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68 years later, Niagara Falls Marine buried in N. Korea is headed to Arlington

The Marine from Niagara Falls clung to hope even as he shivered from cold and fear.

"I guess I'll live, as long as they get us out of this rotten Korean winter weather," 24-year-old Marine Corps Sgt. Meredith "Buster" Keirn wrote to his younger brother on Nov. 18, 1950.

Buster Keirn was wrong.

Twelve days later, he was killed when enemy forces attacked his unit at the base of a frozen hill in northern North Korea.

His buddies buried Keirn there before they retreated south, part of the see-saw first year of the Korean War which saw both sides nearly win control of the Korean pennsula before the next years that ended in stalemate.

Finally, 68 years after his death, Buster Keirn is coming home to the United States.

His two living brothers, Darr Keirn, 84, and Jan Reeves, 85, will be on hand Thursday, when a ceremony in honor of the recovery and identification of his remains will be held at Elderwood of Lockport, the nursing home where Darr Keirn now lives.

Buster Keirn's remains, identified by government scientists with the help of a sibling's DNA, soon will be reburied.

This time, it won't be in an unmarked grave at the base of a forgotten hill in a communist country. At Darr Keirn's request, his brother will be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.

"We've been all overwhelmed and excited and crying, and everybody trying to ask questions and not really knowing what's really going on," said Dottie Barr of Middleport, Buster's niece, who never knew her uncle.

When she saw a photo of Buster for the first time, she said, "Oh, my gosh! He looks like my son, he looks like my cousin, he looks like our dads."

Getting from there to here

Buster Keirn's remains were part of a shipment of bones that China turned over in 2015, according to Army Sgt. First Class Kristen Duus, a spokeswoman for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which is part of the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

The remains had been removed from North Korea to China some time earlier, and the U.S. learned about them through an intermediary, Duus said.

"Unfortunately, we don't have information as to who that was," Duus said. "We haven't had any access to North Korea ourselves."

The last U.S. body recovery team pulled out of North Korea because of security concerns in 2005.

There has been a thaw in the hostile relations between the U.S. and North Korea in the past few months, with President Trump meeting North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un June 12 in Singapore. The bones of Keirn and the other Americans were turned over while Barack Obama was president.

Meredith F. "Buster" Keirn

The Pentagon didn't know whose remains they had, but government scientists went to work at laboratories in Nebraska and Hawaii to try and match them to the names of missing soldiers from the Korean War.

With the help of a DNA sample from Darr Keirn, scientists at the lab concluded that one of the bodies they were working on was Buster Keirn's.

"His remains were identified in May," Duus said.

The news came as a surprise to his brother Jan Reeves, who was 17 when Buster died.

"I wasn't expecting it to be done until they got a peace thing going," he said. "We had never been told they recovered any (bodies)."

The story of Buster Keirn

Meredith F. Keirn joined the Marines in Niagara Falls in the summer of 1945, right after graduating from high school. His brother Jan said Buster was born in Pennsylvania, and his family moved to Niagara Falls when he was a child.

After his mother died and father left, the seven children ended up in separate foster homes throughout Niagara County. Jan was the only sibling who was adopted, and he changed his last name to Reeves.

Buster Keirn didn't make it to the Pacific in time to see any action in World War II, but he stayed in the Marine Corps. In 1948, his Marine detachment visited France aboard the aircraft carrier USS Kearsarge.

"There's all kinds of beautiful girls over here, it's all you can do to control yourself when you see them in French bathing suits," Buster wrote to his younger brother Sharon Keirn. "Their whole bathing suit isn't as big as one of my handkerchiefs. Yep! this sure is beautiful country over here."

On June 25, 1950, Communist North Korea invaded U.S.-allied South Korea. American troops rushed from Japan to try to stem the tide, but the North Koreans quickly occupied almost all of South Korea.

The allied forces, commanded by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, rallied, with help from other nations that joined the United Nations' call to send soldiers to resist aggression.

The tide of battle was turned by MacArthur's famous amphibious attack on Inchon on Sept. 15, 1950. Soon, the North Korean Army had all but collapsed, as the UN forces not only ousted them from South Korea but went on the attack and occupied almost all of North Korea.

Buster Keirn was a light machine gun section leader in Fox Company, officially known as Company F, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.

"They all had summer uniforms," Jan Reeves said. "They told them they'd be out by Christmas. They didn't tell them which one."

A Marine's life — and death

"It's a wonder I didn't get pneumonia last night," Buster wrote to Sharon on Nov. 18, 1950.

On top of the letter were the words: "Somewhere in North Korea."

"I slept out in my foxhole as I have been since we landed here in September," Buster wrote. "It rained and then snowed during the night. I was soaked to the skin this morning. ... I have to dry out my sleeping bag so I will have something to sleep in tonight."

Sgt. Meredith “Buster” Keirn

Apparently, Sharon had asked his older brother about joining up.

"In regards to you coming into the service, wait until you are called," Buster wrote. "Your best bet would be to get into the air forces. At least you won't have to walk your feet to nubs and sleep on the damp cold ground. Stay out of the infantry as long as you can. That is the best advice I can give you. Don't be too eager because this mess will probably go on for quite some time yet. This winter weather isn't fit for man nor beast. I can't get out of here too soon to suit me. We were supposed to get relieved yesterday but from the looks of things we will probably be here till spring."

The tide of the war had turned as some 300,000 Chinese troops came to the rescue of the North Koreans.

Buster Keirn died fighting the Chinese on a hill overlooking Toktong Pass between the villages of Hagaru-ri and Yudam-ni in northern North Korea. The area was just southwest of the Chosin Reservoir, legendary in Marine Corps annals.

Fox Company made a heroic stand on that hill, trying to keep the Chinese from cutting a crucial road in and out of the area.

Fewer than one-quarter of the men in the unit remained uninjured during five days of fighting. Two members of the company received the Medal of Honor.

Survivors of the bitter battle in subzero weather sometimes call themselves the "Chosin Few." Buster Keirn wasn't one of them.

He was buried at the base of what the Marines called Fox Hill, as the Marines made the decision to abandon their dead as they retreated from the area.

"They tried to bring the remains back with them, but it finally got to the point that they had to bury them just to get the guys out that were still breathing," Reeves said. "The write-up the Navy gave us said they took a bulldozer and dug a strip and buried at least 300 of them in that grave."

As of June 20, there are still 7,699 Americans listed as missing in action from the Korean War. Buster Keirn is no longer on that list.

"My father didn't believe he would ever get to see his brother's remains returned," said Richard Reeves, Jan's son.

"I'm glad for it," Jan Reeves said, choking up. "I'm glad they got him back, anyway."

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