Above: Identified in this photo by a family-written note, Cresenciano “Chano” Garcia Jr. joined the U.S. Army at age 17. (Photo provided)
LANSING, Ill. (October 12, 2023) – On Saturday, October 14, the remains of Cresenciano Garcia Jr. will be laid to rest in Laredo, Texas, 73 years after the 19-year-old Army Sergeant died as a prisoner in the Korean War.
The ceremony will close the final chapter of a long-unfinished story for Garcia’s extended family. The majority of that family now lives in the northwest Indiana area and numbers in the hundreds.
Garcia’s remains were identified in April by the U.S. Army, which presented the family with a full recounting of Sgt. Garcia’s army service, especially his time as a prisoner of war, and the identification of his remains.
Sgt. Garcia’s niece Norma Alamillo and her husband René, who is a veteran himself, shared Garcia’s story with The Lansing Journal, and provided full access to the records supplied by the U.S. Army.
What follows is the story of a life lost then rediscovered, as told by Sgt. Garcia’s family and the U.S. Army.
A boy goes to war and doesn’t return
Born on June 18, 1931, to Cresenciano and Petra Garcia, Cresenciano Garcia Jr. was known as “Chano” as he grew up in Laredo, Texas. He was the only brother to his four older sisters, Carmen, Paula, Emma, and Lydia.
Barely a month after his 17th birthday in 1948, Garcia enlisted in the U.S. Army.
“He was just a baby,” said René Alamillo. “He looks like he should still be in 9th grade.”
POW in Korea War
Garcia was stationed in the state of Washington when the U.S. entered the Korean War in the summer of 1950. Soon after, he was sent to Korea as part of the Headquarters Company, 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division.
In the final days of November, 1950, Garcia and his division were near Kunu-ri, located in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — commonly known as North Korea. Caught in a trap sprung by the Chinese Fortieth Army, the 2nd Infantry Division began a retreat westward. Garcia’s convoy was stopped by an enemy roadblock during the retreat.
“Commanded to abandon the vehicles, Sgt. Garcia and other members of the convoy attempted to dislodge the opposing forces on foot. Sgt. Garcia could not be located after trying to break through the enemy roadblock,” said the Army’s summary of Garcia’s capture.
Roughly 100 soldiers were taken captive in the same area, and were brought north to a prisoner of war camp that became known as “Death Valley.” The Army estimates Garcia reached Death Valley around Christmas in 1950. He was held in the northern sector of the camp, which was for enlisted men.
According to the Army, “Near the end of January 1951, the POWs who were physically able to move were marched to the newly opened permanent prison, Camp 5. Sgt. Garcia was most likely among them, one of an estimated 2,000 … service members who were processed through Death Valley on their way to Camp 5.”
It’s likely that Garcia died at — or on his way to — Camp 5 in February of 1951. This information came from Master Sergeant Lester Morris and Captain Roy Russell, who were both told from separate sources that Garcia had died and been buried near Camp 5, which was located near North Korea’s northern border with China.
René Alamillo described in uncle-in-law’s journey to Camp 5 as a “death march.”
“In frozen weather, it’s just very hard to survive something like that,” he said. “The skeleton shows he had no toes. They couldn’t find his toes.”
He wonders if the bitter cold of the North Korean winter may have resulted in the loss of Garcia’s feet.
From Korea War to Hawaii
In August of 1954, North Korean Forces, the Chinese People’s Volunteer Forces, and the United Nations Command reached an agreement for the recovery and return of deceased solders. Known as Operation GLORY, the exchange brought over 4,000 sets of remains to the United Nations Command.
Most of Sgt. Garcia’s bones remained intact, with roughly 90% recovered.
In December of 1955, the remains of Sgt. Garcia, referred to at the time as only “X-14189,” were determined to be “unidentifiable.”
In 1956, Garcia’s remains were buried in Honolulu, Hawaii with full military honors as a “Korean War Unknown.” Garcia’s remains stayed in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, also known as “Punchbowl Cemetery” for decades.
