Korean War veteran Corporal Lilly is coming home to Mercer County

Mar. 23—By GREG JORDAN

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

PRINCETON — Over 70 years after he died overseas while serving his country, a young man will be coming home to West Virginia for his funeral and final rest.

Corporal Ray Kirby Lilly, known to his family as Kirby, was a resident of the Mary's Branch community near Matoaka when he left home to join the Army in May 1950. In June that same year, the Korean War began.

Kirby was assigned to the 8th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division, according to Army records. During the Battle of Unsan, Kirby's unit held off the attacking Chinese forces so other units could escape the enemy troops that were threatening to overwhelm them.

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

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

On Feb.28, a representative of the Army from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency came to Princeton and met with Kirby's family to share 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, Corporal Ray Kirby Lilly died at POW Camp 5 on the Pyoktong Peninsula in North Korea.

After the war, repatriated American POWs indicated that he had died in Camp 5 in either January or February 1951. Witnesses claimed 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 Corporal Ray Kirby Lilly's remains to be nonrecoverable after he remained unaccounted-for after the war.

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

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 returned 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 report. During this exchange, known as 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."

One family member, Andi Fleming of Princeton, said the report helped bring many of the "puzzle pieces" about Kirby together. Former POWS remembered Kirby and how he was from a place called Matoaka in West Virginia. One soldier remembered the town as "Matoaki."

The family met with the Army representative on Feb. 28, the same day Kirby was declared dead in 1951. The meeting was also the time when they learned he was brought back to the United States years ago to the military cemetery often referred to as "The Punch Bowl."

"That was very comforting, that he was on American soil all these years," she said.

A full military funeral service for Cpl. James Kirby Lilly will be conducted May 18 at the Memorial Funeral Directory near Princeton.

Then a young soldier named Kirby will finally be home.

— Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com

Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com