After the veterans with “POW-MIA” inscribed on their black ties saluted the casket, after the chaplain talked of time and healing, a man in a dark suit slipped on reading glasses and rose from his pew. He walked to the stage of a Northern Virginia funeral home and pulled from his pocket the tribute he had written the night before.
“Seventy years ago, our uncle, he died for our country,” Richard Bean, voice quavering, read to a small crowd of about 75 people. “One year ago, an incredible journey came to know him as a hero.”
That uncle, also named Richard Bean, grew up in and around Manassas. In 1941, just months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Army. He deployed the following year with the 105th Infantry Regiment, which was in the first wave of units sent into Pacific Theater combat. On July 7, 1944, while fighting on Saipan, Bean and his comrades faced the largest suicidal banzai attack of the war and, at 24, he was reported missing in action. Three years later, the military declared him dead. Posthumously, he was promoted to sergeant and awarded the Bronze Star.
Decades ago, his family gave up hope that his body would be recovered. But early last year, an organization searching for Japanese casualties discovered Bean’s remains in a mass grave where four other American soldiers have also been found.
The journey Richard spoke of ended Friday with Bean’s funeral in Manassas and his burial at Quantico National Cemetery.
For Richard, Bean had always meant something special. They never met, but Bean was the man for whom he was named, the uncle who went to war and, as his nephew heard over and over, never came home.
As a boy, Richard knew his uncle through a single photograph.
It hung beside an organ on the den wall of his grandmother’s home in Haymarket. It showed a young man in a crisp uniform with his arms held behind his back and his stare directed off-camera. His jaw was square, his eyes confident.
Taped to the photo’s plain wooden frame was a Purple Heart.
For one week each summer, he and his siblings would visit their grandmother, Rosie. Each day, after fixing them lunch with the bounty from her vegetable garden, she’d sit at the organ and point to the photograph of her boy.
“I’m going to play a song for Richard,” she’d say, and her fingers glided across the keys and the pipes breathed out a hymn.
The day the Army officials came to tell her he was missing in action, Rosie “cried like a baby,” she told them. For years, she kept a box of his letters in a shoe box.
Rosie’s grandchildren never heard her express doubt about the Army’s conclusion that he had been killed, but the missing details — how he died, to whom he last spoke, what happened to his body — haunted her. Still, she and his siblings rarely discussed him. Richard knew only that, like all eight of Rosie’s kids, Bean’s youth was arduous. He had quit school to work as a farmhand, either steering ploughs behind horses or planting seeds in their wake. Bean’s father, Richard said, was an abusive drunk. He and Rosie eventually divorced, and she moved to the house in Haymarket.
Rosie died a half-century ago, when Richard was still a teenager. Only one of her children, Everett, 78, is still alive, but he remembers little more than sitting on his big brother’s lap.
Decades passed. Life moved on. The memories of Bean faded.
For years, Richard seldom thought of his namesake until, in October 2013, he got a call.
The backhoe had just scraped away another few inches of dirt when Usan Kurata spotted a bone.
Kurata is the founder of Kuentai, a nonprofit group that for the past four years has searched Saipan for the remains of Japanese soldiers killed in the war. Tens of thousands of Americans who fought in World War II remain missing as well.
Kurata ordered the machine to stop, and a fellow researcher began to brush away the earth. They found a fork. Then, dog tags. Etched into a thin piece of rusted metal were Bean’s name, his mother’s name and his hometown of Manassas.
“I was just so shocked,” said Yukari Akatsuka, a member of Kuentai. “He was the first remains I’d ever seen.”
In September 2013, she and Kurata traveled 13 hours to Virginia in search of more clues. They went to Manassas City Hall, a visitor center and a museum before meeting Tish Como at the Bull Run Regional Library. Como scoured county records and tracked down Richard in Nokesville.
She left him a voice mail, and he called back the next day. Como told him what the Japanese researchers had found. He was stunned.
“It has to be my uncle,” he told her.
With photos of their findings, Kurata and Akatsuka returned to Virginia in November, nervous that Richard might be angry that their ancestors had killed his.
He wasn’t. For three hours, they talked, and sometimes cried, around his kitchen table.
The U.S. government later used dental records and DNA to confirm Bean’s identity.
Two weeks ago, a FedEx box arrived at Richard’s home. It held everything found alongside his uncle’s bones.
On Thursday, with his back to a sign on the kitchen wall that read “God Bless America,” he again unpacked the box’s contents and spread them across his table: a razor, a shaving kit, a pocket knife, a dagger, a 1909 wheat penny, a pair of boot soles, an Army ring, a Japanese brooch, a Detroit-made cigarette box with an “R” carved into the side, a fountain pen that Richard wants to believe was used to write those letters in Rosie’s shoe box.
He often paused as he considered what lay before him. Richard, 65, is a serious man who speaks in a low, steady tone. A keen hunter, his trophies include a collection of bucks’ heads and, near the front door, a stuffed black bear. He has worked in construction for 46 years and has the calloused hands to prove it. He is not prone to emotion, but his uncle’s decaying objects left him overwhelmed.
“Sitting right here,” Richard said, “I get the feeling he’s looking down on us.”
Bean’s casket, escorted by law enforcement, departed from the funeral home and wound through the oak-shaded back roads of a county he last stepped foot upon when Prince William was home to just 18,000 people.
On one corner, a man saluted as the procession passed.
The flag at the cemetery’s entrance flew at half-staff. Beneath a gray sky, family and friends and strangers who just wanted to pay their respects crowded under a shelter. Nearby, veterans who had come by motorcycle held American flags. Richard sat on the front row, staring at his uncle’s casket. Kurata and Akatsuka stood behind him.
Rifles were fired, and taps was played. The flag was folded. A prayer was spoken.
And as the motorcycles revved and attendees returned to their cars, cemetery workers moved the casket to grave site No. 2 of section 28 and slowly lowered it into Virginia soil.