A family’s loss and a long-delayed return
Norma Alamillo remembers coming home from school as a child and realizing something was wrong.
“It still makes me teary,” she said, pausing for a moment. She continued, “My mom, I guess she had just gotten the notice, she was crying. She really didn’t tell us back then. … She was really broken down.”
According to Army records, Sgt. Garcia’s parents received a letter from Major General Edward F. Witsell in January of 1951 that said, in part, “I regret that I must confirm my recent telegram in which you were informed that your son Corporal Cresenciano Garcia Jr. … has been reported missing in action since 1 December 1950.”
Garcia was promoted to Sergeant in 1953 after his death.
Norma said the news of her uncle being “missing in action” led the family to assume the worst.
“They said he was missing in action and we just thought he was dead,” she said.
In January of 1954, the family received letter from the Army that said, in part:
“Your son was captured in Kunu-ri on 1 December 1950 and taken to a prison camp in North Korea. Later he became ill and died as the result of dysentery in February 1951. Since the exact date has not been furnished from the statements received, the Department of the Army has determined that the date of his death shall be recorded as 28 February 1951, the latest date on which be could be presumed to have been alive.”
Though Sgt. Garcia’s remains were brought to Hawaii, they remained unidentified, leaving the family longing for closure, and speculating about his remains.
As DNA technology advanced, Sgt. Garcia’s sister Emma Vasquez submitted her DNA in 1998 to the Army. In 2006, Norma Alamillo’s sisters Sylvia Perez and Sandra Strong submitted their DNA while on a trip in Washington D.C.
“We thought he was still in Korea,” Strong said shortly before a memorial of life service for her uncle on September 16. “So we were hesitant in giving the DNA because our chances were slim to none, but this miracle happened, and here we are, 73 years later.”
Army records indicate that Sgt. Garcia’s remains were exhumed for forensic testing on December 9, 2019. Years later, using mitochondrial DNA samples from Sgt. Garcia’s left femur, the Army conclusively matched his long-unidentified remains to the DNA samples from his sister and two nieces.
An Army representative made a presentation to Sgt. Garcia’s extended family in April of 2023, and presented the family with an extensive book of documents about him.
Less mourning, more celebration
Norma never met her uncle. She was only four at the time he signed up for the Army. And she’s not alone. With all four of Sgt. Garcia’s sister passed, very few of his extended family had any interaction with him before he left to fight overseas.
“I wish his sisters would have had this closure,” she said. “They were the ones that needed it.”
Despite not knowing the man, Sgt. Garcia’s extended family has celebrated the return of his remains. For the family in northwest Indiana, that process has included a Celebration of Life service for Sgt. Garcia at an event hall in Gary. The family was escorted from Lansing to the hall by Lansing’s American Legion Riders and others on Saturday, September 16.
As Norma, René, and the rest of Sgt. Garcia’s family anticipate seeing their long-lost uncle’s remains find a final resting place, she’s not feeling closure as much as a sense of joy.
“I wish we would have met him,” she said. “But I don’t know. I guess it’s just wonderful that we finally know what happened to him. It’s a good feeling.”
For his service in the Korean War, Sgt. Garcia was awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Prisoner of War Medal, the Korean Service Medal, the United Nations Service Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Korean Presidential Unit Citation, and the Republic of Korea War Service Medal.
A Mass of Christian Burial is planned for Sgt. Cresenciano Garcia Jr. on Saturday, October 14 at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Laredo, Texas. The Rite of Committal and Interment will follow at the family plot of the Calvary Catholic Cemetery. Military Honors have been planned by the United States Army and the Laredo Honor Guard.
- Riders and first responders escort family of long-missing Korean War POW to celebration of life ceremony (September 18, 2023)
- Video: The life, service, and bones of Sgt. ‘Chano’ Garcia (September 29, 2023)