Skeletal remains of 22-year-old San Francisco man killed in Korean War finally ID'd 67 years later

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James Leonard runs track at Polytechnic High School in San Francisco in 1956. Yearbook photo via Madeline Hart.

A 22-year-old San Francisco man will be finally buried next week, nearly 70 years after he was killed during the Korean War.

A formal funeral with full military honors will be held Jan. 23 for Army Private First Class James J. Leonard Jr., who was killed in 1950 and earned a Purple Heart, and whose remains were identified only this summer through his teeth, government-issued canteen and size 10 boots made in America.

"We were shocked and amazed,"  Madeline Hart of Pacifica told KTVU on Thursday. "After all these years, that he'd be found like that."

Hart's 92-year-old father-in-law, James Hart, was a cousin to Leonard. There aren't many family stories about Leonard as he died so long ago, other than he attended Polytechnic  High School in 1946 where he appeared to have been on the track team, according to yearbook photos provided by his family.  Relatives remember him playing a trumpet, and detailed records provided by the coroner noted he was a musician.

"He was a very young guy," James Hart told KTVU. "He had  his future ahead of him. It's nice to see him get some recognition for what he did."

In spring of last year, a South Korean construction crew was doing some road excavation work in the village of Yondong, the area where Leonard was killed, when they discovered some skeletal remains. Alongside the bones and teeth, were size 10 boots, made in America and an Army-issued canteen. That tipped the crew off that these likely belonged to an American, and they reached out to their country's ministry of national defense, said Chuck Prichard, spokesman for the Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. 

In March, Leonard's skeletal remains, including 31 teeth, were flown to the U.S. government's Honolulu laboratory. Leonard's family had already submitted his dental records to the government, enabling the lab in August to positively ID them as his, Prichard said. 

Leonard was killed in action on July 25, 1950 after his regiment was attacked in Yongdong, South Korea, by Korean People’s Army units, the Defense Department reported.

Two years later, the 392nd Quartermaster Graves Registration Company conducted searches of the area around Yongdong. All remains recovered were sent to the Army Graves Registration Service Central Identification Unit in Kokura, Japan, but Leonard’s remains had remained anonymous for all those years.

Last year, 183 Americans killed during various wars across the globe were accounted for, Prichard sai, adding that there are still 7,713 Americans who remain unaccounted for from the Korean War.

Leonard’s name is recorded at the Courts of the Missing at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, along with the others who are missing from the Korean War. A rosette will be placed next to his name to indicate he has been accounted for.

Leonard's remains are scheduled to return to San Francisco on Sunday. His family plans to bury him at the Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, where his parents are also buried. They died before ever knowing what happened to their son. They had grieved for much of their lives because they also had a 10-year-old daughter who had died of appendicitis.

"The Army did an excellent job researching all this," said Michael Hart, a great-cousin of Leonard. "There is sadness and closure, think of all his parents went through all those years."