Missing after 73 years, Medal of Honor recipient’s remains are returning to Georgia

SAVANNAH — Soldiers from the 9th Infantry Regiment made a desperate retreat as North Korean troops closed in on them. A wounded 18-year-old Army Pfc. Fearing that his injuries would weaken his company, Luther Herschel Story stayed behind to cover their retreat.

Stories’ actions in the Korean War on September 1, 1950 would remember him. He was awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration, which is now displayed alongside his portrait at the National Infantry Museum, an hour’s drive from his hometown of Americus, Georgia.

But Story was never seen alive again and his resting place remained a mystery for a long time.

“In my family, we always believed that he would never be found,” said Judy Wade, Story’s niece and closest surviving relative.

That changed in April, when the US military revealed that lab tests matched the DNA of Wade and her late mother to the bones of an unidentified American soldier recovered from Korea in October 1950. The remains belonged to Story, a case worker told Wade over the phone. After almost 73 years he came home.

A Memorial Day funeral with military honors was scheduled for Monday at Andersonville National Cemetery. A police escort with flashing lights escorted Story’s coffin through the streets of nearby Americus Wednesday after he arrived in Georgia.

“I don’t have to worry about him anymore,” said Wade, who was born abroad four years after her uncle went missing. “I’m just glad he’s home.”

Former President Jimmy Carter was among those celebrating Story’s return. According to Wade, when Story was a young boy, his family lived and worked in Plains on land owned by Carter’s father, James Earl Carter Sr.

Jimmy Carter, 98, has been in hospice care at his home in Plains since February. Jill Stuckey, director of Jimmy Carter National Historical Park, said she broke the news about Story to Carter as soon as she heard it.

“Oh, there was a big smile on his face,” Stuckey said. “He was very excited when he learned a hero was coming home.”

Story grew up about 150 miles south of Atlanta in Sumter County, where his father rented. As a young boy, Story, who had a great sense of humor and liked baseball, went into the fields with his parents and older siblings to help with the cotton harvest. The work was hard and didn’t pay much.

“Mom talked about eating sweet potatoes three times a day,” said Wade, whose mother, Gwendolyn Story Chambliss, was Luther Story’s older sister. “She used to tell me her fingers bled at night from picking cotton from the bolls. Everyone in the family had to do that for it to exist.”

The family eventually moved to Americus, the county’s largest city, where Story’s parents found better jobs. He attended secondary school but soon set his sights on joining the military in the years after World War II.

In 1948, his mother agreed to sign papers allowing Story to enlist in the army. She gave July 20, 1931 as her date of birth. However, Wade said she was later given a copy of her uncle’s birth certificate, which shows he was born in 1932 – meaning he may have been just 16 when he joined.

Story left school in the second year. In the summer of 1950, around the beginning of the war, he was deployed to Korea with Company A, 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment.

On September 1, 1950, near the village of Agok on the Naktong River, Story’s unit was attacked by three divisions of North Korean troops, who surrounded the Americans and prevented their escape.

Story grabbed a machine gun and fired at enemy soldiers crossing the river, killing or wounding about 100 people, according to his Medal of Honor. As his company commander ordered the retreat, Story fell onto a road and threw grenades at an approaching truck carrying North Korean troops and ammunition. Despite his injury, he kept fighting.

“Realizing that his wounds would hamper his comrades, he refused to step down to the next position, instead staying to cover the company’s withdrawal,” Story said at the awards ceremony. “The last time he was seen, he was firing every available weapon and repelling another enemy attack.”

Story was presumed dead. According to the birth certificate Wade received, he would have been 18 years old.

In 1951, his father received Story’s Medal of Honor at a Pentagon ceremony. Story was also posthumously promoted to private.

About a month after Story went missing in Korea, the US military has recovered a body in the area where he was last seen in combat. The unidentified remains were interred with other unidentified military personnel at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii.

According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, more than 7,500 Americans who served in the Korean War remain missing or have their remains unidentified. That’s about 20% of the nearly 37,000 US soldiers who died in the war.

The remains of the Unknown Soldier, recovered near Agok, were unearthed in 2021 as part of a broader military effort to determine the identities of several hundred Americans who died in the war. Finally, scientists compared the DNA from the bones to samples Wade and her mother submitted before her death in 2017. They found a successful comparison.

President Joe Biden announced the breakthrough on April 26 in Washington along with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol.

“Today we can give him back to his family,” Biden said of Story, “and his peace of mind.”