His flag-draped casket made the eight-hour flight from Honolulu. It arrived at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport shortly after dawn. The black hearse was escorted down Interstate 75 by the Georgia State Patrol, Bibb County Sheriff’s deputies, the Macon Police Department and 87 Georgia Patriot Guard Riders on motorcycles.
Sgt. Thomas Jefferson “Sugar Boy” Barksdale returned home in the arms of a half-mile long motorcade on an interstate that wasn’t built when he died in a foxhole in Korea in 1950.
Low, gray clouds sunk across the morning sky. It was primary election day. At the city limits, cars, buses, trucks pulled over to pay their respects. The hearse climbed the hill on Gray Highway, then passed Boone Street in Fort Hill, where Sugar Boy grew up one of Ben and Vilena Barksdale’s 11 children.
By the time Sugar Boy reached the front door at Jones Brothers Mortuary on Millerfield Road, tears were falling like raindrops in the parking lot.
Seven members of the Georgia Army National Guard carried the casket inside, where his remains will be until Friday’s memorial service at the Jones Brothers Memorial Chapel.
He will be buried with full military honors at 2:30 p.m. at the Georgia Veterans Cemetery in Milledgeville.
“It was a beautiful welcome home,” said Alfred McNair, who was Barksdale’s cousin. He was 3 years old when Barksdale was sent to Korea. He was left with only a fleeting childhood memory – standing in the yard with his uncle on Boone Street.
A great-great-niece, A’nia Wilson, also traveled from Macon. So did his niece Sonja Person, whose DNA sample helped officers positively identify Barksdale’s skeletal remains.
During the first week of August 2000, excavation teams from the U.S. and North Korea explored several old fighting positions about 50 miles above the capital of Pyongyang. Along a hilltop, they discovered an isolated human skeleton of a 5-foot-10, African-American male.
The skeletal remains were returned to the U.S. and assigned a case number. Four bone samples were sent to the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory.
It would take nine years before the remains could be positively identified.
At the airport Tuesday, Person and other family members spent a few quiet moments next to the coffin before it was carried to the waiting hearse at Cargo Gate 60. More than two dozen orange-shirted Delta Air Lines employees stood reverently nearby.
Person ran her fingers across the top of the casket. She knew it would be emotional. Her daughter, Kimberly McIntyre, died six years ago.
“She was only 36,” Person said. “I can’t imagine my grandparents losing a son who was 21 years old. I can’t imagine not being able to bury him or visit his grave on his birthday or a holiday.”
As the Georgia Patriot Guard Riders lined the cargo ramp holding American flags, Wynne Inya-Agha stood next to a banner made by her 15-year-old son, Jared, and 10-year-old daughter, Joy, on Monday night. The banner read: “WELCOME HOME SGT. BARKSDALE.”
She drove her children from Fayetteville early Tuesday after she read the July 22 column on Barksdale on The Telegraph’s website.
“Today is my 48th birthday, and this is how I choose to spend it,” she said. “This is my gift to myself. I’ve never done anything like this in my life. I am grateful for people like Sgt. Barksdale who fought and died for our freedom. I have always been patriotic, but this one brought me to tears.”
The homecoming was special for Freddie Jones, of Jones Brothers Mortuary. He has spent much of the past month planning and preparing to bring Barksdale back to Macon. His father, Norman Jones, was wounded in the Korean War and received a Purple Heart.
It was also deeply personal for David Blanton, of Gray, who coordinated the participation by the more than seven dozen Georgia Patriot Guard Riders. It included 40 from the Macon area who left at 4 a.m. Tuesday to meet the plane at the airport.
His father, the late Ernie Blanton of Valdosta, was assigned to the same 503rd Field Artillery Battalion.
“When I saw the information on Sgt. Barksdale, it sent a chill up my spine,” Blanton said. “My father used to talk about how cold it was, and there were so many of (the Chinese), and (the U.S.) didn’t have enough ammunition.”
Blanton made the journey Tuesday and will return Friday for the memorial service to escort the funeral procession to the cemetery in Milledgeville at 2:30 p.m.
“We can’t change what happened, but we can be there for the family to show our support,” he said. “We got him home. We never want a fallen warrior to be left behind.”