Unknown soldier no more

Austin woman returns soldier’s dog tag to his family 53 years after finding it on a Philippines farm.

By Denise Gamino
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Sunday, November 12, 2006

All the children knew about the buried treasures in Lourdes McLaughlin’s backyard. But Lourdes was the only one to find a tiny object so mysterious that she carried it with her, usually in her wallet, for more than 50 years, always wondering what would become of it and whether she would ever know its true story.

As a child, Lourdes McLaughlin found Darrel Thorsted’s dog tag in her backyard in the Philippines, but she never knew how it got there or who he was. This summer she found some answers.

She was just 10 years old when she first saw it. She lived in the northwest mountains of the Philippines after World War II on land where Japanese soldiers had dug hidden caves overlooking the Lingayen Gulf, Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s landing spot for the final push to victory in 1945.

Lourdes and her cousins liked to play cowboy games on her family’s fruit and vegetable farm because they could find bullets and other war relics. One boy found a Japanese soldier’s helmet. Another cousin found a Japanese canteen. The children bragged about their finds, showing them off like prizes won at a carnival.

One day after a heavy rain, Lourdes was hiking home alone after feeding the chickens when she spotted something glittering in the dirt under a pomelo fruit tree. She stopped and dug out a piece of flat stainless steel so small it fit in her child-sized palm. “I thought it had something to do with a gun,” she remembers. But when she wiped the object clean, a name and serial number appeared. It was a military ID known as a dog tag.

Lourdes kept quiet about her discovery in 1953; the last thing she wanted was to have one of her cousins talk her into trading it for a bullet. She placed it in a little treasure box in her bedroom, and eventually tucked it into her wallet. It was still there when she moved to Austin five years ago after falling in love with the city while visiting her cousins.

Her family had moved to the farm from Manila after the war, so no one knew what sort of fighting occurred there. But Lourdes’ grandmother, who also lived on the farm, began having visions before she died.

“There’s a wounded soldier standing here,” she said while sitting in the living room.

“What does he look like?” asked Lourdes. “Well, he’s wounded and he has a uniform on. He’s an American.” “What color is his hair?” “It looks light-colored or brown, and it looks like blue eyes.” Darrel Keith Thorsted had blue eyes.

He was a U.S. infantryman from a small town in the Upper Snake River Valley of Idaho, just below the sharp peaks of the Teton Mountains. Darrel was one of nine Thorsted children in a homestead family. He loved to hunt and fish in the nearby forests and mountain streams.

The family moved to town during the Depression, but Thorsted and his brothers continued to work in the hay and wheat fields. Thorsted also found time to box and won most of his matches.

“He was always good to me,” says his younger brother, Paul Thorsted, who today is 83 and lives in Ogden, Utah.

“He always kind of looked out for me. I’d want to go sleighing in the wintertime, and my mother wouldn’t let me go unless somebody would take me, and I’d wait until Darrel got home. When you get somebody who will pull you up the hill and then down with you, that’s pretty good.”

But Darrel Thorsted had a stubborn streak and a hot temper. At times, his anger flared and he would lash out. He had a rocky relationship with his father, and that falling out might be what prompted him to drop out of high school before he could graduate with his class in 1936.

About a year later, still a teenager, he joined the 38th Infantry at Fort Douglas, in Salt Lake City. His brother, Paul Thorsted, remembers Darrel coming home on furlough.

“I just don’t remember the occasion (but) we walked downtown and the flag was displayed and Darrel saluted it,” Paul Thorsted said. “I think I asked him why he did it and he said, ‘You always salute the flag.’ “

At some point, Darrel Thorsted transferred out of the 38th Infantry and was stationed in Hawaii for two years. And from there, he was sent to the Philippines. He worried about the brewing conflict in the Pacific and shared his concern in a letter to a sister, who is now deceased.

“Of course, the war wasn’t unexpected to them over there,” said Chet Thorsted, 85, another brother. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, and then moved on to bomb the U.S. military at Clark Field in the Philippines before invading the islands and overwhelming the U.S. and Filipino forces. Tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers were taken prisoner by the Japanese. Cpl. Darrel Thorsted was one of them.

Government records list Darrel Thorsted as a prisoner of war as of May 7, 1942, a month after the fall of Bataan. Servicemen captured on Bataan — including Thorsted, according to his family — were marched as many as 75 miles to POW camps or died along the way in the Bataan death march made famous in films and books. Available records don’t indicate which POW camp Thorsted was in. His siblings were told he was imprisoned in Cabanatuan, a notoriously vicious camp where Americans were starved, tortured and beheaded.

“I know my mother and dad both cried” when they learned their son was a prisoner of the Japanese, remembers Margaret Strevay, Thorsted’s younger sister, who is now 79 and living in Ogden.

“I had been to a show and I had gone upstairs. I don’t know who came to the door, I didn’t see them, but they told the folks that Darrel had been taken prisoner.’’

The Thorsteds by then were living in Ogden, where they had moved in the late 1930s so the father could take a job in a warehouse. Thorsted’s sister was home with her parents in July 1943 when another telegram arrived with no notice. This time, the news was much worse.

“There wasn’t anyone who came to tell the folks,” Margaret Thorsted remembers. “They got a telegram saying he’d died in the prison camp from beriberi (a disease of malnutrition).

“I think my mother almost had a heart attack. And I ran out to the kitchen to get a glass of water for her. That was really a big shock. They both cried.

“I guess I cried along with them.”

“Corporal Dies in Prison Camp,” read the headline on July 15, 1943, on page 12-A in the Ogden Standard-Examiner. The next day’s Salt Lake City Tribune also carried a three-paragraph story headlined “Soldier Dies in Jap Prison.”

