VIRGINIA - As a young boy, Richard Lohry used to stare at a portrait of his missing uncle and wonder: What happened? Where was he? Would he ever come home?

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Now, Lohry and the rest of his family finally know. Nearly 72 years after he went missing while serving in World War II, John Paul Sersha's remains have returned. He will be buried in the family plot at the Eveleth Cemetery on Saturday, interred with full military honors during the Memorial Day weekend.

It took years of searching, paperwork and formal requests to the U.S. military before the family found an answer.

"I'm so glad he'll be home, with the family," said John's older brother, Paul Sersha of Virginia. Paul Sersha is 97 years old and remembers well the last time he saw his younger brother, before John Sersha left the family home to fight.

Paul and his wife, Julia, stopped by to see John before he shipped out. They stood together at the gate in front of the family's home in Leonidas, and Paul and Julia both recall how John said, " 'I won't see you any more,' " Julia Sersha said. "He said, 'This is goodbye.' He said that so emphatically; he had a premonition."

And it was true. Pvt. John Paul Sersha was serving as part of a three-man bazooka company in the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division when he went missing after an attack in the Kiekberg Forest in the Netherlands in September 1944. It had been John Sersha's first visit to the front lines. He was 20 years old.

Sersha's remains rested in an unmarked grave - along with those of another soldier - for four years in that forest. A woodsman discovered the grave in 1948, and the two bodies were reburied in a military cemetery in Belgium. One body was quickly identified, and the military suspected that the other body was that of John Sersha, but they couldn't be sure. Sersha was officially listed as an "X file," No. 7429. And there he lay, for decades.

And all that time, Sersha's family had no idea what had happened to their son, brother and uncle. They knew he was listed as "killed in action" in 1944, but that's where the information ended.

"He was just missing for all that time," Lohry said. "There was absolutely nothing."

Of course, the family wondered aloud what had happened to John. Angela Sersha kept a portrait of her missing son on her bedroom bureau; this was the portrait that fascinated Lohry. He used to stare at the picture and think about his uncle, who died when Lohry was just a year old.

For decades, the family did little more than wonder. But then clues began to emerge. In the mid-1990s, a couple who attend church at the Sand Lake Chapel, where Lohry is the pastor, happened to show him a picture of a memorial wall they had photographed while in the Netherlands. The wall listed hundreds of soldiers who had died and never gone home - and the couple had taken a picture of a panel that read "Sersha." Years later, Lohry began researching his uncle's story in earnest, and one day he received a phone call from a retired U.S. Army sergeant living in Germany who had done some sleuthing of his own, and he had an idea where Lohry's uncle might be buried.

It was time to ask the U.S. Army to reopen the case. And that is where the Sershas and Lohry met Dawn Thorne.

Thorne, a caseworker with the U.S. Army's Mortuary Affairs Identification Department, is part of the public face of a large team of archeologists, lab technicians and researchers who try to open and close as many X files as possible from all U.S. military conflicts. There still are about 70,000 open files from World War II alone, Thorne said.

"It's an honorable thing to do," Thorne said. The missing soldier's family must make a formal request that a file be opened. And once the U.S. Army begins its investigation, there's no telling how long it might take to come to a resolution - if ever. In John Sersha's case, the formal disinterment request was made in 2013. It took until early this year for John Sersha's suspected remains to be exhumed and transferred to an Air Force base in Nebraska for DNA testing.

But as soon as the case file landed on Thorne's desk, and she realized that Paul Sersha and his sister, Julia Trunzo, were still alive, she put the case on the fastest track possible.

"In many of these cases (from World War II), we don't usually have a next-of-kin that's still living," Thorne said.

The Mortuary Affairs team was able to open and close the file at "warp speed," Lohry said. It was only a few months before Thorne was able to call the Sershas and Lohry and give them the news.

When Thorne traveled to Virginia to meet with the Sershas and Lohry, she quickly felt welcome. They sat around Paul and Julia Sersha's dining table. They shared stories, along with coffee and a plate of potica.

"For some families, it's still extremely painful," Thorne said. "They want to know the facts and then deal with it privately. You just don't know until you get into it how you are going to feel. The Sershas were so warm and inviting."

And the family was so grateful to finally know that their lost brother and uncle had been found. While the U.S. Army never says with 100 percent certainty that the remains belong to a certain soldier, the Sersha family feels confident that John is home.

The family traveled to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport earlier this week to meet John Sersha's remains and accompany him home. The oak casket was draped with an American flag as it left the airplane with full planeside honors.

Paul Sersha; his son, Tom; Lohry and other family members all were there. Paul Sersha wore part of his own World War II uniform, from the U.S. Coast Guard. He watched as his brother's casket was escorted across the tarmac and into a waiting hearse. It would then head north, back to the Iron Range.

Back home.


Funeral arrangements

Visitation for Pvt. John Paul Sersha will take place from 4-7 p.m. Friday at the Bauman-Cron Funeral Home, 516 S. First St., Virginia.

Visitation will continue Saturday from 10 a.m. until the 11 a.m. funeral service at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Virginia. Interment with full military honors will follow at the Eveleth Cemetery.

Memorials may be directed to the Disabled American Veterans, Kolstad Chapter No. 23. A full obituary was published in Sunday's News Tribune and can be found online here.