WWII soldier laid to rest: Promise to father fulfilled 65 years later
AMHERST – Charlie Vars’ father, Robert, had one wish before he died: That Robert’s brother, Chris, be buried in the Massachusetts cemetery that has been the final resting place for his family since the 1800s.
Next month Charlie will take the final step in fulfilling the pledge he made to his dad.
His uncle, Sgt. Christopher Vars, was 40 years old and a World War II veteran serving in the Korean War when his unit was captured by the Chinese in December 1950. A sergeant with Company E of the 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, he was reported missing in action near the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea. He was presumed dead in 1953.
Sixty-five years later, Sgt. Christopher Vars’ remains are finally back in the United States, and next month they will be buried in the Everett, Mass., cemetery where Charlie’s father and mother, grandparents and great-grandmother are buried.
"I look at it as a promise made and a promise kept," Charlie said last week, the morning after he watched his uncle’s casket being brought into Logan International Airport with full military honors.
A day later Charlie shivered to think about it. Every detail of the day seemed burned in his mind.
"It is still overwhelming," he said, by phone, the "outpouring of support … for someone they did not know – to respect and honor my uncle’s service."
Charlie is 78 years old, the oldest male in the family, and he was deeply committed to fulfilling his promise to his father.
Three years ago, when his uncle was awarded a posthumous Purple Heart and other honors, he thought there was little chance he’d be successful.
But Charlie, his brother and distant cousins sent the Department of Defense DNA samples to compare to the hundreds of unidentified remains found in a mass grave in 2009 in the North Korean region where Christopher Vars was reported missing. Those remains had been taken to Japan, and then to Honolulu, and Charlie received a phone call in July informing him that there was a positive identification.
A young staff sergeant, Jose Castro, brought Christopher Vars’ flag-draped casket to the Boston airport on Sept. 9 where the Vars family met him, along with five fire trucks, 50 fire officers from Logan Airport Fire Department, a large contingents from the Transportation Safety Administration and another one from the Massachusetts State Police.
Castro told Vars he was thrilled to take part.
And it was thrilling for Vars to hear Castro describe how the pilot of the Delta Airlines Boeing 757 jet explained what was happening to passengers, asking everyone to stay seated until the casket left the plane, and naming Christopher as well as Castro.
As a six-unit contingent of New Hampshire National Guard marched forward on the tarmac, Charlie and more than two dozen members of his family, including grandchildren, watched the solemn pageantry, and Massachusetts State Police and the Logan Fire Department presented a plaque to Charlie and a National Guard chaplain gathered everyone for a prayer.
For the trip from Logan to the Reading funeral home the family filled two 15-unit National Guard vans, and the eight-vehicle convoy was escorted by the Patriot Guard, a Vietnam-era motorcycle group.
As the procession drove through the streets of Reading more than a thousand people lined the way, waving flags.
"I was amazed to see in the crowd all the people who were saluting or had their hands over their hearts … almost everywhere I looked. It was incredible for the entire family," Charlie said.
When they arrived at the funeral home a bagpipe was playing and there were four news helicopters overhead.
"It was exciting, somber, and a part of history," he said. "It is closure for our family."
Christopher Vars will also be awarded posthumously with a prisoner of war medal, and the final step in Charlie’s promise to his father will be fulfilled next mnth.
There will be a memorial service on Tuesday, Oct. 6 in the Reading Congregational Church, followed by a procession to Woodlawn Cemetery. The family had been offered burial in Arlington National Cemetery or any other national cemetery, but they declined.
Kathy Cleveland can be reached at kcleveland@ cabinet.com or 673-3100.