Paying respects to a soldier
Fort Berthold Korean War veteran’s family visits gravesite 68 years later
On April 7, 2023, The Minot Daily News published a story about Korean War veteran Pfc. John “Shorty” Irwin Jr., a Korean War veteran from Fort Berthold Reservation, after one of his sisters and nephew, Doreen Mavis Irwin of Bismarck and Glenn Brunsell of New Town, visited the crash site in Hawaii that took the young soldier’s life. In May, John Irwin Jr.’s five living sisters traveled to Missouri to visit their brother’s grave after 68 years. They are Johanna Irwin White Bear of New Town, Alva Irwin and Doreen Mavis Irwin Russell, both of Bismarck and Sally Irwin White of Parshall. Another sister, Ada Irwin Sharp of Browning, Montana, was unable to go on the trip.
On May 25, 1955, John Sr. and Gladys Irwin, parents of John Jr., traveled to St. Louis, Missouri, to attend the memorial service and burial of their oldest son. He was only 22 years old when he was killed in a plane crash in Hawaii on his way home from the Korean War and was buried on his birthday.
They were joined by John Jr.’s wife, Elaine, and his son, Gerald “Jerry,” his siblings, aunts, uncles and community members. It was told that his father, John Sr., had a most difficult time leaving his son in St. Louis after the funeral.
It has been 68 years since any of our family members had the opportunity to visit our brother John Irwin Jr.’s gravesite located in the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Although family talked about going to St. Louis throughout the years, there were barriers that made it difficult at the time and there were family members who talked of moving his body home to the Fort Berthold Reservation but that would prove to be impossible.
To date, John has five siblings living out of 11. They are Sally Irwin White, Johanna Irwin White Bear, Ada Irwin Sharp, Doreen Mavis Irwin Russell and Alva R. Irwin, and his son, Gerald “Jerry” Irwin. His son, a Vietnam veteran, and his wife, Linda, live in the Lucky Mound area.
Last year, we sisters made the decision that we were going to go to St. Louis and visit my brother’s gravesite. Then it came to the realization that we were actually going after all our flights and hotel reservations were made. I could hardly sleep the night before we flew out of Bismarck.
As we flew into St. Louis, I thought of my brother and him being so far away from home. But it felt like he was there and he was waiting for us.
On the morning of May 11th, we made the drive to the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. It was a quiet ride. I think we were all so emotionally overcome by what we were about to see and that we were actually here.
As we drove into the cemetery, we were greeted by a huge concrete sign that read “Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery” and the word “Peace” was written on the back. It was an incredible sight to see the rows upon rows of veterans’ graves marked with white monuments and you could tell that this cemetery was kept in pristine condition. It appeared that it was cared for with dignity and care in respect for all the soldiers buried there.
We walked into an office and were greeted right away by the receptionist. She asked for our brother’s name, but she could not find it. Mavis showed her a map she had that showed where he was buried. She said that site was for those soldiers who had been killed in a plane crash. We told her that our brother was one of those soldiers. She called for a guide to drive us to the site.
A veteran named Don was our guide and he treated us with the utmost respect. He asked us who we came to visit and we told him the story. After, he told us that he is one of 35 staff members who take care of the graves and they are all veterans. He said, “Vets take care of vets because that’s what they’re supposed to do.” Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery holds 237,000-plus graves and covers 331 acres and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. He also showed us a huge area where they were preparing a space for more graves.
As we were getting closer to our brother’s grave, I felt like I was going to his funeral, but it didn’t feel like 68 years later. It felt like it just happened.
When we found his grave, there was no white monument. Instead there was a huge white plaque laid on the ground. My brother’s name, John Irwin Jr., was on the monument with 39 more names that included USA (U.S. Army), USAF (U.S. Air Force), USMC (U.S. Marine Corps) and USN (U.S. Navy) members. There were PFCs (private first class), SGTs (sergeant), ADAN (aviation machinist’s mate airman), MSGTs (master sergeant), LT COL (lieutenant colonel), AIC (airman first class), LCDR (lieutenant commander) and more. They were buried in nine caskets that held their dog tags and ashes.
It was one of the saddest moments in my life, as with my sisters, because you pray he didn’t suffer.
Sisters share memories
I remember nothing of my trip to St. Louis in 1955. I was 3 years old. I do remember my mother and father silently weeping when they thought everyone was asleep as they mourned for my brother, John “Shorty” Irwin Jr. My inner soul was anxious to go visit Shorty in St. Louis and in my heart it felt like he had just passed away on the day we reached his gravesite. I was flooded with sadness and grief when we were ready to leave him again.
I wished I could have known his humorous side, him returning home on horseback and his singing. I wished I knew my brother.
When I started the trip to St. Louis on May 9 to visit my brother, John Irwin Jr.’s gravesite, I really didn’t expect to see what I was about to see.
The Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery was the largest and neatest cemetery I had ever seen in my life, with 237,000 brave soldiers and veterans buried there and all employees there were veterans.
My sisters, Alva, Mavis, Sally and I were driven to my brother’s grave and we spent some private time with his monument that he shared with the other soldiers that were on this plane when it crashed.
It was very sad to leave him there again, knowing that I may never return there to visit him again, but was happy that we got to visit him one more time.