The flag that draped the coffin of Cpl. William Ray Sluss is presented to members of his family Saturday. Photo by Wes Bunch.
WEBER CITY — Cpl. William Ray Sluss completed his journey home to Scott County Saturday, nearly 61 years after he died as a prisoner of war while serving with the U.S. Army in North Korea.
Sluss — who was only 21 when he died in 1951 — was buried with full military honors before hundreds of well-wishers at Holston View Cemetery in Weber City.
Members of Sluss’ family — including his brother Lincoln Powers of Nickelsville and his sister Buena Jester of Indianapolis — attended the service along with dozens of members of local veterans groups and Scott County residents.
Jester, who waited over five decades to receive a definitive answer on her brother’s fate, said she and her surviving brother Powers were appreciative of not only the memorial services, but also the work done to finally bring home the brother they missed for so long.
“Isn’t it wonderful, it’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” Jester said of the ceremony. “It’s so pleasant to have my brother home and my loved ones here. Just all the family, and the strangers, and the Army members, it’s just amazing.
“The people who do this stuff are the most amazing people you’ve ever met,” she continued. “And this was just such an amazing service, it was just so good. And my family down here, they are so nice, and I love them. And I love my brother (Lincoln Powers) too, he’s the only one I’ve got left.
“(William) is home, and we all know he is home where he should be, and God bless all the others that are there and we hope to get them back too.”
Jester’s niece, Jan Baker of Kingsport, said the return of the man she knew as “Uncle Ray” helped give the family a sense of closure.
“I didn’t ever think it was coming to this day actually, I really didn’t,” Baker said. “When they finally said they found him I was really tickled for my dad and aunt. They’ve looked years and wondered whatever happened to him. At least now that he’s back and we can go put flowers on his grave for Memorial Day and visit.”
The graveside ceremony followed a memorial service that was held in the Gene Falin Memorial Chapel at the Gate City Funeral Home.
The funeral home estimated nearly 300 people were in attendance at the ceremony.
Members of the Fort Lee Honor Guard were responsible for transporting Sluss’ casket to and from the awaiting hearse while Rolling Thunder and the Patriot Guard Riders participated in the procession to Holston Valley Cemetery.
The honor guard also performed Taps and a 21-gun salute during the graveside service, which was officiated by U.S. Army Chaplain Capt. Timothy Griffis.
Members of the Mountain Empire Korean War Veterans Association Chapter 239 also participated in the ceremony, as did local American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts. The Virginia Army National Guard Honor Guard were also involved.
Jim Simerly, commander of the KWVA’s Mountain Empire Chapter, said he was pleased by the number of people who turned out to pay tribute to a soldier who died in the “Forgotten War.”
“I like to see it, I’m a 20-year veteran, I served in Korea three times, as well as five other times overseas, and it really thrills me to see that people haven’t forgotten about what the service men and women are doing,” Simerly said. “For a long time I thought people could care less, but after seeing this today, and for someone that they didn’t know, coming out for this, it really thrills me and I’m impressed by it.”
Rolling Thunder member Jim Phelps, of Martin, Tenn., said his group’s participation was part of its larger mission to raise awareness about POW/MIA issues and hold the government accountable to bring back those who haven’t yet returned home.
“This is what we do,” Phelps said. “We want to bring every POW/MIA home. Many people don’t know it, since World War II there’s over 80,000 people that never came home. It’s a slow process trying to find them and identify them, but if it’s within my distance I feel obligated to do it.”
Born in Scott County in 1929, Sluss joined the U.S. Army with his parents’ permission at the age of 17.
By 1950, Sluss was off to serve in the Korean War as a member of the 38th Field Artillery Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division.
Sluss was one 2,500 soldiers captured fighting Chinese forces on Nov. 30, 1950, near Kunu-ri, North Korea, in the Battle of Ch’ongch’on River.
Following his capture, Sluss was taken to Camp 5 in northwest Korea near the border with China.
After five months of internment, Cpl. Sluss died on April 30, 1951, of malnutrition and starvation.
Sluss was posthumously awarded a Prisoner of War Medal.
“His family suffered, worried, prayed and lived in limbo for more than 50 years,” Gate City Funeral Home Director Diane Ison said during the memorial service. “Was he alive somewhere, would he ever return home? We pray that the Slusses will have closure and peace that they’ve prayed for for so long.”
The journey back to Scott County began in earnest for Sluss in 2007 when his remains were returned to the United States by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC).
Sluss was officially accounted for Jan. 17, 2012, following extensive research and testing carried out by JPAC’s Central Investigation Laboratory in Hawaii.
Sluss’ body was flown from Hawaii to North Carolina earlier in the week. He arrived in Scott County under escort of local law enforcement and members of Rolling Thunder on Thursday.
U.S. Army Sgt. Damascus Ross was responsible for ensuring Sluss arrived at his final destination.
“Cpl. Sluss paid the ultimate sacrifice, and we as a country, and as part of the Army, he deserves that at least,” Ross said. “To ensure everything is done properly, to ensure he gets on the plan correctly, to make sure he’s handled with care — that’s my job. That’s why the Army does it and it shouldn’t go any other way.”
Sluss is the second Scott County MIA/POW from the Korean War to be returned home recently for burial. Sgt. 1st Class Roy Earl Head was buried during a military ceremony held at his family’s farm in Scott County’s Grit Hill community in June 2011.