By Brad Hicks
More than 70 years after his death in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, the family of U.S. Army Air Force Pvt. Evans Overbey will finally lay to rest the fallen soldier and the community will have the opportunity to honor the young man who perished in service to his country.
Overbey’s remains will be returned to the region early next week, days before a public tribute to be held in Erwin and his interment in the Mountain Home National Cemetery in Johnson City.
Overbey was born on May 25, 1917, in Wise County, Va, according to the U.S. Department of Defense’s POW/MIA Accounting Agency. He was a member of the 93rd Bombardment Squadron, 19th Bombardment Group when the U.S. entered World War II. In October 1941, the squadron was deployed from New Mexico to Clark Field in the Pampanga Providence in the Philippines.
Within hours of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese forces invaded the Philippine Islands and attacked Clark Field. This destroyed nearly all of the U.S. bombers at the base and resulted in more than 150 American casualties.
Overbey survived this attack and, like other survivors with the 93rd Bombardment Squadron, joined with American and Filipino infantry during the Battle of Bataan. But, following their April 1942 surrender, thousands of U.S. and Filipino soldiers became Japanese POWs.
The captive soldiers were forced by the Japanese to endure what would become known as the “Bataan Death March,” a more than 60-mile trek to Japanese POW camps on the island of Luzon, Philippines. It is estimated that more than 70,000 American and Filipino captives were forced to march.
Overbey was among those forced to make this trek.
Overbey, according to reports, died of pellagra on Nov. 19, 1942, while in the Japanese-operated Cabanatuan prison camp. According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, 12 other U.S. servicemen and one U.S. civilian also died on the same date as a result of malnutrition and medical neglect while at the Cabanatuan POW camp.
The 13 who died on Nov. 19, 1942, were buried in Common Grave 717 in the camp’s cemetery. This mass grave would serve as Overbey’s resting place for several years, but not his final one.
Following WWII, officials with the American Graves Registration Service, from late 1945 through early 1946, exhumed the Cabanatuan cemetery, relocating discovered remains to a temporary U.S. military cemetery established near Manila. By early 1946, most of the deceased from the O’Dell and Cabanatuan camps were relocated to the temporary site.
Throughout late 1947 and early 1948, the AGRS re-exhumed the remains from the temporary cemetery. The remains were transferred to a mausoleum, and it was the AGRS’s goal to identify each individual.
But this would not prove easy. According to the Defense MIA/POW Accounting Agency, the Cabanatuan Cabanatuan camp did not initially allow the erection of grave markers and remains were not organized in the often shallow graves. The cemetery was also situated in an area with a high water table. On top of this, the “chaotic manner in which the remains had been buried, exhumed, reburied, and re-exhumed resulted in a level of commingling that could not be resolved given the forensic science techniques available at the time.”
Those remains that could not be identified were reburied as Unknown Remains at the American Battle Monuments Commission cemetery at Fort McKinley in Manila, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. Among the remains interred there were 10 individuals buried in Common Grave 717.
The Secretary of the Army in 2014 gave permission for these 10 graves to be exhumed. Extensive DNA testing was performed on the remains which led to one set of bones being identified as Overbey.
The military was able to track down his living relatives, which included his niece Grace Erwin, a resident of Erwin. His other living relatives include his great-nephews Phillip and Larry Erwin, who are Erwin’s sons, and great-niece Tammy Anderson, the daughter of Overbey’s nephew Ray Taylor.
Now that he had been identified, it was up to Overbey’s next-of-kin to select a funeral home for his interment. Overbey’s living relatives contacted Valley Funeral Home in Erwin.
“I’ve known this family for many years and worked with them several times, and they gave us a call, probably, two months ago,” said Valley Funeral Home Manager Michael Peterson. “We had met with the family and military personnel subsequently, and we’ve been working on the details for the service since then.”
Overbey was officially accounted for last month, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
Peterson said it is an “overwhelming honor” to have a part in laying Overbey to rest.
“I feel it’s a tremendous honor that the family has reached out to us as we bring him back and reunite him with family, so to speak, that we could be a part of this,” Peterson said. “This family basically represents his mother, his father and brothers that he may have had that weren’t afforded this opportunity.”
Those wishing to honor Overbey may visit Valley Funeral Home on July 14 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
“It’s more of an open house time that people in the community can come by to learn some about Pvt. Overbey, sign the register book and be there to pay tribute,” Peterson said.
On the afternoon of July 15, a graveside service will be held at the Mountain Home National Cemetery where Overbey will be interred. Peterson said Overbey’s living relatives will be present as his remains are buried, adding that Overbey also has other relatives interred in the Mountain Home cemetery.
It is not yet known whether Overbey’s remains will be transported from Hawaii to Tri-Cities Regional Airport or flown in to McGhee Tyson Airport in the Knoxville area or whether his remains will arrive Monday or Tuesday. Regardless of airport, Overbey’s remains will be brought to Erwin. Once more information becomes known, Peterson said he would like to see the community gather to give Overbey a well-deserved welcome home.
“I think it would be wonderful if our community would line Main Street from Exit 26 up here, coming in to Erwin, all the way down to Valley Funeral Home and just welcome him here,” Peterson said.
Peterson also said Overbey’s return is special, as many servicemen never made it back.
“I want to encourage our community to come together and honor his return,” Peterson said. “I think he represents a lot of other individuals that have not been able to do this.”
Peterson said more information on Overbey’s service can be found on the Valley Funeral Home Facebook page or on its website at valleyfuneralhome.net.