WHITE SALMON — Flags snapped, an honor guard fired three volleys and three World War II-era spotting planes flew the missing man formation as the ashes of Gerald “Mike” Kight were laid to rest Saturday afternoon in this cemetery in the Columbia Gorge. After almost 68 years away from home, his ashes joined the remains of a mother who never lost hope he would be found.
“She always, always said, ‘He will come home one day,’ and she never lost sight of that thought,” said Frances Hembree of Portland, Ore., Mike Kight’s niece and the last living relative who had contact with him. “We feel privileged to bring him home.”
His ashes were contained in a gold-colored urn, which was buried with ceremonial coins, carnations and tulips sent from the three men who found Kight’s bones in a cornfield in the Netherlands.
About 45 members of the Patriot Guard Riders joined about 70 family members and friends for Saturday’s services that, however belatedly, honored the service and sacrifice of a young man who never came home from World War II.
The ceremonies closed a circle almost 68 years around. Kight fought with 3rd Battalion of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division. His regiment took heavy losses in the fighting that saw it capture Nijmegen bridge over the Waal near Groesbeek, close to the German border. But the larger Market Garden offensive faltered when the Allies failed to capture Arnheim to the north and were driven back. This action gave the title to the book and movie “A Bridge Too Far.”
Kight’s long journey home started last fall in a farmer’s field near Groesbeek. A 33-year-old Dutchman named Paul Geutjes was scanning the field with his two friends, Mario Wijnhoven and Rick Hermsen. Their hobby was hunting with metal detectors for evidence of the World War II fighting that raged there during Operation Market Garden.
“In Mike’s case, we found shells and a .30 ammo box,” Geutjes wrote by email. “After that we found a small neck bone and after seeing the upper leg, we realized this was a field grave. Stunned, we stopped digging and informed the Dutch Army and police. They professionally excavated the remains.”
That’s when the searchers found Kight’s dog tags and other belongings that clearly identified him as the missing 23-year-old from White Salmon. He had been killed when German tanks overran the American position in a rout that left only one uncaptured survivor. That survivor later said he saw Kight severely wounded, but still firing. The chaplain at Saturday’s burial said Kight’s bones were found with 150 spent shell casings — and no unspent rounds.
The Dutch searchers notified the Defense Department’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, which notified the Army’s Past Conflict Repatriation Branch, which traced Kight’s family tree and then got in touch with Frances Hembree of Southeast Portland to see if she was, indeed, Kight’s closest surviving relative.
It was a startling discovery for Hembree, who treasures a picture of her uncle Mike holding her under the shade of a tree when she was 2 years old. She grew up knowing of her grandmother’s ache for her missing son. And she and her husband Robert and Kight’s other, younger nieces have been through an emotional whirlwind since the news arrived.
The news of Mike’s recovery is “a sign that prayers are answered,” said another niece, Peggy Jo Kight Vermaas of Beaverton. And she said she and the Kight family are mindful that the story of Mike Kight is also the story of many others. Some 73,000 U.S. troops remain missing since World War I, the chaplain noted.
One of Mike Kight’s nieces is Sharon, who lives in Brussels with her husband, Mike Dolan. When they got word, they rushed to the field where Kight’s remains were found. Being there, Dolan wrote, “meant a lot to my wife.”
Mike and Sharon Dolan weren’t in White Salmon Saturday, but they will attend this year’s annual Memorial Day service at the Netherlands American Cemetery at Margraten. Mike Kight’s name is listed on the Tablets of the Missing, Mike Dolan said. Soon, a rosette will be added to his name, showing that he has been recovered and returned to his family.
The rosette closes a long-held family mystery with a spot of color and a note of grace. And it helps to seal the friendship between America and the Dutch who remember how they fought and died in an effort to free them from the Germans’ repression.
“I’m happy that the family can have a proper funeral,” wrote Geutjes, “and Mike can finally rest in peace in his homely ground.”