BAR HARBOR, Maine — The sharp crack of gunfire echoed Saturday at Ledgelawn Cemetery as a military honor guard helped to finally put a long-missing Korean War serviceman to rest.
“It has been a long time coming, 62 years,” The Rev. Scott Mower said at the graveside service for Army Cpl. Robert Tait. “The death of our brother Bobby recalls the human condition, and the brevity of life on earth … a young life that was taken too early in defense of our country.”
For decades, the remains of the Bar Harbor man had lain forgotten on unhallowed ground near the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea where he had died at 19, soon after being captured in battle by enemy troops in December 1950. This weekend, Tait was remembered with honor and thanks by a crowd of hundreds who came to finally put his body to rest. The young soldier’s remains had been recovered, repatriated and identified by a Department of Defense task force and taken to the cemetery for burial with full military honors, an effort that meant a lot to his family members.
“It’s kind of overwhelming,” his sister, Iona Strout of Bar Harbor, said after the ceremony.
Tait had been the youngest boy in a family of 13, and was remembered in his family for his steadiness, according to his grand niece Karen Hart. He died before she was born, but nonetheless his life and then his disappearance in Korea were always remembered, she said.
“He was a good boy. My great-grandmother relied on him a lot. He fought next to my grandfather in the [Bar Harbor] fire of ‘47. He always had a spirit of service,” she said. “Until her dying day, my great-grandmother thought he was going to walk into the front door.”
She said that she saw a message in a brief, gentle rain shower that fell during the graveside ceremony.
“That was my great-grandmother,” Hart said with a smile.
Other messages shared during and after the service were more direct, though no less heart-felt.
Kaye Bouchard of Topsham, a Patriot Guard rider and the state director for the American Legion riders, was one of at least a hundred motorcyclists who came to pay respects. Other riders belonged to the Patriot riders and the combat veteran riders. They circled the grave quietly, wearing leather chaps and carrying American flags, wiping away the occasional tear during a bugle rendition of Taps.
“Robert stood for us, and we’ll proudly stand for him,” Bouchard told Strout and Tait’s other remaining sister, Teresa MacQuinn, also of Bar Harbor, after the ceremony. “It’s the least we can do.”
Paul Durost, the American Legion commander for District 12, which includes Hancock County, said after the service that at every meeting of his organization members ceremoniously leave a chair empty as a symbol for prisoners of war and those who are missing in action.
“You can forget they are real people who are really missing — and there are real families who miss them,” he said. “Robert Tait is a real person with a really family in this community. He finally came home. We have a real responsibility not to forget those who are left behind.”
George McCann of Kenduskeag also served in the Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953. He said that it felt good to pay respects at Tait’s graveside ceremony.
“His remains are not what’s important. It’s the memory of him,” he said. “I made it home, and there’s a tiny bit of guilt, too.”
He said that Tait fought in the most terrible part of the war, suffering through the coldest winter the region had known. The men who fought near the Chosin Reservoir have become known as the Chosin Few, said McCann, who was just 17 when he served. At the end of the war, he waited on the South Korean end of the “Bridge of No Return,” greeting American prisoners of war who had been released. Some were in terrible shape. Others practically ran across the bridge to freedom, he recalled.
“Those are memories that a kid never forgets,” McCann said. “It was nice to see so many people show up today for such a forgotten war. It’s wonderful.”