Will Staff Sgt. Lynch be coming home soon?
William Lynch, pictured in 1937 after joining the Marines.
The somber bugle's "Taps" echoed through the streets as the Lynch family and the Dorchester neighborhood memorialized their fallen son.
Despite being less than five, Judy Armour vividly remembers the 1950s ceremony honoring her uncle William Joseph Lynch for his service as a Marine in World War II. Armour and her family sat on a stage erected for the event. Mayor John Hynes attended and had a few words to say.
But the Neponset Avenue and Victory Road corner dedication was tragically incomplete. Staff Sergeant Lynch, who successfully escaped from his Japanese captors at least twice, never made it home. His whereabouts were never accounted for after the war. He was last known to be languishing in a Manchurian POW camp.
Though the sign marking William J. Lynch Square remains, memories of the Dorchester hero have all but disappeared and no members of his immediate family are still alive. Armour was shocked to answer the phone earlier this summer and hear her uncle's name.
"The call came out of the blue," she said. "I hadn't thought about him in years."
It was Ken Moore, the founder of Moore's Marauders, a multinational organization dedicated to locating the remains of American MIAs. Armour learned that with the help of a Chinese professor and an American genealogist, a quest to finally bring Lynch home was underway.
As the saying goes, "no Marine is left behind."
While researching the Japanese's Mukden prison, located in occupied China, Shenyang University Professor Yang Jing stumbled onto Lynch's story. He noticed Lynch was the only prisoner of the camp never accounted for. Digging deeper, Yang eventually interviewed prison workers who witnessed the burial of 12 Koreans and an unidentified American at a separate Manchurian prison in Lushun, formerly known as Port Arthur.
Yang suspected this could be Lynch and began establishing contacts in the United States for help. Marie Daly of the New England Historic Genealogical Society located twin sisters Judy Armour and Janet Sambuceti, daughters of Eleanor Hinesley Lynch, SSgt. Lynch's only sister. Armour lives in Bridgewater and Sambuceti in Marshfield.
The sisters are essential, as their mitochondrial DNA can be compared with future tests of any remains exhumed at the camp.
With few remaining relatives and no known friends, Lynch's life is an unfinished puzzle. Born March 24, 1919, his father Daniel died while he and his two brothers were little. As their mother, Marie Gruber Lynch, worked as a registered nurse, sister Eleanor took care of the boys.
Three of the Lynch children around 1922. From left are Daniel, William and Eleanor Lynch.
Keeping the brothers in line was tough for Eleanor, being only a year older than Billy, and they often got in trouble. The family lived in a home at 57 Victory Road, knocked down by the city in 1969.
Armour said her mother and grandmother were private people, showed minimal emotion, and spoke little about the family or their feelings. She never saw them cry, not even during the square dedication ceremony.
The children were told about Uncle Billy and what happened to him, but not much else.
"We were very proud of him and there was a great sense of loss," she said.
Lynch graduated from Mechanic Arts High School on Townsend Street, which now houses Boston Latin Academy, and enlisted in the National Guard, 26th Signal Company, in 1935. He joined the Marines in 1937 and was stationed in the Philippines in 1942, when the Japanese invaded.
As with his personal life, details about Lynch's military career are scarce. He surrendered to the Japanese after the battle of Corregidor and was imprisoned at the Cabanatuan camp in the Phillipines. He was later shipped to Japan aboard one of the deadly "hell ships," notorious for packing prisoners into cargo holds with little air, food or water.
Lynch valiantly escaped from prison in Japan, though he was recaptured and transferred across the sea to the Mukden prison in Manchuria.
Of 1,500 allied prisoners at the Mukden camp, hundreds died during the first winter under slave labor conditions. Others may have been subjected to medical experiments. Here, the determined Lynch - prisoner #610 - was nabbed for breaking out again.
Lynch was last seen alive by his cell mate on a stretcher, bloody and beaten after his escape. He is thought to have died in 1945.
Moore suspects Lynch may not have been your average grunt.
"The fact that they even bothered to put an American on a stretcher is so unusual," he said. "They took others (who escaped) and just executed them in front of everyone perhaps he had some [intelligence] they wanted?"
In addition, as Mukden was being liberated, American officer "Wild Bill" Donovan drove a jeep approximately 400 miles in harsh terrain to the Lushun prison to search for Lynch. Donovan, head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), was involved in intelligence operations and later became known as the "father" of the CIA.
Moore speculates that Lynch may have escaped again, only to be recaptured and sent to the Lushun prison where his fate was sealed.
"The fact that Donovan put forth that effort to find one man is very intriguing," said Moore.
Lynch's likely saga takes a gruesome turn at the end. The witnesses at the Lushun prison camp each describe seeing barrels, filled with dismembered bodies, buried in the ground. One of these contained an American.
Moore's Marauders wants to send a five-person team to China to determine if the location is indeed Lynch's resting place. It needs to use radar imaging to locate the barrels and if found, would take a sample of the remains for DNA testing.
The operation would cost about $25,000 and the genealogist Daly plans to help organize a fundraising event after the winter.
"I didn't start out thinking it was important," she said. "Then the more I researched him and the family, he became a real person and a hero."
Moore said there is a duty to follow through with the project.
"It's bringing closure to the family," he said. "It's the fact that the family has no idea what happened. If it was your son or daughter, how would you feel?"
Though once nearly lost to history, SSgt. Lynch's story could soon come to an end. Armour remembers thumbing through her grandmother's scrapbook as a little girl. Her uncle's plight during the war was dutifully tracked by the local press.
"It was a rollercoaster of he's alive, he's dead," she said about the news clips. "For two years there were reports of someone sighting him but being mistaken."
Armour said she felt sadness when first hearing about the quest, despite being hopeful and excited. She still chokes up when thinking about Billy and her family.
"I wish my grandmother knew," she said, holding back tears. "Not the details of what he had to endure, but that he might be coming home He never had a life to live. He did such a good job for a young boy and it would be an honor to have him back."