Korean War Veterans: 1,200 funerals and counting
It was July 27, 1995, and the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., just had been dedicated.
Among those in attendance were Howard Wilt and William “Bill” Kast, both of whom served in the Korean War.
The two met each other on a bus leaving the ceremony and together they came up with the idea to start the Korean War Veterans of Lycoming County, which officially formed in 1997.
Since that day, many of the original members have died, including Kast.
But Wilt, a Marine Corps veteran, remains, along with 215 active members.
Wilt speaks about the early days of the organization with pride.
“We started out slow with about 10 members and kept building,” he said. “Bill Kast was a go-getter type of guy. He was a real hard worker. He never did anything the next day that he could do today.”
Close to two years after its inception, the group reached 250 members with the help of various veterans organizations and positive word of mouth.
“Somebody would join and they’d really enjoy it and tell their friends,” Wilt said.
That popularity and enthusiasm hasn’t waned in the intervening years, said Wilt, citing the immense turnout at a statewide reunion here that was held this past July to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War.
The reunion was held here with a special ceremony at Veteran’s Memorial Park in Williamsport’s west end.
“None of us had any experience putting together anything like it, so that created a problem,” he said. “But we had a lot of help from local veterans organizations and the Williamsport/Lycoming Chamber of Commerce. We did it because we felt it was the perfect time to celebrate the end of the war.”
“It’s the only organization I’ve been a part of that can still get that kind of turnout,” Army veteran Charles A. Johnson said.
Perhaps that has something to do with the group’s relentless dedication to their fellow veterans, alive or passed, as is evidenced in their honor guard.
The story of the honor guard is one of staggering statistics.
Formed in 1999, the group has officiated at 1,200 funerals and counting. In November alone, the members performed at 10 funerals in 27 days. Over the years, they have traveled 67,000 miles and have never canceled for bad weather. They attend three to four funerals per week.
No one member has attended every funeral, but a few of the men are nearing 600, including Wilt, Marine Corps veteran Wilbur M. “Bill” Emig, Army veteran Galen Seaman and Air Force veteran George Wolfe.
“We feel that anybody who served this country and was not dishonorably discharged deserves a military funeral,” Wilt said.
Officiating at funerals is just one of many services the honor guard provides. The honor guard often performs when county officials are elected, and for several years did the honors for the annual 9/11 motorcycle ride.
But the honor guard’s formation wasn’t a given when the Korean War Veterans was incorporated.
It took an embarrassing display by another group at a veteran’s funeral attended by member Bill Emig, who is credited with the guard’s founding.
On July 22, 1999, the honor guard performed its first ceremony. During the three months leading up to that day, the group practiced often and acquired the proper uniforms, rifles and ammunition to do it right.
“For a while there we just said ‘bang’ before we had any ammunition,” Emig said.
Despite their humble beginnings, they eventually would gain a reputation for providing a respectful and necessary service for their fellow veterans.
The Rev. John K. Manno, of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Montoursville, is an honorary member of the unit.
“They are beautiful, beautiful men,” he said. “They are always in a good mood and I was honored when they asked me to give the invocation (at the reunion ceremony). I have always been impressed by them.”
The honor guard is comprised of 27 veterans, ages 77 to 85. As they get older, having the full unit present at each funeral becomes more difficult, Emig said. Since 1999, 14 members have died.
Now, anywhere from 12 to 20 honor guard members perform per ceremony.
Who will replace the final lineup once they’re gone is still to be decided, though Emig hopes the Vietnam War veterans will take over.
Asked what keeps them going after so many years, the men not only credited the vital role their wives have played, but also each other.
“Whenever we get together, we have an instant camaraderie. It’s like we’re kids again, like we’re siblings,” Marine Corps veteran Charles Sheets said.
“We’re a real band of brothers,” Army veteran John Keene added.