Korean war veteran coming home this month after 73 years


Bluefield Daily Telegraph

PRINCETON — A young man who joined the Army 73 years ago and went overseas to serve his country will be coming home this month for his final rest.

Corporal Ray Kirby Lilly was known in his family as Kirby. He lived with his family in Mary's Branch community near Matoaka when he left home to join the Army in May 1950. A month later, communist North Korea invaded South Korea, sparking the Korean War.

Kirby was assigned to the 8th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division, according to Army records. During the Battle of Unsan, which was fought between Oct. 25 to Nov. 4, 1950, Kirby's unit held off attacking Chinese forces so other units could escape the enemy troops that were threatening to overwhelm them. Kirby's unit was overrun and cut off, but they kept fighting until they ran out of ammunition and were forced to surrender. Kirby and other members of his regiment were taken to a prisoner of war camp in North Korea where he later died.

His fellow American POWs buried him near the camp. When he was listed as missing in action on Nov. 2, 1950, he was only 17 years and 11 months old.

Kirby was the only son of the late Lake and Cordy Foley Lilly. He had four sisters named Eva, Norma, Carol Louise and Patricia. For many year, Kirby's family did not know where his remains were located, but this changed on Oct. 2, 2023 when the Army informed them that a DNA laboratory in Hawaii had positively identified him.

On Feb.28 this year, an Army representative from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency met with Kirby's family in Princeton and shared a detailed report from the agency's laboratory. Besides information about the DNA identification process, the report offered details about what happened to Kirby after he was captured with his fellow soldiers.

According to the report, Cpl. Ray Kirby Lilly died at POW Camp 5 on the Pyoktong Peninsula in North Korea.

After the war, repatriated American POWs said that Kirby had died in Camp 5 in either January or February 1951. Witnesses said that he had suffered from dysentery, pneumonia and malnutrition. The Army declared him dead as of Feb. 28, 1951, the latest date he could have been alive based on witness statements. On Jan. 16, 1956, the Department of the Army determined that Cpl. Ray Kirby Lilly's remains to be nonrecoverable after he stayed listed as unaccounted-for after the war.

Exactly when Kirby's remains were returned to the United States was unclear at first. President Donald Trump visited North Korea in 2018 and recovering American remains still in that country was one of that summit's results.

About 150 sets of remains were brought out of North Korea and it was thought that Kirby's remains could have been among them. The Army later determined that they had been sent back to the United States years earlier.

In 1954, the opposing nations in the Korean War reached an agreement to exchange war dead, according to the Army's report. During this exchange, called Operation GLORY, remains were transported to the Central Identification Unit in Kokura, Japan for processing and identification.

"One set of Unknown Remains, designated X-14682, was reportedly recovered in Pykotong, North Korea, and could not be identified after analysis," according to the report. "The remains were ultimately interred as a Korean War Unknown in the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1956."

Andi Fleming of Princeton said the family has been contacted by people offering to help ever since Kirby's remain were officially identified by DNA testing. Fleming is Kirby's niece.

"My mother was his youngest sister," she said.

One woman in Hawaii who wishes to stay anonymous read the Bluefield Daily Telegraph story about Kirby and sent the family some photographs of his grave at the National Cemetery of the Pacific, also known as The Punch Bowl. And she figured out which of the graves was his.

"She was so kind," Fleming said. "She sent us pictures of the grave, pictures of the view, pictures of the (cemetery) entrance. And she told me that she had been a frequent visitor at The Punch Bowl and felt very close to the unknown soldiers. She went back and took pictures of his name on the memorial — things my mother and aunt will never see in person. She's just been so kind."

Another person who read about Kirby, Kip Price of Marion County, reached out to his family by using a computer to restore an Army portrait of him in uniform and mailing copies to them.

"I think it really looked good," Fleming said about Kirby's restored photograph. "It was so thoughtful of him."

Knowing that Kirby has been identified and is now coming home is helping to bring about a sense of closure.

"It's full circle and we know details now that we had never known," Fleming said. "We now know his journey that we didn't know before. We're actually going to print his last letter on the back of the funeral program. He was so optimistic. It was dated Oct. 20, 1950, and they were 6 miles outside the capitol of North Korea."

A military funeral service has been scheduled for Saturday, May 18 in the Chapel of the Memorial Funeral Directory on the Athens Road in Princeton. Fleming said that Charlie Mathena with the funeral service was able to secure a plot near Kirby's parents at the Roselawn Cemetery where he will be interred with full military honors.

The funeral will be at 11 a.m. May 18, and visitation for family and friends will be from 10 a.m. that day until the service. The Honorable Judge Omar Aboulhosn will deliver the eulogy and Bishop Fred Farley will officiate the service.

Online condolences may be shared with the family via www.memorialfd.com.

— Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com

Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com