ARLINGTON, Va. — U.S. Navy Ensign Robert Langwell would have been destined for a dark, watery grave if not for the kindness of a fisherman in South Korea who pulled his body from the ocean some 60 years ago.
Thanks to a tip from that same fisherman, family members were able to bury him Monday at Arlington National Cemetery.
Langwell, a native of Columbus, Ind., died aboard the USS Magpie when the ship hit a mine and exploded off the coast of South Korea on Oct. 1, 1950, months after the start of the Korean War. Twelve soldiers survived; Langwell was one of 20 lost at sea. He was 26.
Days later, his body got tangled in that fisherman’s net and was pulled from the sea. Local residents buried him in a shallow grave in Chuksan-ri, South Korea, where he remained for decades.
Two years ago, the fisherman’s tip led South Korean officials to search for Langwell’s body. In April of last year, they recovered his skeletal remains and an old identification card from a shallow grave three miles from where the ship sank.
A geneaology search led U.S. Navy officials to Brenda Showalter, also of Columbus, Langwell’s second cousin.
“I just didn’t believe it. I was sure it was some kind of scam,” Showalter said. “I was very skeptical. I told my husband, he didn’t believe it. I told my sister, she said, ‘No way.”’
Showalter and her sister submitted DNA swab kits that helped identify his remains, and dental records from when he served in World War II confirmed the body was a match.
Nine of Langwell’s relatives attended the graveside service at Arlington on Monday morning. He was buried with full military honors, including a firing party and a horse-drawn caisson. A military band played “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” the Navy hymn, as Langwell’s casket was carried to the grave site. Many of his rela-tives had never met one another before the service.
“It’s kind of funny. I didn’t ever know him, but he’s my family. I don’t quite know how to put that in words,” said Showalter, 50. “I have cousins not very far away that I’m just now finding out about. Even in his death, he’s doing some nice things for our family.”
A delegation from the Korean Embassy, including Ambassador Han Duk-soo, also attended the funeral. Han said Langwell’s ceremony was a symbolic way to pay tribute to the courage and sacrifice of all American soldiers who fought for Korea’s freedom 60 years ago. After the service, embassy officials took Langwell’s family to lunch at a Japanese restaurant nearby.
The funeral was one of 31 held at Arlington on Monday. Another was for World War I Army Pvt. Thomas Costello of New York City, who died of a shrapnel wound and was buried in a wooded area in northern France in 1918. Dental records also confirmed his identity.
Military officials tracked down Michael Frisbie of Stockton Springs, Maine, who is Costello’s only surviving relative. Frisbie attended Monday’s service.