Today was an incredible day – one I’ve been working towards and looking forward to for more than a year. One that Robert Vernon Estes earned more than 70 years ago.
Robert was a POW, captured in Korea on November 30, 1950.
Bobby is still MIA since he was never officially reported as either captured or known dead through official channels and his body was never returned.
He was declared dead, however, in 1954 after a fellow POW after release reported that Robert had died sometime around January 31, 1951.
This military photo in the Monticello paper is the only known photo of Bobby and we wouldn’t have that were it not for an incredibly tenacious volunteer at the White County Historical Society. I can’t thank her enough.
Our family has dispersed to the wind. Bobby is my father’s brother’s child. Bobby’s parents divorced as did my parents. I knew Bobby had died in the military, but had no details. Bobby’s father was involved in some type of accident that caused brain damage.
Bobby’s mother died before he was declared dead. I don’t know what happened to his step-father. Bobby’s brother went his own way and a generation or two later, the family had scattered to the winds.
Bobby died at 19, never married and had no children.
Seventy years later, I am Bobby’s closest remaining family member and as such, was the Gold Star Family representative at today’s memorial service. I think officially Gold Star family members are limited to immediate family – but my invitation addressed me as a Gold Star family member and I filled in for others now deceased.
I’m honored to represent Bobby, the first cousin I never knew, but who I’m named after.
I have written about Robert Vernon Estes twice.
- Robert Vernon Estes (193101951: Nightmare – Prisoner of War
- Robert Vernon Estes (1931-1951): MIA, POW, Military Records
Indiana War Memorial Foundation
The Indiana War Memorial Foundation had planned to honor Indiana’s Korean War MIAs in 2020, but had to postpone the event until this summer.
Today dawned hot and humid – a typical Indiana summer day with the exception of the high level smoke that made the atmosphere hazy in addition to hot and humid. The one blessing is that there was at least a hint of a breeze.
The Soldiers and Sailors Monument
The Soldier and Sailors Monument, dedicated in 1902 sits dead center in the middle of Indianapolis, dead center in the middle of Indiana.
Bricks, many engraved with the names of veterans, pave the circular street and sidewalks surround the towering monument.
As I turned the corner to hunt for a parking garage, the monument loomed above the city in front of me. You can’t miss it.
The streets were blocked today and families, having traveled from from all over the country were instructed to arrive early.
The ceremony would begin at 10.
I noticed the man on the motorcycle and thought to myself that he must be awfully hot.
After parking and walking the couple blocks to the circle, I discovered why the bike was present.
Rolling Thunder is an advocacy group of bikers who are veterans founded in 1995. Their membership is committed to accounting for all POW and MIA soldiers from all wars.
You may remember Rolling Thunder to the Wall in Washington DC in 2010 and the blessing of the bikes.
The last Washington DC ride took place in 2019, but the local and state chapters are still extremely active in their support and advocacy.
I walked straight up to these men and thanked them for both their service and for joining us today. One veteran reminded me of my brother, and it was all I could do to keep my voice from cracking and try not to stare.
We will see these guys a bit later:)
As each family signed in, we noted the name of our soldier and our relationship. I was one of the early arrivals and noticed both “sister” and “daughter.” Siblings were still alive, but all of the parents, born about 1910 or earlier, would be gone now. Every single one of them passed away without closure about what happened to their son.
Bobby’s mother died before he was declared dead, but not before she received a small box with a few of his belongings. I hope they brought her at least some level of comfort.
Today, in Indy, bricks laid in honor of our family members who never came home would be unveiled to honor their service and sacrifice.
Not to say that it was hot or anything, but in the packets provided for each family were the quintessential “funeral fans.” Now I don’t suppose everyone called them funeral fans. They were always stuck in the back of pews with the hymnals at church when I was growing up.
Everyone at funerals always nervously fanned, AND, often funeral homes bought the fans – for advertising of course. Jesus praying was always on one side and the funeral home’s name was always on the other.
A lovely brochure was also included in the packet with the scheduled events of the day.
Of course, honoring these brave men was the purpose of today’s somber event.
Credit Where Credit Is Due
Before I go any further, I need to thank a number of anonymous people. I took many of these photos and videos, but not all. Our families had been assembled by virtue of common tragedy which provided us with an immediate bond. We talked, thanked the veterans and men in uniform present, shared photos, messaged back and forth, air-dropped and asked random people to please take our pictures in front of something or with other family members. By the time the ceremony actually began, we were on a first name basis and sharing stories.
In fact, perhaps the most amazing thing of all is what happened afterwards. You’re not going to believe this. But let’s get through the ceremony first.
As people began to get settled, I stepped back far enough to get a photo of the tent that had (thankfully) been set up for the families in front of the Memorial. I had to stand back a LONG way. It’s HUGE!
As I kept backing up further to get this shot, I realized there was something going on in the street behind me.
