Remains of World War II hero brought home to Catawba County

Remains of World War II hero brought home to Catawba County

CATAWBA COUNTY, N.C. — More than 70 years after being killed in action, a World War II hero was brought home to Catawba County.

On Thursday, Private First Class Jack Burke received a police escort from Charlotte Douglas Airport to Hickory, where he will be buried at Catawba Memorial Park this weekend.

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Channel 9 was there as the plane carrying Burke’s remains landed at Charlotte Douglas around 2 p.m. Chopper 9 Skyzoom followed the procession all the way to Catawba County.

More than a dozen family members gathered at the airport, fighting back tears, as Burke arrived back in the Carolinas.

"We all wanted this for him because he paid the ultimate sacrifice for all Americans, not just for us,"
 said Burke's niece, Jill Henderson. "If he and other veterans had not done so I think we'd be living in a different world today."

Burke was 17 years old when he signed up to be a Marine. A year later, he died during fierce fighting in the Pacific.

Tom McNeely told Channel 9 his mother fought back tears when she learned that his uncle decided to join the Marines.

“My momma started crying because it’s war time,” McNeely said. “He said, ‘Ole sis, don’t cry. I’m going so your three boys won’t have to go.’ Never knowing that he wouldn’t return alive.”

McNeely said during a battle in the Gilbert Islands, his uncle was shot and killed, along with a 1,000 other Marines. His remains were never identified until 76 years later when McNeely and another relative submitted DNA.

(Jack Burke)

“We did not know where he was,” McNeely said. “We wondered, wondered, wondered.”

McNeely said his uncle had been buried in a mass grave near where he was killed and then later interred at the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii.

It would take seven decades before he was positively identified.

“It’s a great feeling to know that he’s gonna be back on the soil where he was born,” McNeely said.

Police told Channel 9 they were honored to be part of the procession Thursday afternoon.

Burke’s name has been memorialized at Tablets of the Missing at Honolulu Memorial.

He will be buried with full military honors on Saturday at the Catawba Memorial Park.