Sixty years after Braham native Ralph W. Carlson died in a Korean War prison camp, his remains were finally returned to his empty grave at Rice Lake Cemetery. A celebration of the short 23 years of his life was held Saturday, June 25 which packed the narthex and sanctuary of the Braham Evangelical Lutheran Church.
The ceremony brought together not just family and friends of Sergeant Carlson. Lining the church parking lot were flag-holding members of the Minnesota Patriot Guard riders. Braham VFW Post #1731 members were called on as casket bearers, with more military presence offered by the Cambridge American Legion Post #290 and the Minnesota National Guard Honor Team.
Carlson, the son of Alvin and Hilda Carlson, joined the U.S. Army on Jan. 10, 1949 and a spent a year training in El Paso, TX before returning home to farm. He was called back up out of the Reserves on Sept. 29, 1950 and arrived in Korea on Dec. 1, serving as a tank driver.
Carlson was part of a defensive screen with the 25th Recon Patrol, which allowed members of the 27th Infantry to retreat across the Han River when the North Koreans went on an offensive Jan. 4, 1951. He and two other soldiers were unable to cross the bridge since the North Koreans already occupied it. Their efforts to cross the partially-frozen Han were heard by the enemy, and the small group was captured.
Through suffering malnutrition at the hands of the captors, Carlson died from dysentery on April 2, 1951. A memorial service was held for him at Braham Evangelical Lutheran on March 13, 1954, but his remains were not recovered from North Korea.
Forty years later, several boxes of unidentified remains were turned over by the North Korean Government and were later sent to the Central Identification Lab of the Joint PWO/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii. Through DNA analysis, dental evaluation and skeletal reconstruction, SGT Carlson’s remains were positively identified this past March. Since its founding, JPAC has identified more than 560 American service members missing from WWI, WWII, Korea and Vietnam.
Carlson’s great-nephew PFC Jonathan Westcott of the Marines was chosen to escort the remains from Hawaii to the ceremony in Braham.
“It’s a pretty big honor to be able to do this for my family; it’s overwhelming,” Westcott spoke while at a stop-over at Camp Pendleton in California. “My family is very close, and there was definitely a hole left when he didn’t come home. I think this funeral will bring us closer, and it’s a great opportunity to be the one who escorts him home.”
Farm-life memories and more tales shared
During Saturday’s celebration, many speakers shared their recollections of Carlson: memories of special horses Ralph used to pull wagons, roller skating at the Fish Lake Pavilion, riding horse & buggy to the Coin Store for treats, and Ralph driving around in his new car. “Ain’t she a beauty?” he was recalled saying to a cousin.
Dr. Don Grossbach shared the memory which Ralph’s cousin Roger Anderson recalled as a 15 year-old watching the plane take off which carried Ralph away the final time. “Ralph had just bought his farm and didn’t want to leave. But he went when he was called into service for his country. Ralph would have made a good farmer; I’m sure he was a good soldier,” Anderson was quoted.
Dehl Lindstrom was two years younger than Ralph at Braham High and still remembered him well.
“Ralph was a true gentleman– soft-spoken, a peach of a guy,” said Lindstrom, also a Korean War veteran who was positioned north of the 38th parallel. “Some call the Korean War ‘the forgotten war, but those of us who served there will never forget.” To Ralph he finished, “He’s home now. Welcome home Sergeant Carlson. We’ve been waiting for you.”
In 2002, Carlson’s nephew Lanny Westphal and his brother, Glen, were in Washington D.C. for a briefing on recovering bodies from around the globe. While there, they attended a ceremony at the Korean War Memorial on the Washington Mall. The ambassador from South Korea was the speaker that evening.
“So on this summer evening on the Mall as we sat among the bronze statues, the ambassador said to us, ‘On behalf of the people of South Korea, thank you.’ At the time of the war, there were 17 million people in in South Korea, and at the time of the ceremony that number grew to 44 million. I looked it up, and today there are 48 million in South Korea.”
Westphal continued, “And the ambassador said, ‘Your country’s willingness to send your very best (like Ralph) made it possible for those 17 million– now 48 million– to live in freedom.’
“To Ralph, I wish you would have been here to see the world which you helped build.”
On July 4, “Good Morning America” will air Carlson’s funeral as part of its Independence Day special.