Pvt. Bud Kelder’s last letters to his parents are heartbreaking.
The Schurz High School graduate volunteered for the Army before the United States entered World War II. He was stationed in the Philippines during the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. Within hours, Japanese forces invaded the islands.
He wrote to his worried parents in Norwood Park on Chicago’s Northwest Side, assuring them he was getting plenty to eat and lots of rest and that he’d be home soon to start a business with his father.
Actually, the soldiers were getting only a small amount of rations, and the hospital where he worked as a dental technician had been moved under the jungle canopy in hopes of shielding it against Japanese shelling, according to his cousin, Ron Kelder.
On Feb. 7, 1942, Pvt. Kelder wrote to his parents, Julia and Herman, who lived near Irving Park Road and Oak Park Avenue.
“All is well with me. . . .Do not worry. . . . .I am still working in the medical corps. And the hospital cross is being respected in this war. . . . I think only of two things, to be back with you and of going into business again. . . .When I get back I want it to be just we three, Mother, Dad and myself from then on. What I mean is there will be no separations between us again and we will spend more time together.. . . .With lots of love, Bud. p.s. Mother! Don’t you worry about me.”
His parents wrote back and continued to write to him for months. They didn’t know their 26-year-old son, captured, had survived the Bataan Death March, only to succumb to malnutrition, malaria and diphtheria at Cabanatuan, a Japanese POW camp in the Philippines, in 1942.
Now, after being missing for 73 years, Pvt. Kelder will finally get his wish for “no separations between us.”
His partial remains, flown to Chicago on Thursday, were being interred Saturday at Chicago’s Union Ridge Cemetery with those of his parents.
“Bud is returned,” Ron Kelder, a cousin, said at Saturday’s service, which about 50 people attended. “Bud is at rest with his family.”
Relatives say the U.S. government and military failed the Kelder family — and fought them — while they worked to find “Buddy,” as reported in an NPR-ProPublica investigation into failed efforts by the Pentagon to identify the remains of long-lost soldiers. The search heated up in 2009, when a cousin, John Eakin, began a genealogy project.
Eakin, 67, recalled the despair of Bud’s mother when he asked, as a teen, about someone he didn’t recognize in a family photo.
“She just teared up, choked up, and she couldn’t say a word,” Eakin said. “My grandfather teared up and said, ‘That’s Bud.’ ’’
He studied Army casualty records. It turned out Pvt. Kelder was buried with 13 others who also died at Cabanatuan on Nov. 19, 1942, listed as “unkown soldiers.” Declassified documents showed only one of the soldiers in the grave had gold in his teeth, according to Eakin and the NPR-ProPublica investigation. The fillings were the work of his brother, Herman Kelder Jr., a Norwood Park dentist.
Despite an Army finding in the late 1940s that Mr. Kelder’s remains had probably been moved to an American cemetery in Manila, the military told his parents in 1950 that his body was unrecoverable.
Decades later, as they worked to locate Mr. Kelder’s remains, they were met with red tape and road blocks by military offices, including the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command and the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office, according to relatives.
In 2012, Eakin — not a lawyer but a former pilot and a Vietnam veteran and air crash accident investigator — filed a lawsuit against the Department of Defense and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, among others.
It took years, but the Pentagon finally exhumed and matched Mr. Kelder’s skull and other bones with DNA from his family.
“I am aghast at the way they handled this thing,” Eakin said. “It’s not that they made a mistake 70 years ago. It’s the way the treated my family for the last five years.”
The family asked for no official participation from the military in Saturday’s funeral, Eakin said, because of “their lack of cooperation in identifying and returning Bud’s remains for burial.” Rather than an American flag, the casket was draped in a black prisoner-of-war flag. It bore the words: “You Are Not Forgotten”
Asked about the Kelder family’s comments, Lt. Col. Melinda F. Morgan of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency said that the military “is very happy about returning Private Kelder to his family and his family being able to honor him in the manner they chose today.”
Pvt. Kelder’s father, Herman, was once known as “the celery king of Chicago,” according to a nephew, Doug Kelder. The father had a stand at the old South Water Street Market.
Young Bud graduated from Schurz in 1935. Before entering the service, he ran a hamburger stand and a community meat locker in the days before people had large home freezers, Eakin said.
Pvt. Kelder’s remains were escorted by Doug Kelder, a retired Northbrook deputy fire marshal, from Honolulu to O’Hare Airport, where they were met Thursday by honor guards from the Chicago Police Department and Chicago Fire Department.
“God was just right next to us on this,” Doug Kelder said Saturday at Suerth Funeral Home, 6754 N. Northwest Highway, where services were held. “We never gave up.”
Ron Kelder said that of those who were buried with his cousin in the Cabanatuan cemetery, “Bud is home, while the other nine are not. Why?”
U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Illinois, who helped the family in its fight to get the military to identify the remains, took part Saturday in the bestowing of U.S. and Philippine military awards, which was followed by a procession to the cemetery where Pvt. Kelder would be reunited with his parents at the family mausoleum.
“Bud’s family never forgot their hope that he would rest back in his hometown,” the Rev. Lesley Weir said at the service.
Pvt. Kelder’s final letters were gutsy, said Ron Kelder. “Bud had to have been scared to death. And yet his thought was, ‘I’ve got to get a letter out and tell my mother not to worry.’ That’s rather heroic, I think.”
“The Army motto is ‘Leave no man behind,’ ” Doug Kelder said. “We’re still wondering why that did not apply to Bud.”