Firetrucks and the Flag
Clearly security was a consideration for an event like this, and the streets were blocked off. The circle itself and the block leading to the circle.
I heard some commotion and turned around.
What are they doing?
Oh, look, it’s one of those huge flags.
I was excited to get to witness this. Look at the one guy literally “holding the bag.”
I remembered that my phone has video capability. Forgive the amateur behind the camera here – I had to flip it sideways at the end. It was quite an endeavor to keep the flag from touching the ground.
The flag was unfurled with a little help from one of the Rolling Thunder guys. Notice the firefighter with the now-empty bag. I wonder how they get the flag back in that bag.
I have to say, the flag being raised with synchronized ladders is an amazing sight and makes you feel really small and awestruck.
The flag was raised high above the street. I would love to have gone up to the observation tower in the Memorial and taken a look, but that building (ironically) wasn’t open, and besides, I didn’t want to miss anything outside.
I scoped out my seat near the end of the first row. People were milling around, but beginning to take their seats.
Preparations were taking place on the stage area and Rolling Thunder veterans were everyplace.
I happened to look back at the tent and saw the flag. You couldn’t miss the flag!
I was making my way to my seat at far left, above, and then I spotted “trouble.” The good kind of trouble:)
You’ve all been my readership family long enough by now to know that I cannot go anyplace without some adventure finding me or me getting in some kind of trouble. When trouble fails to find me, that’s how I’ll know I’m dead.
You may recall, my brother-who-was-not-my-brother was a long haul trucker, a biker and a wounded Vietnam Marine.
Trust me, if you’re ever in real trouble someplace, find one of these guys.
Standing near my seat was another group of Rolling Thunder guys. I swear, they were the security detail. I mean, who’s going to mess with anyone with legions of these guys around. No sane person, that’s for sure!
I thanked these men for their service AND what they do today. The voice of remembrance when it’s all too easy to forget.
We talked about the MIA and POW men still unaccounted for and I told them that even though Bobby is officially MIA, we know he’s deceased, of course. Everyone shook their head in agreement. One of the men asked me his name. Then I explained it is my name too, I’m named for Robert. And I kept Estes too. Then I told them about Dave.
Not a dry eye in the place. A bit of shoe shuffling, allergies and hugging.
Let’s just say we bonded. Notice my special friend to my left who is modeling my bag. These guys were so doggone much fun to visit with and explained more about what Rolling Thunder does, how they participate, and their commitment. Trust me, no one rides bikes, wears leather and hangs out in the intense mid-summer heat if they aren’t either related or committed.
Before sitting down, I decided to grab one picture of the families and the flag from the memorial steps.
The Ceremony Begins
I had a great seat with a wonderful view of the Memorial itself. All those years I lived in Indiana and I never really paid attention. I’m not sure I had ever seen the Memorial other than from a distance.
The Indiana National Guard’s 38th Infantry Brass Quintet, in full dress uniform, was located to the right.
I can only imagine how miserable they must have been. You would never have known it from their lovely music.
The dignitaries begin delivering remarks.
The flags are ceremonially escorted into the stage area by a color guard – you’ve guessed it. Rolling Thunder again.
Remember that I mentioned there was, blessedly, a breeze?
The most shocking thing happened a minute or two later.
The breeze blew the American flag right over, onto the ground with a resounding thud. An audible gasp emanated from the crowd. Everyone knows that the flag is never supposed to touch the ground. When I was younger I thought a flag had to be destroyed if it touched the ground. I wondered what would happen, not eventually to the flag, but in this instance. In the middle of a ceremony honoring a special class of our veterans.
Two men from Rolling Thunder walked up behind the dignitaries, picked up the flags and proceeded to stand for the duration of the ceremony holding the flags upright. What a beautiful picture.
The National Anthem was sung, acapella, by Staff Sergeant Ronald Walker, also in full dress uniform. This man is both brave and amazing!
Unveiling the Bricks
Next, the bricks were unveiled. I had been unaware that the blue tarp was actually covering the bricks.
I don’t have to tell you who did the unveiling do I?
I was pleased to see that the bricks for the Korean POW/MIAs had been placed together, not scattered around the plaza.
My neighbor had a better view than I did and kindly shared his video with me.
The unveiling of the bricks was followed by the wreath laying.
The wreath laying is a respectful tradition associated with either funerals or memorial services.
The Roll Call
I didn’t know about the concept of Roll Call before. Now I’ll never be able to unhear it.
The name of the soldier still missing is read. A veteran, in this case, a Rolling Thunder member, steps forward and says, “Still missing, Sir,” then steps back.
This was repeated 195 times as the names were read in alphabetical order.
Each family member in attendance had been given a sign with their soldier’s photo, if one was available, and asked to stand and hold the photo facing the crowd when it was their turn.