On record at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration is a July 10, 1943, document showing Darrel Thorsted’s name on a “Tokio cable” listing dead prisoners of war.

More than 63 years after notification of his death, the siblings of Darrel Thorsted will spend another Veterans Day weekend without knowing what horrors their older brother endured, or even where he is buried.

McLaughlin for half a century tried to imagine who Darrel Thorsted was, where he was from, whether he had children and what fate befell him in the Philippines.

Most of all, she wondered how his dog tag came to rest on her family’s farm high in the Philippine mountains. Had he been captured at that spot, or wounded? Did he die there?

McLaughlin moved to the United States in 1986. And after visiting longtime friends and family in Austin, she decided to move here in 2001. She worked at the IBM credit union and lived with her father until his death earlier this year.

Throughout the years, McLaughlin talked to more than 50 relatives and friends about the mysterious dog tag she carried in her wallet. “Just mail it back to the military,” they told her.

That idea sounded too vague to her. She feared the military bureaucracy would misplace the dog tag or let it languish in a drawer. She hung onto it.

But a few months ago, McLaughlin saw a story and photograph of a forgotten World War II airman in the American-Statesman. She didn’t want Darrel Thorsted to be lost to time, too. “Most probably,” she thought to herself, “he would like to have this dog tag brought back to his family.” She made some phone calls and was put in touch with local genealogist Andrea Avery, who often assists others when their family research has stalled.

Avery quickly located the Thorsted family in Utah. She spoke by phone to Chet Thorsted, the eldest of the three surviving siblings. He had a surprise.“Well,” he said, “I’ve got some information for you. Darrel was married and had two sons.”

Avery was taken aback. Nothing about a wife and children had shown up on genealogy Web sites, World War II databases or U.S. marriage license records.

In the midst of war, Darrel Thorsted found love. He married a Filipino woman named Violet Kennedy, who was from Manila, and they had two sons, according to the Thorsted family in Utah. Edwin was born in the Philippines on April 14, 1941, and Walter was born June 2, 1942.

When the war was over, Kennedy, now a widow, mailed the Thorsted family some photographs, including a black-and-white picture of her husband’s casket placed on the grass in an unidentified spot. “Dear folks,” she wrote, “This is Darrel’s casket draped with the American flag. Love, Violet.”

If she provided the location of his burial, that information has been lost.

Darrell Thorsted was buried in the Philippines, according to the National Archives. A World War II casualty roster says he was buried in a temporary cemetery “at USAF cemetery, Manila No. 2, Philippine Islands.” His permanent interment site is listed only as Philippine Islands.

Along with the picture of her husband’s casket, Kennedy mailed a photograph of herself with the couple’s son Edwin, taken in a Manila studio.

Chet Thorsted still has those photos as well as two pictures of Darrel Thorsted in his uniform. They have been the family’s only link to the one they lost in World War II.

Until McLaughlin began her search, the Thorsted family had no idea what happened to the sons of Darrel Thorsted. Research by Andrea Avery, the genealogist from Pflugerville, uncovered pieces of the puzzle.

Court documents in Bexar County were easy to pull after Chet Thorsted volunteered the information about his deceased brother’s wife and sons. This is what can be pieced together from public documents and Chet Thorsted’s memory:

After World War II, Darrel Thorsted’s widow married a wealthy American businessman in the Philippines and moved to San Antonio. Texas was within traveling range of Utah, so Darrel Thorsted’s father rode a bus to San Antonio to see his grandsons. But after he arrived, he was not allowed to see them. Kennedy said her new husband was against the visit, so the grandfather returned to Utah with a broken heart.

In the early 1960s, however, Darrel’s brother Chet was sent to San Antonio on business. He visited with Kennedy and met the two boys. Today, Edwin, the elder son, has schizophrenia and lives in Southern California under guardianship. The soldier’s younger son, Walter, died a few years ago. Violet Kennedy died last year.

But both of Darrel Thorsted’s sons had children of their own. Yet those grandchildren never knew about their soldier grandfather who died in the Philippines.

One of Darrel Thorsted’s grandchildren, Elexia Green, now is a mother of four living in Maine with her husband, who is in the Coast Guard.

“We haven’t had much family to tie in our heritage picture for us,” said Elexia Green. “I have always wanted to know about our grandfather, who we were always told was (Kennedy’s second husband). It’s very profound to me to find out I have a different grandfather.

“I have always wanted to tell our boys about my side of their family but haven’t had much to give them.” A few weeks ago, McLaughlin took Darrel Thorsted’s dog tag out of her wallet and placed it in a small white box filled with cotton padding. She sat at her kitchen table and wrote a one-page letter to Chet Thorsted, the dead soldier’s brother.

“It is a blessing that I have finally found the family of Darrel,” she wrote. “I have carried Darrel’s dog tag for 50 years since I found it as a child in my dad’s property in the mountains near Baguio City, Philippines, hoping that one day his family could get it and I’m sure Darrel would have wanted it that way.

“So, I’m mailing it to you, but I’m going to miss not having it in my possession.”

Then, she sent it by overnight mail to Utah.

The next day, Chet Thorsted tore open the package.

‘’Mission accomplished,” he said.

He turned the simple dog tag over and over in his hands. Finally, the Thorsted family could, once again, hold a little part of the brother who gave his life fighting for freedom in a land across an ocean a long time ago.

“You just kind of get a little empty feeling in your stomach,” Chet Thorsted said.

And, one day soon, a soldier’s photo, his dog tag and the letter from an Austin woman who was his guardian for 50 years will hang on the wall in a shadow box. Darrel Thorsted will be home again with his family.

dgamino@statesman.com; 445-3675