my grandson did and got on the Internet, they might find someone who served with” their lost relative, he said. “It’s exciting.”
Marshall said she was surprised by the burial’s impact on the extended family. It has brought distant relatives together and reminded them of T-boy’s sacrifice.
“I thought I wouldn’t be as affected by this, but I find myself very emotional about it,” she said last week. “I think about the fact that he was 20 years old when he died. My father did so much in his life and Richard never got to do any of it.
“And my child helped bring this man home to his family,” she said. “I’m very proud of him.”
Rebecca Everett can be reached at email@example.com.