If 70 years is a typical human lifespan, then the remains of a local soldier have waited more than one lifetime to return to their place of origin.
Originally from Altoona, David Defibaugh grew up in Carson Valley, went to war in Korea in 1950 at the age of 18, disappeared in July of the same year and was pronounced presumed dead in 1953.
In August, authorities confirmed the identity of his remains and informed surviving members of his extended family, which will allow for a local burial.
It will take place at 1 p.m. Friday at Rose Hill Cemetery, in a family plot where his parents are buried.
“Put Him In His Place” said David’s nephew, Don Defibaugh of Morrisons Cove, who has accepted responsibility for arranging the burial on behalf of David’s family.
“(His case) has been on our minds for years,” says Don, who was born two years before David died and doesn’t remember him. “My grandmother (David’s late mother, Alma) always wondered what happened.”
Alma used to get letters from the military after David disappeared, said Don, who lived in the same house.
A letter that arrived in 1951 asked Alma if she was willing to receive her son’s army assets, but warned her it was just for safekeeping, “pending final determination of his status.”
A letter dated December 31, 1953 establishes that “Final decision” one that would be verified 69 years later – more than three decades after Alma’s death:
“I regret the need for this message, but I hope that the end of a long period of uncertainty can bring at least a little consolation”, writes the adjutant general of the army.
“I hope you find lasting comfort in the realization that your loved one made the supreme sacrifice while honorably serving the cause of our country.”
David’s friend Gene Pletcher of Carson Valley, now 89, was one of four local young men who went with David to Harrisburg after receiving conscription notices.
Coming home, everyone was upset — Pletcher because he had been declared 4F due to a heart murmur from childhood rheumatoid arthritis, Defibaugh and the others because they had been inducted, Pletcher said.
They lived about half a mile apart and played local fields — baseball in the summer, using rocks for bases, and soccer in the fall, Pletcher said.
They went to the old elementary school in Carson Valley, a short walk from David’s house, and then to Hollidaysburg High School, where they took the bus, according to Pletcher.
Neither played formal sports in high school due to work responsibilities at home, Pletcher said.
As a teenager, David bought an old Chevy with wooden spokes and raced along the area’s dirt roads, Pletcher said.
The family had moved to Carson Valley after David’s first home on Juniata Gap Road, across from the Davis Road intersection, burned down, Don said.
David’s family lived with Don in Carson Valley, Don said.
David got along with everyone and never got in trouble, according to Pletcher.
“A guy with a good heart” well brought up, he said.
Service in Korea
Cpl. Defibaugh was a member of Company C, 3rd Engineer Combat Battalion, 24th Infantry Division, according to a press release from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, the organization dedicated to identifying the remains of unknown members.
He disappeared in action after his unit was forced to withdraw from the vicinity of Taejon, South Korea, on July 20, 1950, according to the DPAA.
He was reportedly killed by an explosion while in an armored personnel carrier with 29 soldiers on board, according to Don.
Due to the fighting, the army was unable to recover the body immediately, according to the DPAA.
When the army retook Taejon in the fall of 1950, it began to collect the remains, temporarily burying them at the United Nations military cemetery in Taejon, according to the DPAA.
Defibaugh’s remains were designated at the time “X-12 Taejon unknown.
Later, the Central Identification Unit in Kokura, Japan, carried out a thorough but unsuccessful analysis of the remains and declared them “unidentifiable” according to the DPAA.
The remains then went to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, the “Punch bowl”, in Honolulu, along with other unknown soldiers from Korea.
In 2018, the DPAA received permission to exhume the remains of the 652 unknown Koreans from the Punchbowl, so it could use modern technology to try to identify them, according to Veronica Keyes, a DPAA forensic anthropologist who spoke to the Mirror via Zoom from Hawaii.
The work of recovering the unknowns from the Korean War is being done in phases, based on a seven-year plan.
Defibaugh’s remains were among those exhumed during the second phase.
After the exhumation, there is a review of records from the previous unsuccessful analysis, according to Keyes.
This helps the organization to develop a test plan.
Findings by historians and DPAA researchers that he was one of 17 soldiers missing from the Taejon area in the mid to late 1950s have helped limit the scope of the search for the remains that have turned out to be those of Defibaugh.
Tests performed on the unknowns include comparisons of dental remains with army dental records, comparisons of x-rays of the remains with x-rays that had been taken by the army to check for tuberculosis; comparisons of information provided by the remains regarding old injuries such as broken bones, as well as height and age, with information obtained from family and previous records; and finally, comparisons between DNA obtained from the remains and DNA obtained from relatives of missing military personnel.
Defibaugh had dental records that were used for comparison, but there were no chest X-rays from his time in the military, Keyes said.
He also had a broken leg bone which helped with identification, according to Don Defibaugh.
The Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory at Dover Air Force Base was able to obtain DNA from a tooth and a femur that matched mitochondrial DNA provided by Defibaugh’s sister and niece, according to Keyes. and Don Defibaugh.
DNA Matches are not the unique, individualized matches that definitively identify someone, Keyes said.
Rather, they simply show whether someone shares certain aspects of genetic material with others, she said.
In Defibaugh’s case, DNA provided by his relatives also matched seven other sets of Korean War remains.
But the individuals represented by those seven other sets of remains were lost in other areas or at other times, Keyes said.
DNA from the remains buried at the Punchbowl is difficult to obtain because the formaldehyde powder applied to them when they were buried there degraded the genetic material – although it helped preserve the bones, Keyes said.
The Dover scientists, however, developed a method to obtain the codes, despite the degradation of formaldehyde, she said.
When a DPAA team working on a case believes they have made a match, they present it to a medical examiner who is responsible for the final decision, as well as other members of management, so that the whole group can review the case and ask questions and air concerns.
The team must show not only why the evidence points to a certain individual, but why it also cannot point to someone else, she said.
“In this case, there is no one else it could be”, said Keyes.
Bill Helsel, funeral director at the John K. Bolger Funeral Home in Martinsburg, which is handling arrangements, traveled to Pittsburgh on Monday to collect the remains of David Defibaugh, which had previously been transported from Hawaii to Texas.
“It was something emotional” not just for Helsel, but for his wife, Jennifer, who had accompanied him, and hearse driver Daniel Zedek, Helsel said.
A soldier stayed with the body the entire way and continued with them to Blair County, Helsel said.
“It was impressive to see our military being so respectful to someone who died so many years ago,” he said.
the nation is “put his money where his mouth is”, taking such care, Keyes said.
“We’ll come find you if you’re lost” she says. “(And) take you home.”
Such a commitment is important for active-duty service members, according to Keyes.
The effort not only honors the sacrifices made by those killed, but also the sacrifices made by their families, Keyes said.
Other countries have started to follow the DPAA’s lead, including South Korea, she said.
The Mirror’s staff writer, William Kibler, is at 814-949-7038.