BY EDIE GROSS
Henry Walter Burnette was born in a ramshackle house on Charles Street in downtown Fredericksburg, within spitting distance of the railroad tracks.
He died 20 years later, 7,000 miles away in one of the bloodiest battles of the Korean War.
Only the barest details of his childhood are known, and even those are fuzzy.
He was raised by a grandmother--or it might have been an aunt--and even spent time in a children's home in Richmond before a Fredericksburg neighbor with 13 kids of her own took him in.
He was mischievous, say his peers, though there was only so much trouble a boy could get into in 1930s Fredericksburg.
He was a mediocre student at Walker-Grant High School and might have been looking to better himself when he joined the Army at 17.
Had his body come home for a proper burial after his death, perhaps there'd be little else to say about Henry Burnette.
But he did not come home. Like 8,100 other soldiers from the Korean War, Burnette was unaccounted for at the conflict's end. Accounting for him now, nearly 60 years after his death, is no easy task.
Navigating the choppy waters of diplomacy, the U.S. military has repatriated the remains of more than 200 service members killed in North Korea.
But before the military can determine whether Burnette is among them, it first must locate a family member on his mother's side for a DNA comparison.
A Free Lance-Star reporter and a local historical researcher have spent months combing old newspaper clippings, city directories, birth, death and marriage records, and property documents, hunting for a trace of the young man's family.
What has emerged? A few glimmers of hope and a lot of false leads.
We'd like to bring this soldier home, and now we're hoping our readers can help.
Harold Davis was the first to come looking for Henry Burnette's kin.
A Korean War veteran from North Carolina, Davis has made it his mission over the last five or six years to track down the families of unaccounted for soldiers in cases where the military has no family contact.
"I'm not official at all. I'm an old Korean War veteran out here looking for people we left over there," said Davis, 79, who started with a handful of soldiers from the Wilmington area, then branched out nationwide.
|Henry Walter Burnette was 20 when he was killed in action in Korea on Dec. 1, 1950. To determine whether his remains are among those recovered from North Korea, the military needs a blood relative on his mother's side to provide DNA. Finding a relative has proven difficult. |
Here's what we know of Burnette:
BORN: Aug. 10, 1930, on Charles Street
MOTHER: Myrtle Alice Hamm or Ham, born May 1915, died May 1940, at the age of 25
FATHER: Robert "Jabo" Burnett, born May 1910, died October 1979, at the age of 69
GRANDMOTHER: Birth records in the city's archives indicate that Myrtle Alice Hamm's mother was a Sadie Hamm, but her guardian was a Sadie Coleman. It is believed that Sadie Coleman raised Myrtle and later helped care for Henry Burnette. It's unclear if Coleman was a blood relative of Henry or Myrtle.
SADIE COLEMAN: Born around 1880 or 1885, Coleman married a Thomas Beverly in 1911 but divorced him in 1922. In 1925, she married a John Lawson, five years before Henry's birth. Various records list Coleman's father as Minor Coleman and also as Addison Coleman or Adison Coleman.
Sadie Coleman was committed to Central State Asylum in May 1940, after Myrtle's death. She died there in July 1958.
SADIE HAMM: She may have been Myrtle Hamm's biological mother and Henry Burnette's biological grandmother. The only mention of her, other than in Myrtle's birth records, is in her February 1958 obituary that ran in The Free Lance-Star, indicating that she had worked as a housekeeper in Richmond for the last 28 years at the home of Greenhow Johnston.
REBECCA GRIMES: Henry Burnette spent some time at a children's home in Richmond, probably after his mother died and his grandmother was sent to an asylum. Grimes, who lived on Prince Edward Street a block from where Henry grew up, took him in and was listed as his next-of-kin on his military papers.
ARMY SERVICE: Henry joined the Army in February 1948, at the age of 17. He served in Korea as a field artillery cannoneer in C Battery, 503rd Field Artillery Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division.
He was listed as missing in action following the Battle of Kunu-ri on Dec. 1, 1950. In February of 1954, Grimes was notified by the military that her adopted son had been killed in action. He was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart along with five other medals.
The military hopes to account for all service members who are missing or killed in action. Having a current family contact or DNA sample from a relative makes that process easier. If you have a loved one who remains unaccounted for, you can provide helpful information by calling any of the following numbers:
AIR FORCE: 800/531-5501
MARINES: 800/847-1597, ext. 1.
|This story got started back in March after a North Carolina resident named Harold Davis wrote a letter to the editor of The Free Lance-Star asking for help locating Henry Burnette's family. A Korean War veteran, Davis has spent years tracking down the families of unaccounted for soldiers in the hopes that their DNA could be used to identify the soldiers' remains.
I offered to help, figuring I'd find some useful information in the newspaper's archives. I didn't find much, though, so I turned to Diane Ballman, a volunteer researcher at the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center in Fredericksburg. She has been instrumental in this project, digging through census, birth, death and court records. Ballman discovered a key piece of information early-on: that Burnette was adopted as a young child--and his mother may have been as well.
So much for our DNA trail.
Since then, we've prevailed on a host of others for help, including Fredericksburg Circuit Court archivist Barry L. McGhee, who unearthed birth, marriage, divorce and even asylum commitment records; Spotsylvania Courthouse Deputy Clerk Arlene Rager, who pointed us toward old marriage and land documents; several folks in the Central Rappahannock Regional Library's Virginiana Room, where early city directories and birth and death indexes helped refine our search; and local residents Lawrence "Reggie" Lucas and Barbara Weston, whose memories of 1930s and 1940s Fredericksburg helped us track down Henry's family on his father's side.
YOU CAN HELP
If you think you can help us track down a relative on Henry Burnette's mother's side, please contact Edie Gross at firstname.lastname@example.org or 540/374-5428; Diane Ballman at DBall1104@aol.com; or Harold Davis at email@example.com or 910/791-2333.