World War II hero from Elizabethton granted burial at Arlington Cemetery

Published 3:09 pm Wednesday, March 15, 2023

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Special to the STAR
It was a promise made, a promise kept.
Eighty years after the Tennessee teen left his home and family in Elizabethton with a vow that he would return from United States Army duty in World War II, Private First Class Mark P. Wilson is indeed back on American soil.
Family members have been informed that their fallen soldier will finally receive the hero’s recognition he deserves: His remains will be laid to rest June 7 in Arlington National Cemetery.
“He certainly was a hero,” said Eve Cunningham, one of two surviving siblings of Wilson. “He gave his all for the country. He took care of the country, and now we’re glad that the country can take care of him.”
Brian Cunningham, Eve’s son and nephew of Mark, said “it is likely” that his uncle will be interred in Section 60 of the cemetery.
“That’s generally where soldiers lost in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried; it’s described as a unique and beautiful place,” said Brian, 58, a native of Memphis, who moved with his family to Roswell, Ga., in 1972 and has lived in Cumming, Ga., since 2008.
Brian’s entire life has run parallel to the mystery of Mark Wilson’s absence. Brian was born in November 1964 – 20 years after Mark was killed. What Brian knows about his uncle has come to him through the words of his mother and other relatives.
“It’s remarkable coming to this point,” said Brian. “I’m looking forward to the event where we will finally be welcoming the hero home. It’s such an amazing exclamation point on the story.”
Eve, who’ll be 93 on April 16, and Brian plan to attend the funeral service at Arlington National Cemetery. A Roswell resident, Eve Cunningham has waited most of her life for this mode of closure.
A Full Military Honors Chapel Memorial Service will immediately precede interment.
Brian hopes his mother will be able to attend a medals presentation in the next few weeks. To be held in the Atlanta area, the event will further recognize the Purple Heart and Bronze Star awarded in the name of Pfc. Wilson and ensuring that his sacrifice will never be forgotten.
“We could use that as more closure,” said Brian, who expects to be at Arlington National not only with his mother but also his brother, Michael, of Milton, Ga.
Tom Whitehead, of Elizabethton, whose late mother, Pauline, was a sister to Eve and Mark, plans to attend with his son, Jonathan.
It was Sept. 5, 2022, when the family received a phone call from an Army case manager with the news that Mark’s remains had been identified, thereby closing decades of uncertainty and angst tied to his whereabouts. The military draftee was at times declared MIA (missing in action), KIA (killed in action), non-recoverable, and ultimately identified through the latest scientific means of determining one’s identity.
“It was very difficult, not knowing where he was or what happened to him,” Eve said. “It was really hard for my mother (May) and father (Ray), never knowing. Sometimes you hoped in your heart he might walk through the door, but you realized it was not to be.”
Eve was 12, Mark 18 when the soldier-to-be entered the military at Georgia’s Fort Oglethorpe on March 6, 1943. Mark was a student at Milligan College in Elizabethton when he was drafted. A sea of tears washed over the Wilsons’ six-bedroom farmhouse when Eve and her parents last saw Mark before he left for boot camp.
“He was crying. We were all crying,” Eve said. “I can’t describe how sad it was for all of us.”
Eve recalled Mark’s promise that he would come back. “You better come back!” she told him. Her brother smiled and said, “You know I will.”
Then he gently patted his loving little sister on the head.
Ray and May Wilson had 11 children, but three died young. Myrna Arnett, who lives in Hampton, is 85 and Mark’s only other surviving sibling.
Eve (nee Evelyn) adored Mark, and vice versa.
As noted in the marvelously written and researched book by Joseph M. Pereira and John L. Wilson (no relation to Mark), All Souls Day: The World War II Battle and the Search for a Lost U.S. Battalion, “Mark had a wonderful disposition. Not once did he get angry with Eve, who would pester him for rides on his back. Despite their age difference, they played basketball, football, badminton, and horseshoes together.
“Every time Mark said he was going somewhere, Eve would say, ‘Wait, I’m coming with you.’”
Wilson was declared missing in action Nov. 8, 1944, after he failed to answer that morning’s roll call. He served in Company A, 1st Battalion, 112th Infantry Regiment, 28th Infantry Division, which was fiercely engaging overwhelming German forces in the Third Reich town of Kommerscheidt in an area along the Belgian-German border known as the Hürtgen Forest.
The Hürtgen Forest campaign was waged from September 19, 1944, to February 10, 1945, making it one of the longest battles fought by U.S. troops in the Second World War.
Employing DNA gathered from Eve, Brian, and Ray Wilson (nephew to Eve, first cousin to Brian), scientists from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency used various means of analysis to identify Wilson’s remains.
Considering location of recovery and comprehensive research of combat at Kommerscheidt in Hürtgen Forest, the Europe-Mediterranean Directorate concludes that a bond between Mark P. Wilson and the remains in question is historically likely.
Had Mark survived the war – he was only 20 when he died – and been gifted with longevity, he would be looking forward to his 99th birthday April 15. Thinking about what her brother’s life might have been like were it not interrupted, Eve said, “We do that all the time. He had his whole life outlined. He had everything going for him. He was such a good-looking boy, and so smart. He would have made a great president.”
Perhaps so. He already was a great brother.

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