For 69 years, the family of U.S. Army Cpl. Joe T. Avant has hoped that one day his remains would be found and returned home.
“That wondering what happened to him never goes away,” said his younger sister, Delores Moore of Greenwood. “It never does, and it did not go away for our family.”
The Carroll County native, who was reported missing in action in 1950 while serving in the Korean War and was declared dead in 1953, was finally accounted for on Sept. 10 by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
The family was notified on Sept. 11.
“Anytime I saw in the paper that they have found someone who was missing in action, I rejoiced for that family that they knew, that they had some closure,” said Delores. “I never really gave much thought that it’s bittersweet news. You are glad to know, but it’s still very sad to me that my brother died, and so it just brings up all those emotions.”
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Joe was the second of 10 children. While he was growing up, the family lived in Carroll County. The Avants later moved to Leflore County.
Joe was 19 years old when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in February 1950. A month later, he turned 20.
“According to the records that we’ve looked at, it would appear to me that he went to Fort Hood, Texas, and at Fort Hood you’d get your basic training, maybe your AIT (Advanced Individual Training), which would typically last about four months,” said Joe’s younger brother Richard Avant of Greenwood. “I think maybe he got a little leave time, and then he would go overseas.”
From information passed down from the older siblings, the family believes that Joe would have been deployed in September.
The youngest siblings — Richard, who was the ninth, and Judy Burgoon, the baby — don’t remember their brother. They do have memories of seeing his picture and hearing stories about Joe passed down from their older brothers and sisters.
Richard was 4 years old when Joe enlisted, and Judy was only 1.
Their older brothers Bobby, who lives in Georgia, and Douglas, who also lives in Greenwood, often talked about what they remembered about Joe.
Delores, the eighth out of the 10 Avant siblings, said she has a few memories of Joe.
“I remember some things about him but not him as a person — not who he was,” said Delores, who was 6 years old when Joe went off to war. “Just some of the things that he did, like he rode up on a horse, and I thought he was the biggest man I had ever seen. He loved to ride horses.”
From what the younger siblings have heard from stories, Joe “didn’t take anything off of anybody,” said Judy. “He worked in the field, and my oldest sister, who is 91 now, thought she was the boss, but I don’t think you’d boss Joe very often,” said Delores.
Joe was described as a good big brother who was protective of his younger sisters.
“I wish I would have known him as a person,” Delores said. She said the sweet stories often told kept Joe’s memory alive in the Avant family.
“He was never forgotten,” said Judy. “I think he was planted in our hearts by our mom.”
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Joe had the rank of private first class and was a heavy weapons infantryman. He was later promoted to corporal. He was assigned to the Heavy Mortar Company, 31st Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division.
While serving on Task Force McLean near the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea, he was reported as missing in action on Nov. 30, 1950.
The Battle of Chosin Reservoir, which was also known as the Chosin Reservoir Campaign and considered an important battle in the Korean War, began on Nov. 27, 1950, and ended on Dec. 13 of that same year. It’s been described as a brutal 17-day battle fought in rough terrain and freezing weather, with temperatures dropping as low as 25 below at night.
The Chinese Army surprised United Nations forces at the Chosin Reservoir area, located in the northeastern part of the Korean Peninsula. The 30,000 United Nations troops were encircled and attacked by about 120,000 Chinese troops.
The Army units were on the eastern side of the Chosin Reservoir, and the Marine units were on the western side. The Chinese attack came from the eastern side, which resulted in the U.S. Army suffering heavy casualties and the full brunt of the Chinese offensive.
Three days after the initial surprise attack, Chinese assault teams attacked again.
“When the main attack did come, it came from all directions and with a level of intensity not previously experienced,” a letter sent to the Avant family from the Army says. It was reported that during this battle Joe was lost.
Delores recalled the day her mother, Wyneta, was told that Joe was missing in action.
“I remember when they came in the car, and our other two brothers directed them to the house,” she said. “They were dressed either in suits or uniforms, and then they came to the house. My father wasn’t at home when they came, and my mother had six kids with her there. It was a very sad time for the family.”
Although his remains were not recovered, Joe was reported as “Missing in Action Declared Dead” on Dec. 31, 1953. He was awarded the Purple Heart.
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Wyneta was asked in 1951 to provide Joe’s dental records for identification. There had been some contact over the years regarding Joe. But in 1997, Judy’s husband, Jim Burgoon, decided to contact the Department of Defense.
“As he heard my mother grieve over her son whom she didn’t know what happened to, he wrote a letter,” said Delores.
The Department of Defense requested DNA samples from the family, and samples from four members were provided.
The Avants were also put in contact with a family member update program, which holds meetings throughout the country. “They told you what they were doing and what efforts were being made, which amazed me,” said Delores. “There really has been a lot of work done by the Department of Defense to get resolutions for families. I loved knowing that they were making that kind of effort — that something was being done to try to find our brother.”
In early August, it was reported that U.S. military researchers had identified 25 more missing Korean War service members. Their remains were included in 55 boxes turned over by North Korea in 2018 after President Donald Trump’s first meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The names are released after the family is notified.
Richard said the family doesn’t know if Joe’s remains were in one of the 55 boxes. The family will find more details about the discovery of his remains when they attend a Primary Next of Kin briefing in a couple of weeks.
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When Joe’s remains were identified, the oldest surviving sibling, Faye, who lives in Texas, was contacted first. Faye’s daughter called the Greenwood siblings, Douglas, Delores, Richard and Judy, and told them the news.
Judy said she felt very emotional when she found out.
Richard said it was good news. “It’s a satisfying feeling to finally know that they’ve found those remains,” he said.
While it was a gratifying moment, there was also sorrow. They now had to let go of that little bit of hope that somewhere, somehow Joe was still alive, possibly enjoying a full life.
“You always have a little hope not knowing for sure that perhaps he could still be alive until you get this notification,” Richard said.
Judy said she had similar thoughts. “I think all of us at one time thought that he was still alive,” she said.
They each had wondered over the years if maybe Joe was a POW or what if he was married and had children. Maybe one day he’d return home and walk through the door. “You still have that lingering doubt as to whether or not he’s truly dead until you know for sure,” said Richard.
But most of all, after hearing that Joe’s remains had been accounted for, the family feels a sense of peace.
When the family does receive Joe’s remains, a service will be held with full military honors.
In 1988, a marker for Joe was placed in Odd Fellows Cemetery, which is where the family plans to hold the interment at a later date.
Throughout the years, Judy has kept up with other Korean War missing-in-action soldiers who have been identified. “The sad thing is they don’t have family left, just cousins,” said Judy. “We’re blessed because there are still six of us living to celebrate.”
Delores agreed that to have so many of her brothers and sisters there when Joe’s remains will finally be laid to rest will be special.
“As I’ve listened to the older kids in the family talk over the years, my desire was that we would hear this news while they were still alive since they knew him so much better than we did,” she said. “And that’s happening for some of them.”
•Contact Ruthie Robison at 581-7235 or firstname.lastname@example.org.