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Remains of missing WWII soldier return home for burial

Arlington native killed 66 years ago in German battle

A German explosives team discovered the remains of Sergeant John J. Farrell Jr. while it swept a proposed construction site in the village of Kommerscheidt. Farrell, killed by tank fire in the Battle of Hurtgen Forest, will be laid to rest with full military honors in a family plot in Norwood tomorrow. A German explosives team discovered the remains of Sergeant John J. Farrell Jr. while it swept a proposed construction site in the village of Kommerscheidt. Farrell, killed by tank fire in the Battle of Hurtgen Forest, will be laid to rest with full military honors in a family plot in Norwood tomorrow. (US Army)
By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / April 29, 2010

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NORWOOD — For more than six decades, Rosemary Farrell visited a cemetery plot near her childhood home in Arlington with a granite marker but no grave. It was for her older brother, whose fate was known only as the US Army presumed it: death on a German battlefield in 1944.

Yesterday, a military honor guard delivered John J. Farrell Jr.’s remains to his family, 66 years after he went missing in action during the Battle of Hurtgen Forest.

For his loved ones, Farrell’s return is an unimagined blessing, a release from years of lingering regret, and a proper chance to say goodbye.

“He’s home,’’ said Rosemary Farrell, an 84-year-old who fondly recalls riding on the back of her brother’s bike as a young girl. “Home at last.’’

Tomorrow, Farrell, who was born in 1922, will be laid to rest with full military honors in a family plot in Norwood. An Army blanket will line the casket, and a military uniform will cover his remains.

His return marks another hard-won victory in the painstaking, improbable campaign to recover the far-flung remains of fallen American soldiers in foreign wars.

“I think it’s beautiful, in a way,’’ said Barbara Wilson, 85, another sister.

Farrell’s remains were discovered in September 2008, when a German explosives team swept a proposed construction site in the village of Kommerscheidt for ordnance left over from one of World War II’s longest battles.

After discovering an American combat boot, they excavated the property and found the bones of Farrell, who was a staff sergeant, and another American soldier.

A US team working nearby completed the recovery and transported Farrell’s remains to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command headquarters in Hawaii to confirm their identity.

The process took months. The Farrell family, meanwhile, learned that Farrell had been honored as a missing soldier at Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial, near the Belgian-German border. They contacted military officials and were told that Farrell’s body might have been recovered.

Rosemary Farrell and Wilson both submitted DNA samples for confirmation. In September, the call they hoped for finally came.

“It’s a miracle,’’ said Rosemary Farrell. “Just imagine, after all these years. It’s such a joy, to finally know.’’

The family expressed some frustration with the Army over the delay in notifying them, but said they understand the need to be absolutely certain.

Stunningly, Farrell’s remains were relatively intact. Excavators found his dog tag and a Waterman fountain pen, which the family imagines he might have used to write letters home. They also found his boots, wallet, and canteen, as well as rifles, grenades, and ammunition.

The Army told Farrell’s family that he and several members of his platoon were killed by German tank fire after being surrounded.

Army officials presented the information in person earlier this month at Wilson’s Norwood home, a gesture that touched the family.

When Farrell went missing, few details were known. At the time, military officials told the family that he had probably been killed in the Battle of the Bulge and that the chances of finding his remains were slim. They did mention the two central towns in the Battle of Hurtgen Forest, Schmidt and Kommerscheidt.

“I’ll never forget those two names,’’ Rosemary Farrell said.

Farrell and Wilson said that the family was devastated by the loss and that their father never entirely recovered.

“Mom lost her husband that day, too,’’ Wilson recalled.

The sisters remember vividly the day the mailman returned letters and packages that were meant for Farrell. Among them was a care package their mother had sent, with rosary beads and socks.

“Isn’t that just like a mother?’’ Wilson said with a wistful smile.

John Farrell Jr. grew up in Arlington, graduating from Arlington High School in 1940. He went on to Boston College, where he studied Latin and Greek.

In 1943, his junior year, he and a group of friends decided to enlist. The following summer, he entered the European Theater. He earned the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for gallantry in action.

The 1944 Boston College yearbook describes him as a “prankster at heart.’’

“Life of the party,’’ Wilson said.

“But a good boy,’’ Farrell added.

The sisters said they feel profound relief that his remains at last can be laid to rest in the country he gave his life for.

“There was always something missing,’’ Farrell said. “But we’ve found him.’’

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