After nearly 75 years, a sacred find in New Guinea
His story was buried for nearly 74 years in a jungle in Papua, New Guinea.
In December 1942, Private Earl Joseph Keating – who grew up on Banks Street 14 blocks from Jesuit High School – was halfway across the world, a 28-year-old parishioner of former Sacred Heart of Jesus Church on Canal Street fighting to ward off Japanese troops trying to gain an island springboard into Australia.
Keating was with another New Orleanian – Pvt. John Henry Klopp – in the 126th Infantry Regiment, 32nd Infantry Division.
The jungle fighting was intense on Dec. 5, 1942, at “Huggins Roadblock” near Sananada Village, essentially a life-and-death line in the jungle where Allied troops refused to budge.
Both New Orleans men were killed in intense fighting that day. As was the battlefield practice then when hostilities made it impossible to transport bodies away from the combat zone, the fallen soldiers were wrapped together in a single tarp and buried in a shallow grave.
Then, for seven decades, the earth swallowed their story.
Sometime in 2009 or 2010, a villager combing through the area of the famous battle found pieces of a U.S. Army uniform and human remains. For two years, he kept the remains hidden at his home, until an Australian citizen living in New Guinea saw them one day and reported it to the Army in October 2011.
The American Graves Registration Service – an agency of the Department of Defense charged with finding the remains of fallen U.S. soldiers – dispatched a team to survey the site. About 83,000 soldiers – 73,000 from WWII – remain missing.
Slowly, in early 2015, the Louisiana family that had faced so many dead ends in their search for “Uncle Earl” began to hope that one day he actually would be brought home.
“I honestly always believed, because I kept writing letters,” said Dutreil Michael Keating Jr. of Lafayette, Private Keating’s 74-year-old nephew who had promised his grandfather, grandmother and father on their deathbeds that he would never stop looking for Uncle Earl. “For 70-something years, our family has been writing and talking to them. I have a letter (from the Army) saying, ‘This is a dead end. It’s not going to go any further.’ After that, I fired off two letters and wrote to everyone in Washington.”
For Dutreil, the crusade was personal, even sacred.
“My grandmother died when I was 12, and I was by her bedside,” Dutreil recalled. “She called me over and said, ‘Don’t forget Earl.’”
Dutreil was very close to his grandfather and father, and they often sat on the front porch, talking about his Uncle Earl. One soldier who had been with Earl when he died wrote a letter to Earl’s father to inform him the Japanese had cut off his feet.
When Earl’s remains were found, the forensic scientists could not find his feet among the skeletal remains.
The process of identifying the remains of lost soldiers is rigorous. Col. Holly Slaughter, a communications officer with the American Graves Registration Service, said the evidence identifying Private Keating included DNA samples; material evidence such as uniforms, medals and personal effects; dental records; bone analysis; historical research and other circumstantial evidence.
Scientists found Private Keating’s dog tag, the Sheaffer’s Balance fountain pen he used to write letters and a plastic comb (made in the U.S.A.). Because the two New Orleans soldiers were buried together, the scientists found remains from both bodies. Private Klopp’s remains were buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery on March 23.
And now, the family of Private Keating is awaiting the final welcome home for its fallen New Orleans hero, nearly three-quarters of a century after he died.
His body will arrive in New Orleans on May 23, and a military escort will take him to Jacob Schoen & Son, where family members will have a chance to pay their respects in the funeral home’s new chapel.
Then, on May 28, Archbishop Gregory Aymond will celebrate a funeral Mass at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, 1235 Louisiana Ave., at 1 p.m. Visitation will be from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the church.
Sue Dutreil, a second cousin from New Orleans, said Our Lady of Good Counsel Church was chosen for the Mass because Private Keating’s mother attended church there.
“I know he was very religious because he had a very close devotion to the Blessed Mother,” Sue Dutreil said. “He had a photograph of Sacred Heart Church that he kept in his notebook.”
Private Keating is the first New Orleans soldier who died and was lost in the Pacific Theater of WWII to be returned to New Orleans.
After the funeral Mass, Private Keating’s body will be driven past The National WWII Museum before burial in St. Joseph Cemetery, 2220 Washington Ave. Private Keating’s brother, Dutreil Keating Sr. of Lafayette, will be re-interred and buried with him at St. Joseph Cemetery.
“We have to realize we are being touched by God,” Sue Dutreil said. “This is a God wink. This man was meant to come home and be with his family. We’re so blessed to be here to receive him.”