According to a handwritten note in a Bible, Corporal Ray Kirby Lilly, known to his family as Kirby, was in a North Korean prisoner of war camp when he passed away on Feb. 28, 1951. A note written in the same page’s margin states that he was listed as missing in action on Nov. 2, 1950, in Korea when he was 17 years and 11 months old.
For more than 70 years, Kirby’s family did not know where his remains were located, but they learned recently that he will be coming home to his final rest in Mercer County.
A resident of the Mary’s Branch community near Matoaka, Kirby was a soldier in the 8th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division, according to Army records. During the Battle of Unsan, his unit was serving as a blocking unit so other units could escape the Chinese forces that were threatening to overwhelm them. His unit was overrun and cut off, but they kept fighting until they ran out of ammunition and had to surrender. Kirby and other members of his regiment were taken to a prisoner of war camp where he later died. His fellow Americans buried him near the camp.
He was the only son in a family with four sisters named Eva, Norma, Carol Louise and Patricia. His parents were Lake and Cordy Foley Lilly.
For years, Kirby’s location was unknown, but that changed recently. His sister Carol Louise Roland looked at the scrapbook of letters and photographs that her family has kept. She was 12 years old when her brother left home to join the Army.
“He’s been gone 72 years,” she said. “He left in 1950, left in May. The war broke out in Korea in June.”
Kirby was first sent to Fort Knox, Ky for basic training. In a letter he wrote to his mother, he said that he was going to Alaska, but later he informed the family that he was being sent to Japan and then to Korea. For years, his letters, his photographs and the memories his loved ones kept were the only reminders of the life he had led.
Phillip Hamm, whose mother was Kirby’s sister Norma, said that he was the oldest grandson. He recalled how the search for his uncle started.
“She was pretty close to Kirby’s age,” Hamm said about his mother. “They were about a year and a half apart, two years apart. I had always been curious about it and I talked to my grandmother several times about it, but she didn’t want to know the answers; so I held off until she died, and after she died I contacted the Army and they came and did a blood draw off of me because they could use my DNA due to the maternal connection through the mother, through the mitochondrial DNA. And then they asked for other relatives and I gave them my Aunt Patty and my Aunt Louise.”
The Army was later given additional familial DNA. This allowed technicians to make the final connection.
“Patty (Patricia) called me a couple of weeks ago and said they had contacted her and they had a 100 percent match, which is unusual,” Hamm recalled. “Evidentially, his remains had been in Hawaii for quite a while. They have a DNA laboratory in Hawaii where they do all this research for repatriated remains and that’s where he’s been for some time. But we don’t know if he was there all along or if he was part of the group that came back when Donald Trump was president.”
Trump visited North Korea in 2018. Gaining access to American remains still in that country was one result of that summit. About 150 sets of remains were brought out of North Korea. Hamm said the Army had told him Kirby had been buried “very near” a prisoner of war camp in that country, and this leads him to believe he was among them.
Last spring, the Army sent letters requesting permission to use a more advanced DNA search. This permission was granted and the results were completed. Kirby had been found.
“We were notified on Monday, Oct. 2,” said Andi Fleming, another member of the family. Knowing that Kirby had been identified was a significant step for the family.
“I’m stunned. A little numb,” Fleming said. “It was such a surreal feeling, and after a little while I realized that it’s such closure for my family, wonderful closure for Louise and my mother (Patricia Smith); but then I realized this was a big deal for the community, for the veterans, for just everyone in general.”
Memories about Kirby and the kind of young man he was came back to many minds.
“I just remember my brother as being carefree,” Carol Louise said. “He loved playing in the creek. He loved hunting. He was just so jovial all the time. He dearly loved his mother. He respected her highly. I remember one day another friend in the neighborhood and him were talking, and he called my brother an SOB. My brother fought him and said, ‘You will not disrespect my mother.’ So that’s how much he did respect my mother.
Carol Louise remembered how Kirby would tease her and her sisters. Getting the news that he had been identified was a step toward giving the family closure.
“Being young, he really aggravated us, but I would give anything to be aggravated again,” she said. “I was just ecstatic. I bawled. I cried. I’d quit a little bit and I bawled and I cried, and I have just told everybody my story, even my church, because it was so great to me and it was so overwhelming; and like Andi said, it was such a shock. We had sort of forgotten about it, but it will be a closure for our family and we will all be here together. And he loved the mountains and we’re so glad he’s getting to come back home. And we thank God because we know a lot of prayers have been answered.”
Letters Kirby had written and mailed home were in a cedar chest with other family mementoes.
“I knew the letters were in there. None of us had ever read the letters,” Fleming said. “To his mother. So I got them out and somewhat organized them and read them since we got the notification.”
“But I knew those were in there and I just started reading them. What we have four months of basic training letters and then we have four letters from overseas and it just really shows what kind of young man he was,” Fleming continued. “He sent money home to his mother, talked a lot about what he was doing. He won a medal for sharpshooting and immediately in the same paragraph he said, ‘I’m going to win two more medals because we’ve got to more guns to do. Then we start working on a machine gun.’ I mean, he was excited. He was excited and exuberant about what he was doing. He had no fear. He didn’t show fear in his letters to his mother. He was very humble, grateful. He talked a lot about the foot he ate. Two different times he wrote down the menu.”
Kirby assured his mother that he was well fed. One letter listed all the food he had eaten over the course of one day.
“Mother, here is what I ate today while I was on K.P. and it didn’t cost a cent (that is all day),” he wrote. “3 quarts milk (ice cold); 6 cups coffee; 3 pieces steak; 4 oranges; 3 pears; 1 banana; 4 pieces a cake; 7 pieces of bread; gravy with beef; chicken; mashed potatoes which I helped make (50 gallons); greens (turnip) and ice cream. That was for a whole day. That is the way they feed you every day. But you get more if you work K.P. (I don’t mind it). I’ve gained 7 pounds.”
Corporal Ray Kirby Lilly will be brought home with full military honors, but the process will take several months, Fleming said. Details such as where he will be laid to rest are still being worked out. A representative of the Army will meet with the family to discuss the procedure for bringing him home.
Months will pass, but after more than seven decades, a young soldier named Kirby will be coming home to his family.
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