VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) – Missing, but never forgotten. This is the story of U.S. Marine Corps Corporal Jack Shelton Brown, U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, and WAVY-TV’s exclusive report on the Dignified Transfer of his remains.
78 years after he was killed in action on the Island of Saipan, Cpl. Brown is finally home.
The details on his death: On July 8, 1944, while investigating a cave for Japanese fighters, he was killed in action by a sniper.
Somehow his identification tag separated from his body, and his remains were buried in a mass unmarked grave along with several others killed in the line of duty in the July 8th battle.
At some point, his unidentified remains were exhumed and transferred to a graveyard in the Philippines.
“For our family, he was very, very loved,” said Cpl. Brown’s grandnephew Everette Brown. “He was a local boy from Virginia Beach, and he was a hero. A war hero.”
Cpl. Brown’s military awards include the Bronze Star Medal for heroic achievement, and the Purple Heart for wounds received against the enemy on July 8, 1944. Both were awarded posthumously.
Cpl. Brown’s niece, Irene Runyon, reads from a May 1944 letter home to his sister. There were 10 Brown children, including Cpl. Brown.
A devoted son was checking on the money he was sending to his mother, Sadie Brown. Her husband had died. The family lived in a house that no longer stands, at 614 West 26th Street in Virginia Beach.
Just over two months after that letter, Cpl. Jack Shelton Brown was killed in action.
At the family home, Sadie received the “Dear Mrs. Brown” letter dated September 20, 1944, which reads, in part, “Profound regret… Jack lost his life in action against the enemies of his country.”
Mrs. Brown wasn’t told much more except, “He was mortally wounded by a Japanese sniper on 8 July while investigating a cave.”
Cpl. Brown’s Death Certificate states he died on Saipan Island, July 8, 1944. He was killed in action, and further details not known. Burial place unknown.
Four years later, in 1948, Mrs. Brown wrote the Marine Corp wondering, where’s her son.
“I am writing to you for information about the return of my son’s remains. I have received no papers to fill out, or any information at all.”
The Marine Corps promptly replied.
“The Island of Saipan has been carefully searched…although your son’s remains were not found…there is a possibility that his remains are among the unidentified dead.”
The sad irony, the day after Cpl. Brown was killed, U.S. Forces raised the American flag in victory over Saipan on July 9, 1944.
The family left to wonder, what if?
Runyon gets emotional thinking about that, “If he had just one more day, and he would have come back. My mom in addition to all her siblings would have seen their brother. My grandmother would have seen her son; we would have known about Uncle Jack instead of reading about him.”
Before Everette Brown’s father died, he gave DNA to help identify Jack, “My father wanted to see Jack’s return. He had given up his DNA for this campaign to find Jack.”
Brown says his father’s DNA was sent in, but his understanding it was not used in the DNA matching process. “He was anxious. He wanted to see Jack back prior to his own death, and unfortunately that didn’t happen,” Everette said with emotion thinking about his own father. “But he is coming home now.”
Two months shy of missing 78 years, Jack Shelton Brown would be known only as Missing in Action X-30,
“I don’t have the words to say how absolutely wonderful it is,” Runyon had tears in her eyes remembering the call she got from the Marine Corps. She was told the DNA swab she sent connected the dots matching her DNA to two of Cpl. Brown’s teeth. She remembers the call from the Marine Corps, “And he said, ‘we found your uncle. I’m sorry for all those years,’ and now they have CPL. Jack Shelton Brown.”
Everette would later add, “On May 12th we got a call from Chuck Williams from Quantico, and he said, ‘We found your uncle.’“
Brown continued, “He had been found, dug up from a trench grave, and sent to a cemetery, where he would be exhumed again, and sent to Delaware, then Hawaii, and 78 years later he went from Unknown X-30 to Capt. Jack Shelton Brown.”
What would happen next shocked Runyon and the family. What they thought would be a small family gathering at Norfolk International Airport to receive Jack’s remains turned into something much more than that.
Powerful images of roaring motorcycles part of Patriot Guard Riders that attend military and first responders’ funerals. Also participating, a similar law enforcement escort, including Virginia State Police.
They escorted the hearse and family for the dignified return that awaited outside Gate 8 on the airport tarmac.
Cpl. Shelton’s niece Irene Runyon stunned by the turnout for her uncle. While traveling to the site for the Dignified Return, she said, “Look at all the motorcycles, the police, the others I never expected it. I thought it would be a small family gathering 6-8 people here on the tarmac.”
About 75 participated, including military and law enforcement.
After a slight delay, the American Airlines flight from Dallas touched down, then traveled through the Arch of Honor, which is a water salute from the hoses of two firefighting vehicles.
When the casket was coming out of the plane’s cargo bay, and the cardboard top taken off, it revealed the flag-draped casket.
“Ohhhh,” exclaimed Runyon.
The Marine Corps Honor Guard marched towards the plane’s cargo bay to greet the casket holding Cpl. Brown’s remains.
Then Irene and Everette led the family members to the cargo bay as Cpl. Brown’s long 78-year journey home came to an end.
Irene and Everette both touched the casket, and you could hear them say, “welcome home Jack” and “this has been a long time coming.”
There was hugging, and with another “Welcome home Jack’ the family turned and let the Honor Guard perform the Dignified Transfer from plane to awaiting hearse.
As is customary, the commercial pilot who flew the remains came out of the plane and met with the family.
The significance of the totality of the moment not lost on Everette, “This is the first time that Jack has returned to the Tidewater area, and he is back home, and he is back here with us.”
Irene was moved by all the people who cared to come out and she noticed all the faces in the terminal window looking down on the events below, “I’m looking in the airport, and all of them came to see my uncle come home and to watch the process.”
Everette referred to the essence of the Marine Corp Motto, “Until they are home, no man left behind.”
“We never forgot Jack, he was never forgotten. He has lived on in the memories of my father and my family members for generations.”
Irene added, “I am overwhelmed, and I am honored.”
Following Cpl. Brown’s return, there was a service at HD Oliver Funeral Apartments on Laskin Road.
That was followed by a graveside service with full military honors including TAPS, a 21-gun salute, and the presentation of a perfectly folded American Flag presented to the family.
Cpl. Brown’s grandnephew Everette said this about this final chapter bringing his granduncle home,
“He has not been forgotten, and yes, he was missing in action, and I thought about it many times like when you see a POW-MIA flag, and your mind instantly goes to your loved one, your family member, your blood line.
“We have a rich history here. We are proud of it, and we are proud of Jack. Not that he died, but that he lived.”