By Brad Hicks
Although she had never met her uncle, Grace Erwin tried to contain her emotions when describing both the atrocities he had endured and her sense of pride in knowing that he paid the ultimate sacrifice while serving his country.
“I’m so glad he’s home,” Erwin said.
Nearly a lifetime after his death in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, U.S. Army Air Forces Pvt. Evans Ernest Overbey was laid to rest Friday afternoon in the Mountain Home National Cemetery in Johnson City.
Overbey’s final resting place is the antithesis of the shallow, waterlogged mass grave that contained his remains for years after his demise during World War II. It would take more than seven decades before the remains of the serviceman were identified and Overbey was officially accounted for.
According to his obituary, Overbey was born on May 25, 1917, near Welch, W.Va., to Carter County natives William and Mary Overbey. William would eventually move his family to Wise County, Va., where Overbey spent the majority of his life.
Overbey enlisted in the U.S. Mary Air Corps in Roanoke, Va., on June 20, 1941. After his completion of Basic and Advanced Training, he was assigned to the 93rd Bomb Squadron, 19th Bombardment Group, Far East Air Force at Clark Army Airfield. The base was located in the Pampanga Province on Luzon Island in the Philippines.
Within hours of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese forces invaded the Philippines and attacked Clark Airfield. This attack destroyed nearly all of the U.S. bombers at the base and resulted in more than 150 American casualties.
Overbey, along with other survivors of the attack, joined with American and Filipino infantry during the Battle of Bataan.
“They fought valiantly, but with diminished food rations, supplies, troops and the wounded they carried, the Defenders of Clark and Luzon made their way to the Bataan Peninsula, our last bastion on Luzon Island,” Overbey’s obituary states.
Those who fought to defend the airfield and island were overwhelmed and surrendered to the Imperial Japanese Army on April 9, 1942. Thousands of soldiers of these U.S. and Filipino soldiers became Japanese POWs.
These captive soldiers were forced to endure what would become known as the Bataan Death March, a 65-mile march to Camp O’Donnell, Japanese POW camp in the Tarlac Province Luzon Island. It is estimated that more than 70,000 American and Filipino captives were forced to make the march. Thousands died during the grueling trek.
Overbey survived the Bataan Death March and was officially reported as a POW by the Japanese on May 7, 1942. He was in enemy hands nearly 200 days before his death.
In late May 1942, as Camp O’Donnell filled with American and Filipino captives, Overbey, along with other American POWs, was moved to Camp Cabanatuan, a Japanese-operated POW camp in the Nueva Ecija Province. Overbey was among the early 3,000 POWs who died in this camp during WWII.
Overbey reportedly died of pellagra on Nov. 19, 1942 while in Camp Cabanatuan. He was 25 years old.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense’s POW/MIA Accounting Agency, 13 other Americans – 12 servicemen and one civilian – died the same day as Overbey of malnutrition and neglect while in Camp Cabanatuan.
Overbey and the 13 others who died around the same time were buried in Common Grave 717, a mass grave in the camp’s cemetery. It was there that Overbey would remain interred for several years.
But following the war, the American Graves Registration Service from late 1945 through early 1946 worked to exhume the Camp Cabanatuan cemetery. It was the organization’s ultimate goal to identify each individual, but the conditions of the graves would make this extremely challenging. Grave markers were not erected. The commingled remains were not organized in the mass graves. The cemetery was situated in an area with a high water table.
Four of the 14 commingled sets of remains unearthed from Common Grave 717 were identified and returned to the U.S. for burial. Overbey’s remains were not among those identified.
This would eventually lead to Overbey’s remains, along with the remains of other unidentified servicemen, being interred at the American Battle Monuments Commission cemetery at Fort McKinley in Manila.
Overbey’s military service number was 13035026, but the not-yet-identified serviceman would be assigned another number in death. His remains, individually buried in the military cemetery, were identified as Unknown X-824. A marker at his grave read “Here Rests In Honored Glory A Comrade In Arms Known But To God.”
For around 70 years, Overbey’s remains would remain in the military cemetery in Manila.
In 2014, the Secretary of the Army gave permission to exhume the 10 graves associated with Common Grave 717. These remains were transported to the Central Identification Laboratory in Honolulu, Hawaii, for examination and subsequently taken to the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory at Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Del.
Erwin said that while they were somewhat coy about the process, Army officials believed one set of the remains belonged to Overbey and were able to track down Erwin and her brother and fellow Erwin resident Bobbie Ray Taylor.
The surprised Erwin and Taylor represented Overbey’s closest living relatives.
“We were all he had left,” Erwin said.
Erwin said Army officials came from Kentucky’s Fort Knox around two months ago to meet with and interview her and her brother. Taylor notified his sister that the Army had requested that he submit a sample for DNA testing.
“I said, ‘Well, honey, send it. It might help them to find out about him,’” Erwin said.
The DNA matched. Overbey was officially accounted for on June 1. Taylor, himself a U.S. Army veteran, passed away on June 19, just long enough to help identify the uncle he never knew.
“God let him live long enough to identify Evans,” Erwin said. “Isn’t that something?”
Now that Overbey had been officially identified and accounted for, it was up to his next-of-kin to select a funeral home to arrange his services. Grace said the family contacted Valley Funeral Home in Erwin.
Overbey received a hero’s welcome as his remains arrived at the Tri-Cities Regional Airport on the evening of July 12, as many were on hand to honor the serviceman as his remains were readied for transport to Erwin and present to welcome Overbey home as his remains arrived in town.
A visitation was held Thursday at Valley Funeral Home, giving members of the community an opportunity to pay their respects to Overbey. Overbey’s story was displayed on a screen above an American flag-draped casket containing an empty Army service uniform and a photograph of the fallen serviceman.
Overbey was surrounded by family on Friday as he was buried with full military honors in the Mountain Home National Cemetery. Law enforcement officials from across the area joined Rolling Thunder in leading the procession to Johnson City, and some members of the community – most bearing American flags – lined Main Avenue to pay tribute to Overbey as his hearse passed by.
Even Gov. Bill Haslam issued a statement on the return of Overbey’s remains. In his statement, Haslam declared Friday a “day of mourning” and ordered flags at half-staff from sunrise to sunset as Overbey was given an “appropriate farewell.”
“It is an honor to be able to finally lay this solider to rest in a field of honor on his home soil,” Tennessee Department of Veterans Services Commissioner Many-Bears Grinder stated in a release. “Although I am grieved that his parents were not able to live to see this day, his nieces and nephews will now have confirmation that their Uncle Evans is home and Tennessee is grateful for his valiant service.”
Erwin called the support from the community “overwhelming.” Phillip Erwin – one of Grace’s two sons and Overbey’s great-nephew – said there was tremendous support for Overbey’s return not only in Unicoi County but in surrounding areas as well.
“The community has been just incredible, how they’ve responded to this,” Phillip said. “As we were coming in with Evans’ remains the other night, the streets were lined. The funeral procession was probably a mile long with Rolling Thunder and all the other cars that had joined in. The communities in surrounding counties, they’ve jumped onboard and have been very, very supportive of his coming home.”
Like his mother, Phillip, who is also a military veteran, said he has immense pride for the family member he never had the chance to meet.
“He died for America,” Phillip said. “He died for you and for me and, for that, I’m extremely grateful and also so proud of him, first for surviving that Bataan Death March and lasting 196 days in the POW camp under the conditions they were subject to. I just feel a deep down sense of pride for him and for giving it all for us.
“I sort of feel at ease knowing that he’s finally going to be laid to rest where he should be – back in the United States.”