orangeleader.com (Orange, Texas)

Local News

September 16, 2013

War hero returns home 60 years after death

ORANGE — A soldier who died decades ago as a POW has finally come home.

Sgt. Clement Thibodeaux Jr., a native of Church Point, La. and one time resident of Orange, died in a prisoner of war (POW) camp in 1951, only a short time after his 18th birthday on Dec. 1, 1950. He served in the United States Army in the Korean War as a member of Company L, 3rd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division.

Thibodeaux’s sister, Irona “Tibby” Mazzola, a long-time resident of Orange, and his only surviving brother, Raynold Thibodeaux of Nederland, have finally gained some closure to the mystery surrounding their brother’s death as his remains have been missing for more than 60 years.

According to information provided by the family, Thibodeaux was identified after his brother, the late Wilson Thibodeaux Sr. of Baton Rouge, spent a half-century attempting to recover his remains. Clement Thibodeaux was identified by DNA comparisons with Wilson Thibodeaux.

Wilson died before his brother’s body was recovered, but his son, Wilson Jr., continued the mission to not only locate his Uncle Clement’s body but to recover it and bring him back home to the United States.

“It’s bittersweet,” Irona Mazzola said with tears in her eyes. “It has brought back a lot of good memories.”

Mazzola, 88, comes from a family with nine children. Four of the boys served in the United States military. All are now deceased except for her and her 92-year-old brother, Raynold.

Mazzola said their father signed paperwork giving permission for her brother, Clement, to join the Army when he was only 17-years-old. He died shortly after his 18th birthday.

According to information provided by Lt. Col. Melinda Morgan, a spokesperson for the Department of Defense, the prisoner of war camp where Thibodeaux reportedly died was called “Death Valley” by surviving POWs. Thibodeaux and other members of the 25th Infantry Divison were taken prisoner by Chinese troops on Nov. 28, 1950, after U.S. soldiers engaged the Chinese north of the Ch’ongch’on River in North Korea.

Thibodeaux was initially listed as missing in action. Soldiers returning from the Korean War in 1953 informed U.S. Army officials that Thibodeaux had died in 1951, reportedly of starvation and pneumonia.

“I’m not trying to bring attention to the family or to take anything away from those other boys who died in Korea,” Mazzola added. “He’s the hero. They all were.”

In 2005, a joint effort between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea received information on a possible burial site. The team excavated an area in Unsan County in North Korea, and found the remains of several individuals which were then returned to the United States of America for identification.

Thibodeaux’s remains were identified through a process which matched mitochondrial DNA from his brother Wilson Thibodeaux Sr. prior to his own death and the family was informed in 2012 of the match.

Thibodeaux’s remains were flown to New Orleans. A funeral service was held on Saturday, Sept. 7, in Church Point, La. Several veterans organizations and representatives of area law enforcement agencies and fire departments participated in the funeral procession while the route was lined by hundreds of residents who came out to pay respects to the returning hero, according to Mazzola.

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