Soldier finds final resting place at last
James Lemonte Winchester never met his paternal grandfather, but he said he vividly remembers the first time he heard about him.
In the late ’70s, when he was 8 or 9 years old, his father, William James Winchester, returned to their home in Lima, Ohio, with a photograph. The elder Winchester had been visiting his mother, Millie Ann Cowan-Winchester, who gave him the photo.
“It was a huge photograph in an old picture frame, and I asked him who it was,” said Winchester, “and he told me that was his father, William Junior Winchester, private first class in the Army, a soldier in the Korean War. He said he never met his father, and that he had been presumed captured and killed, but the specifics weren’t known.”
Pfc. Winchester was one of the last “Buffalo Soldiers” before the integration of the U.S. Armed Services. He was a member of Company D, 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division.
Born May 5, 1930, and also raised in nearby Mount Hope, William Junior Winchester enlisted in the Army around March 1950. He got married the same year.
His oldest living cousin, Charlie Lee Suggs, of Landersville, said he remembers playing together as children and notes he was good at baseball and was active at Mount Hope Presbyterian church. He recalled they had intended to go into the Army together, but Suggs wound up staying home.
The last night Pfc. Winchester was home for the last time, on furlough from the Army in September 1950, he played a song on his guitar. James Winchester said while he doesn’t know the name of the song, the lyrics included, “I’m not coming back this way no more.” He said he believes his grandfather knew he was unlikely to make it back home.
“He had hoped to stay long enough to be there for the birth of his son, but he was unable to extend his leave,” said Winchester. “It wasn’t long before the Army lost contact with him.”
At the end of the war, Pfc. Winchester was listed as Missing in Action, and the Army later declared him dead.
For many years the family didn’t know for sure what had happened, but they presumed he’d been captured, killed and buried in a mass grave somewhere in North Korea.
His parents, Fred and Nanny Winchester, reportedly never truly accepted he was dead. Once they received his death benefit from the Army, they moved from Mount Hope and bought land in Tharptown, where they lived until their deaths.
As for Millie Ann Winchester, Pfc. Winchester’s wife – she decided, shortly after receiving news of his death, to start a new life in Ohio, where some of the family had gone. Traveling that way with the intention to live and work in Detroit, their car broke down in Lima, Ohio. Given the need to find work immediately, they decided to stay and , eventually, began encouraging the rest of the family to join them.
“All of my grandmother’s side of the family wound up moving,” said James Winchester. “My father was born in Mount Hope, and lived there until he was 3 or 4, but Lima, Ohio, is the only home he remembered, though he went back all down through the years to visit his father’s side of the family.”
James Winchester said his family always wanted to know what happened to his grandfather. His father’s younger sister, Vickie, reached out to the military around 2002 to ask what could be done to learn more.
“Up until that point, we had never reached out to the military, so this got the process started officially,” said James Winchester. “Around 2010 my sister, Tiphany, reached out to them again to see what else could be done, and they started sending us information and later sent a kit for a DNA test.”
James Winchester and his father did DNA swabs and sent it back to the military, but his father died from cancer less than a year later.
The next time they heard from the Army was several years later, in September 2019, when a representative called to let them know a positive match had been made thanks to the DNA test.
“They told us it was a 100 percent positive identification,” said James Winchester, “and it was remarkable news. We never thought it would happen.
“They explained he had been captured Nov. 26, 1950, by the Chinese People’s Volunteer Forces near Unsan, North Korea, just a few days before his son was born Dec. 2, and he died from malnutrition in North Korea Prisoner of War Camp #5 Feb. 28, 1951.
“He was buried in a mass grave. When he died, he was 20 years old.”
As it turns out, through Operation Glory, the United States had repatriated his remains around three years later, in 1954. Despite that, it would be 65 years more before his family learned about it.
Pfc. Winchester’s remains were sent home with the Marines. They knew they hadn’t had a black soldier from that area among their ranks, so he was buried in an unknown grave in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawai’i.
“Thanks to the development in new testing methods, he was finally identified,” said James Winchester. “The Army explained that with repatriations, they often find only fragments – sometimes as little as one bone – but with my grandfather, they were able to identify more than 98 percent of the skeleton.”
James Winchester said he thinks the most emotional part about it for him is that his grandparents and father are not still alive to learn what happened. He said many people have offered the family condolences for the death of his grandfather – but with the death happening 70 years ago, he sees this time now as a celebration, to finally be able to have closure about what happened and to honor Pfc. Winchester appropriately.
Pfc. Winchester was buried with military honors in Memorial Park Cemetery in Lima, Ohio, Aug. 10. “It was amazing to see everything the City of Lima did for my grandfather, even though he wasn’t a native of there,” said James Winchester.
“The military did a 21-gun salute. The mayor, David Berger, issued a special proclamation. Gov. (Kay) Ivey of Alabama also issued a proclamation. There was a flyover of the capitol in Alabama, and they sent me the flag they flew at half-staff at the capitol.
“Our family would like to thank Major Patrick Hernandez, the Army Casualty Operations Officer who assisted our family, as well as everyone else who helped make this event not only possible but special.”
James Winchester said the plan had been for his grandfather’s remains to be brought to Lima, Ohio, where most of the family now lives, in 2020, but everything had to be put on hold due to COVID-19 precautions, and planning resumed earlier this year.
“Unfortunately, I had lost the original photograph of my grandfather years earlier while moving,” he siad, “so I looked for an artist to recreate his likeness from what I still had: a photo of myself and my father holding the photograph together.”
James Winchester said the details were difficult to distinguish because it was an old Polaroid, and he had difficulty finding an artist who felt confident about being able to work with the available information.
“Finally, we found the right artist, Clarence Pointer,” said Winchester. “He’s the cousin of my cousin Patricia Shackleford’s husband. It took him some time, but I would say he got it almost exactly. He finished it and sent it to me from his home in California in February 2020.”
Hernandez said they Army arranged to have soldiers present to render full honors for Pfc. Winchester at his graveside.
“We folded and presented a flag to his grandson, and we did a rifle volley,” Hernandez said. “I feel very fortunate for the opportunity to have been able to work to help get his remains identified and brought home and to finally give him the sendoff he deserved.”
James Winchester said there was a Patriot Guard escort from the airport in Columbus to Lima. “People came out on their porches and in their yards in every town we went through,” he added. “You could tell the military ones because they had flags and saluted as we went by.”
He said most of the people they saw were older Caucasian men. “It’s amazing to me how they didn’t see color – just a man who died for his country, and they saluted him,” said James Winchester. “It gave me a sense of pride that this is what my grandfather died for.
“It didn’t matter that he was a sharecropper or that he had picked cotton for pennies on the dollar. It was amazing because at the end of the day, I feel this is what America really is.”