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.