A Hero Returns: Navy Reserve Seaman 2nd Class Deward William Duncan, Jr. is finally home

The young sailor who was KIA action in 1944 is given an escort and hero’s welcome home on June 6, 2019, as he returns to Monroe, Ga. for burial.

UPDATE: The casket carrying the remains of Navy Reserve Seaman 2nd Class Deward W. Duncan, Jr., will be escorted from the airport to Tim Steward Funeral Home in Monroe on Thursday, June 6, 2019. It will drive through Monroe at about 8:40 a.m. The community is urged to line the streets to show respect for the young sailors sacrifice 75 years ago.

UPDATE: Funeral arrangements for Navy Reserve Seaman 2nd Class Deward W. Duncan, Jr. will take place on June 8, 2019. According to his niece, Darlene Phillips, visitation will take place at Tim Stewart Funeral Home in Monroe from 6 – 8 p.m. on Friday, June 7, 2019. The funeral and burial will take place at Rest Haven Cemetery in Monroe the following day. The public is invited both days to pay their respects to the young serviceman who gave his life for his country during WW II.

Initial story

MONROE, GA. The US Navy and remaining family members of a young Navy seaman who was killed in the Gilbert Islands 75 years ago are in the process of organizing a funeral and burial in Monroe. A date for the funeral has not yet been announced, but his niece, Darlene Phillips, said he will be buried in the grave in Rest Haven in Monroe that already has a marker bearing his name. Navy Reserve Seaman 2nd Class Deward W. Duncan, Jr., 19, of Monroe, Ga., will be buried in the Duncan family plot in Rest Haven, next to his mother and father.

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) announced Thursday the young Navy seaman, who was killed on Jan. 12, 1944 during World War II, was finally accounted for on May 17, 2018.

Phillips said the family was notified about a month and a half ago that his remains had officially been identified and would be returned home.

“We are in the process of setting up a funeral. The date has not been confirmed, but we will be having a visitation and a graveside service,” Phillips said, adding it would be a military funeral. “The Navy is taking care of all that.”

Phillips said since his parents were notified in 1944 that he had been killed, they went ahead and bought the plot. His mother, Nellie Cornelia Butler Duncan, passed away in 1964 and his father, also Deward William Duncan, passed away in 1972. Their grave markers lie alongside that of their son who died in service to his country.

Grave marker at Rest Haven Cemetery in Monroe, Ga. for Navy Reserve Seaman 2nd Class Seaman Deward W. Duncan, Jr. 19, KIA on Jan. 12, 1944 in the Gilbert Islands. Photo credit: Sharon Swanepoel

Phillips said Duncan was one of six children, a sister and four other brothers, but all have also since passed on. According to Monroe historian Steve Brown, Duncan’s family lived on Knight Street in Monroe in 1920, which would have been before Deward, Jr. was born. His father worked in the Monroe Mill as a machinist, but Brown believes that by 1924 when Deward Jr. was born, the family had moved to South Carolina. He was living in Gainesville, Ga. when he registered to join the Navy. Brown shared his draft card, courtesy of the Monroe Museum.

Registration Card of Deward William Duncan. Credit: Monroe Museum

“His family was living in Danville, VA in 1930 where his father worked in the cotton mill. They were living in Atlanta in 1935 and in Gainesville in 1940. His father and his older brother worked in the cotton mill in Gainesville. He was 16 in 1940 living with his father, mother and two brothers, Clifford Benson (19 yrs.) and Billy Hugh (5 yrs.) and a sister, Myrtle (8yrs.). He had at least one older brother, Dewey, born about 1915-16 who had left home by 1940,” Brown said. Dewey Duncan is also buried in Rest Haven on the family plot.

“(The family) must have moved back to Monroe after the war at some point since his mother died here in 1964. His father died in Dekalb County, but he could have died in an Atlanta hospital,” Brown said.

According to the announcement of the recovery of his remains by the DPAA, “in January 1944, Duncan was assigned to Aviation, Construction, Ordnance, Repair, Navy Fourteen, Standard Landing Craft Unit 4, when a Japanese air raid on Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll, Gilbert Islands, dropped a bomb near his tent. Duncan was killed and was reportedly buried the same day in Cemetery #33. In 1946, the 604th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company (604th GRC) centralized all of the American remains found on Tarawa to Lone Palm Cemetery for later repatriation; however, almost half of the known casualties were never found. Duncan’s remains were among those not recovered.”

In 1949, Duncan’s remains were classified non-recoverable by a military review board. But in 2017, History Flight, Inc. notified DPAA that a burial site was discovered on Betio Island with the remains of what was believed to be missing American service members who had been buried in Cemetery #33. The remains were turned over to DPAA in 2018 and Duncan’s remains were identified by DPAA scientists using “dental and anthropological analysis as well as circumstantial and material evidence.”

Find a Grave’s website notes Duncan’s name is recorded on the Punchbowl National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii, with his last known status still listed as missing. It also notes that he was awarded the Purple Heart Medal. A rosette will be placed alongside his name to indicate that he has now been accounted for. His gravesite in Monroe will finally carry the remains of the young seaman where he will be reunited with those of his family members in Monroe all these years later.

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