PORTALES, N.M. (KRQE) – He survived the Bataan Death March, only to die in a prisoner-of-war camp. The New Mexico World War II soldier was then buried at the camp and then forgotten. Now Thomas Vernon Long’s remains were identified and is coming home.
“I remember him as a very caring, protective, considerate brother. I was the baby of the family, and he treated me like a queen,” said Vernon Long’s sister, Billie Jean Sawyer.
96-year-old, Billie Jean Sawyer, said it is the biggest shock of her life. Her brother, Army Private First Class Thomas Vernon Long, from Portales, died as a prisoner of war in the Philippines in 1942 at 27 years old. In 1949, a body was returned to the family and was buried, but his family never felt it was him.
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“My mother and I never really felt that the first body was his because when you’re close to somebody you have a gut feeling,” said Sawyer.
Long was a part of the 200th Coast Artillery Regiment and had to endure the Bataan Death March. In March of this year, the Defense Prisoner of War and Missing in Action Accounting Agency said they identified his remains. Long’s body was originally buried in an unidentified grave in the Philippines.
“He happened to be buried in an x grave that the Defense POW-MIA Accounting Agency began a project where they started disinterring these unknown graves out of Manila American cemetery. They were then shipped to Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu Hawaii where the DPAA has a laboratory there,” said Chief of Identifications in the Army Past Conflict Repatriation Branch, Michael Mee.
Mee added back in the day, there was a lack of DNA, dental, and other identification technology. Now, thanks to modern-day DNA technology, Thomas Vernon Long will be buried next week in Portales.
“It’s just the most rewarding mission imaginable. I always tell people most Americans don’t realize there are some 81,000 missing Americans that never came home from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. It’s very rewarding to be a part of the mission in helping bring these guys home after identification,” said Mee.
Long was honored on Memorial Day in a Portales cemetery ceremony. His burial is on June 8 at 10 a.m. at the Portales cemetery.
Mee mentioned the remains originally buried in Long’s place, will most likely be sent to Hickam Air Force Base for analysis.