More than 100 people gathered as U.S. Army Sgt. Billy Joe Williams was laid to rest last week at the Rock Prairie Cemetery — but not one of the attendees had ever met him.
American flags lined the roads as the remains of Williams, who was born in Madison County in 1930, were delivered to his final resting place.
Williams was born Oct. 4, 1930, in Madison County and raised in a Waco orphanage. He joined the U.S. Army and reportedly died of dysentery while being held in a Korean prisoner of war camp. According to his obituary, the Department of the Army declared Sgt. Williams’ remains “non-recoverable” in September 1953. His family was notified and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea turned remains to the U.S. in 1993, but DNA testing was not available at that time.
Williams’ niece, Nancy Motal of Rosenberg, said there were 208 boxes of remains that had to be tested.
“The DNA had to come from the maternal side and by the grace of God, my great aunt was still alive and she and her son provided the DNA,” Motal said. “It just takes a long, long time. Each bone has to be tested.”
The remains were finally transported back to Madisonville on May 14 of this year, and residents lined the streets to welcome Sgt. Williams home. At the May 17 burial at Rock Prairie Cemetery, a ceremonial flag was presented to Motal.
“I was born in 1949 and he went missing in 1951,” Motal said when contacted days after the service. “I am what they call a PNOK – a person next of kin. His oldest brother was my dad, and I am my dad’s oldest child.”
The service was performed by Chaplain Ho Kim, who is originally from Korea.
“It is really meaningful for me to officiate,” Kim said. “He sacrificed his life for Korea.”
Although Kim has lived in the U.S. for almost three decades and is currently stationed at Fort Hood, his Korean accent is evident in his speech.
Prior to the service, Kim reflected on the unusualness of a ceremony at which no one really knew the deceased.
“They love this country and honor the person who sacrificed his life for his country,” he said. “They show appreciation.”
Veterans, many of whom arrived at the service in a motorcade of motorcycles, saluted as the remains were placed in the ground.
“Sergeant Williams, thank you for your service and welcome home,” Kim said.
Motal said that the people of Madisonville were “so supportive with the flags and the banners.”
“It was a happy day,” she said of the memorial service. “I just wish that my dad and his brothers had been there to see him brought home. They were there in spirit.”
Motal said she and her family work with elected officials in Washington, D.C. to help bring home others who died in combat or POW camps. More than 7,800 people are still classified as missing from the Korean War, she said.
“You hope that someday their loved ones will be brought home, too,” Motal said.
Sgt. Williams was preceded in death by both of his parents; grandparents, Alford and Oad Akins and four older brothers, A.J., Alton, Leroy and Murl Wiliams. He is survived by one sister-in-law, Estelle Williams of Rosenberg, along with numerous nieces, nephews and cousins.
Madisonville Funeral Home handled arrangements.