Gen. Douglas MacArthur's oft-quoted adage that "old soldiers never die, they just fade away" is wrong.
Old soldiers do die. And for the past 12 years, the honor guard of the Korean War Veterans of Lycoming County has been making sure they are buried with dignity and honor.
Since 1999, the organization's honor guard has been providing military funerals for veterans throughout central Pennsylvania, all of them free of charge.
Honor guard bugler Dorance “Sonny” Frymire plays “Taps.” Below, the honor guard rifle squad stands in formation prior to the service.
The honor guard recently logged its 1,000th military funeral, providing full military honors for Korean War veteran and Purple Heart recipient John S. Laielli during a ceremony at Montoursville Cemetery.
Being buried with military honors is something Laielli and other veterans deserve, regardless of the era or branch of service in which they served, said honor guard founder and first commander Wilbur M. "Bill" Emig, 82, a Marine Corps veteran who was wounded in Korea during the Korean War.
"We believe that every man and woman who served in the military should be honored," said Emig. "If we can, we'll do a service for them."
The Korean War Veterans of Lycoming County was founded in 1997. Not long after, Emig attended the funeral of a veteran and was horrified at the disorganized attempt at providing military honors for him.
"I was very ashamed because it was so bad and poorly done," Emig said. "I thought the men and women who served our country deserved the best service that could be given them."
To that end, Emig decided to organize the honor guard. He approached the Korean War veteran organization's first commander William Kast, who liked the idea. Emig and Kast presented it to the organization's board of directors and again received support.
Because the newly formed unit had no rifles or ammunition, it borrowed those items from Leroy O. Buck Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7863, DuBoistown, and proceeded to practice.
The guard practiced several times a week and eventually they bought their own rifles. The group also outfitted itself with uniforms, Emig said.
According to Emig, each piece of the uniform has a symbolic meaning: The black trousers, socks and shoes represent those who did not return home from war; white shirt and khaki cap, the mud soldiers fought in; and red scarf, the blood spilled in wartime.
After about three months, the group decided it was ready to perform its first military funeral and on July 22, 1999, did just that. Once word got out that the group was available and could provide a dignified military service, it began to get more and more funeral referrals, Emig said.
"It just got bigger and bigger as funeral directors and veterans saw that we gave the deceased veterans the honor and respect they deserved," Emig said. "Our group grew over the years as did the amount of requests we received."
Funeral director Jeffrey Crouse of Crouse Funeral Home said the group has never turned down his request for a military ceremony.
"They do a very good job and the families appreciate it," Crouse said.
According to Emig, the group has performed in five central Pennsylvania counties and logged in more than 58,000 miles.
The group draws from a pool of 33 members. A minimum contingent of 15 members is needed to adequately staff a funeral, Emig said.
Even though its members are between 75 and 83 years old, the unit has never canceled a service due to foul weather.
"We do this in all weather - snow, rain, freezing rain," Emig said. "We've never had to cancel one because of the weather."
Although the dedication of the individual members of the unit is commendable, the wives of those members are just as dedicated, Emig said. They often have to change plans at a moment's notice so their husbands can attend a funeral, he said.
"The wives back every one of these guys to the hilt," he said. "I'm so very proud of the whole group and the wives who support us."
Emig commanded the group until his own wife Beverly became ill. Beverly urged Emig to continue on with the group, but he took time off from it to care for her.
Following her death in August 2003, Emig began working with the unit again. Today, Howard Wilt is the unit commander, though he co-organizes funeral services with Emig and Galen Seaman, with each man handling the duties for a month at a time
According to Wilt, the service is not only for the veteran, but the veteran's family.
"They get the pride of knowing their loved one served and was honorably recognized," Wilt said. "That's why we do it."
No one in the unit has attended all 1,000 funerals, Emig said, though Korean War Veterans of Lycoming County Commander Fred Schaefer has probably attended the most. Schaefer said he is unsure of the exact number of funerals he has attended but estimates it to be between 600 and 700.
"I feel it's an honor to pay my respects," Schaefer said.
Bugler Dorance "Sonny" Frymire, 81, agreed. Frymire, who recently suffered a stroke and needs the use of a wheeled walker to get around, said he will attend funerals as long as he is able.
"I feel it is our right and honor to bury these people properly," Frymire said. "It would take a lot to keep me from doing it."
Some of the services have been held for members of the honor guard, Emig said. To date, nine members of the guard have died since it was formed in 1999, including Kast, David Law, Robert Dauber, Eugene Shank, Ralph March, Anthony Cerquozzi, Norman Probst, Monroe Reese and Richard Case, he said.
Some day they all will be gone. Emig said he is hopeful that when that happens, another group will step forward to carry on the tradition.
"We will some day have to surrender to the younger groups to carry on," he said.