INDIAN ISLAND, Maine — Jean Francis Chavaree was 6 years old when her big brother, Donald, then 20, enlisted in the U.S. Army and went off to Fort Bragg, N.C. It was February 1942, just after the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.
“Most guys got to go home before they were shipped overseas,” Chavaree said, “but we never saw him again.”
Donald Raymond Francis was reported killed in action in the Philippines on Feb. 5, 1945. His body was never recovered but is believed to have been buried near the battle site.
At an emotional ceremony Thursday on Indian Island, Jean Chavaree, now 73, accepted a folded Penobscot Nation flag from a senior Pentagon official in honor of her lost brother.
“We continue to engage in efforts to recover Donald’s body and bring him home to his people,” said Penobscot Indian Nation Chief Kirk Francis, as Danny Pummill, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, handed the folded flag to a teary Chavaree.
It was one of several moving moments during Thursday’s “Freedom Team Salute,” which also honored three Army veterans still living on the island reservation. The Freedom Team Salute program recognizes Army veterans and the families and communities that support them. The program was launched in May 2005 and is administered by the Office of the Secretary of the Army and the Army chief of staff. More than 2.2 million individuals have been recognized through the program since it began.
With commendation certificates and letters signed by Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. and by Secretary of the Army John McHugh, Pummill also honored these Penobscot Indian veterans: Master Sgt. Charles Shay, who served from 1943 to 1964 and saw combat in both World War II and Korea; Spc. Eugene Joseph “Chip” Loring, who served from 1966 to 1969 during the Vietnam War; and Pfc. Leslie Banks, who served from 1943 to 1945.
Banks’ son John Banks accepted the commendation materials for his father, who had stayed home because of the icy roads. Other Penobscot veterans stood to be recognized during the brief ceremony.
Chief Francis and the entire Penobscot Indian Nation were honored with a commendation for their support of Penobscot citizens who have served with the Army. Francis became the first American Indian tribal leader to receive this recognition of support from the program.
Pummill acknowledged the Penobscot Indian Nation’s historic support of the U.S. Army, from the Revolutionary War through the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For Jean Chavaree, the event was bittersweet, bringing up painful memories and kindling new hope.
After the ceremony, she recalled the awful day when word came that her brother had been killed.
“My mother had to go into Old Town to get the telegram. Of course, we had no bridge at the time, so she walked across the ice with my sister. When she got to the Western Union office and opened the telegram, she just collapsed,” Chavaree said.
Her mother, Chavaree said, “lost it” for two years, and never really recovered from the loss of her only son. The family’s grief was compounded by not being able to bring Donald’s body back home to Indian Island.
For years, she said, they believed there was no body to recover, that Donald had been blown to bits when his tank hit a land mine. But within the past few years, she said, evidence has emerged that Donald was the only one of the five tank crew members to die in the blast and that he may have died from a broken neck. The son of one his buddies on the tank crew has been trying to find the site of the battle, she said, and, potentially, the site of Donald Francis’ grave.
Chavaree said Pummill asked her to contact him when he gets back to Washington, D.C., so he can expedite the search for the truth.
“Wouldn’t it be something if I could get my big brother back after all these years?” Chavaree asked. “It’s a dream.”