The veteran sitting next to me knew the name of my soldier and filmed this, then gifted it to me.
I can’t even begin to tell you how grateful I am.
I was saddened to notice how many men did not have representative family members present.
As the Roll Call finished, and the Rolling Thunder men exited, a bagpiper played Amazing Grace. One of two songs I can never get through dry-eyed.
Followed, of course, by the next song I cannot get through dry-eyed.
The flags or colors were retired in the same way they had been presented initially.
After the Ceremony
Robert Vernon Estes and his 194 comrades never received a funeral. Their families never had closure. Regardless of what happened to those men in Korea, it’s clear that they are not still living today.
It was sad that we needed to have this service, but it was beautiful and somber and cathartic. It may not be closure for the immediate family, but it’s at least recognition that these men have not been forgotten.
After the ceremony, there was a palpable sense of gratitude and relief. The camaraderie of sharing this experience with others was so meaningful and important. I’m struggling to find the right words to convey the mixture of sad and glad and relief still mixed with prayers that one day, at least some of these men’s remains will be returned for burial. A real funeral, with taps, and the 21 gun salute, and everything else that they deserve. Not an empty hole of nothingness.
I’m so filled with gratitude for the many people who made this possible.
Some, but not all of the volunteers who made this lovely ceremony possible for the veterans and the Gold Star families. Thank you so very much.
The beautiful wreath standing by the bricks.
The only other wreath-laying ceremony I have ever attended was when the DAR set the stone for my Revolutionary War ancestor on another beastly hot summer day.
The Rest of the Story
I attended the ceremony alone. The people sitting in the row behind me seemed friendly enough. As we waited for the ceremony to begin, we chatted pleasantly about our respective family members that we were honoring.
They did not know much about the history of the unit in which their family member had fought. I was trying to explain about obtaining records from NARA, and declassified unit records – in essence what I had done for Robert Estes.
I had noticed that someone representing the Indiana senator’s office was sitting two seats from me. I turned around and told the man behind me that he needed to talk to the person from the senator’s office and ask for liaison assistance.
After they spoke, our group began talking again, and I told him I think that the unit his family member served in fought with the unit Robert served in.
Their family was fortunate to have several people in attendance, while I’m the only one left in my generation in my line. By this time, it was noon and miserably hot – on the north side of 90. The committee had provided rollups and ice cold water while the families visited afterwards, but everyone was ready for something more.
They invited me along to eat with them. I hesitated, not wanting to be a third wheel and hoping they didn’t feel obligated to invite me. They said, “hey, you’re family,” and you know, it felt like family. We decided we would just all be family, at least for today. I was so grateful for the invitation and felt like we had a common bond. Maybe it was the emotion of the day – I can’t explain it.
We managed to find the absolute worst Italian restaurant I’ve ever eaten in – but the companionship was wonderful and we had a room in the back to ourselves.
After we finished, I mentioned that I had to go back to the memorial because somehow I had forgotten to find Bobby’s brick and take a picture – and I wanted a picture of me with the brick too.
They said they had to walk back that way anyway, so we went together.
The stage area was clear and everyone was gone, of course. Only a few flowers remained. But those bricks are permanent and will still be there long after we are gone!
I was so very pleased to be present for the one thing of permanence that will remain of Bobby.
I wanted to photograph the rest of the bricks, together.
That’s When It Happened!
Robert Minniear is the other family’s MIA soldier. He went missing on November 30, 1950,
So did Bobby.
Both men’s families were from the same part of Indiana.
We just stared at each other dumbstruck with the realization of our discovery. Our family members indeed had gone missing the same day. Likely in the same battle in Korea. Spoiler alert – I came back to my hotel and did indeed verify that the two units were fighting together on that day.
Did our family members know each other? Before, or after they were captured, or both? Were they held as POWs together, or was their Robert killed during either the fighting itself or the horrific conditions immediately after?
Can the information I’ve found about Bobby’s unit help their family gain closure?
What are the chances that this would happen? That we would all attend this ceremony, sit together, strike up a friendly conversation, feel a bond, go to lunch, discover our common roots in the same town, then the revelation of the same MIA date? Did I mention that one of these men is also named Robert, born the same year I was and named for his Robert too?
I’d swear, if I didn’t know better, that the Robert’s were sort of nudging us.
As Mike, my new family member was reading the dates on the rest of the bricks, he noticed several other men who were MIA that same day and remain so:
- Gene Ruby – PFC USMC
- Everett W. Leffler – CPL US Army
- Robert L. White – SGT US Army
- Robert Lee White – CPL US Army (I hope these two men aren’t closely related – that poor family.)
- Donald K. Mitchell – CPL US Army
- James Mishler – PFC US Army
Maybe, just maybe, this story isn’t quite over just yet. Maybe information about one of our soldiers is information about all of our soldiers…
Maybe there’s a chapter yet to be written.