His flag-draped casket made the eight-hour flight from Honolulu. It arrived at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport shortly after dawn. The black hearse was escorted down Interstate 75 by the Georgia State Patrol, Bibb County Sheriff’s deputies, the Macon Police Department and 87 Georgia Patriot Guard Riders on motorcycles.
Sgt. Thomas Jefferson “Sugar Boy” Barksdale returned home in the arms of a half-mile long motorcade on an interstate that wasn’t built when he died in a foxhole in North Korea in 1950.
Low, gray clouds sunk across the morning sky. It was primary election day. At the city limits, cars, buses, trucks pulled over to pay their respects. The hearse climbed the hill on Gray Highway, then passed Boone Street in Fort Hill, where Sugar Boy grew up one of Ben and Vilena Barksdale’s 11 children. The house is no longer there, only a vacant lot.
As the motorcade traveled down Shurling Drive, a man stopped his van in the far lane, got out and saluted.
By the time Sugar Boy reached the front door at Jones Brothers Mortuary on Millerfield Road, tears were falling like raindrops in the parking lot.
Seven members of the Georgia Army National Guard carried the casket inside, where his remains will be until Friday’s memorial service at noon at the Jones Brothers Memorial Chapel.
He will be buried with full military honors at 2:30 p.m. at the Georgia Veterans Cemetery in Milledgeville.
Sixty-two American flags lined the driveway and street to represent the number of years since Barksdale left his last boot print in Macon.
“It was a beautiful welcome home,” said Alfred McNair, who was Barksdale’s cousin. He was 3 years old when Barksdale was sent to Korea. He was left with only a fleeting childhood memory — standing in the yard with his uncle on Boone Street.
McNair took his daughter, Chiquita Glover, and granddaughter, Ashlie Mack, to meet the plane in Atlanta. A great-great-niece, A’nia Wilson, also traveled from Macon. So did his niece, Sonja Person, whose DNA sample helped officers positively identify Barksdale’s skeletal remains.
“I never thought it would be anything like this,” she said. “I thought there would be about six motorcycles. But this many? It was amazing.”
She was 1 year old when her 21-year-old uncle was killed in combat while fighting with the Second Infantry in North Korea. He was listed as missing in action, but his remains were not among those returned by Communist forces after the war. He was left behind on a hill halfway around the world.
His family back in Macon held on to what hope they could, never pushing back from faith that the 21-year-old they called “Sugar Boy” would one day come walking through the door at 345 Boone St. Perhaps he had been captured and was planning his escape as a prisoner of war.
During the first week of August 2000, excavation teams from the U.S. and North Korea explored several old fighting positions about 50 miles above the capital of Pyongyang. Along a hilltop, they discovered an isolated human skeleton of a 5-foot-10, African-American male.
The skeletal remains were returned to the U.S. and assigned a case number. Four bone samples were sent to the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory for testing.
It would take nine years before the remains could be positively identified.