The remains of Private First Class William H. Jones of Nash County -- known as "Hoover" to his family -- were flown from a military identification lab in Hawaii to RDU, and met on the tarmac by the family and a military honor guard on Thursday.
His homecoming -- nearly 70 years after he disappeared in combat -- was part of an extraordinary chain of events that started with a gesture of diplomacy by a notorious dictator and included cutting edge laboratory work, along with tweets by President Trump.
"We just want to get closure because it's been a long time, over 60 some years for us to anticipate him coming home," said Greg Ohree, Jones' nephew, who was among more than a dozen family members and friends who came to meet the jet carrying Jones' casket.
Ohree said that shortly after graduating from high school in 1950, Jones decided to enlist.
"He wanted to pursue, as far military, but also find a better way, as far as education," Ohree said.
Jones was serving in Korea with the segregated 24th Infantry Regiment and was involved in heavy combat.
On November 26, 1950, after his company pulled back from fighting a larger unit of Chinese troops, it found that he was missing. Jones was 19 years old.
His three surviving sisters declined to speak to reporters at the airport, but in a video released by the military, 95-year-old Elizabeth Jones-Ohree recalled the day her family found out her brother was missing.
"We hadn't heard from him in about three months," Jones-Ohree said. "And mama undoubtedly felt something. So when the news came, she just had to lay down. And she laid on the bed and sent for me, I was at work."
The story of Jones' return started about a year ago, when President Trump held a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, mainly to try to end that country's nuclear weapons program. Little has come of that yet, but as a good will gesture, North Korea returned 55 boxes containing remains of missing U.S. service members. Jones' was the second set to be identified from those boxes.
President Trump announced the names of those first two in tweets, calling them "heroes" and saying maybe now their families could gain closure.
In Jones' case, the scientists and historians at the ID lab were especially lucky: Among other things, they retrieved not only good DNA samples from his remains, but also had dental records and chest x-rays.
"The lab was able to develop several of those lines of evidence relatively quickly, and that led to a relatively fast identification," said Chuck Pritchard, a spokesman for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, the Pentagon group tasked with finding and identifying missing troops.
The agency has had increasing success identifying Korean War remains. But relatives of thousands of troops still missing in North Korea aren’t as lucky as the Jones family. Negotiations that began right after that summit to allow U.S. recovery teams into North Korea have stalled.
"It's roughly 7,700 that are missing from the Korean War," Pritchard said. "We estimate that 5,300 of them are in North Korea. So that's really important for us. You know, at one time there were joint field activities going in North Korea, and those stopped. So we are eager to resume those as soon as we can."
But proper steps have to be taken and arrangements have to be made, and we were just not there yet.
Jones' regiment, the 24th Infantry, was one of the famed "Buffalo Soldier" units formed after the Civil War. These at first served mainly on the western frontier. The enlisted men in the units were all African American.
Less than a year after Jones was killed, it was deactivated and its men spread among other units.
For decades, a marker has waited for him at a church in the tiny town of Whitakers, north of Rocky Mount. But Jones is scheduled to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery on August 22. First though, his remains will lie in honor at the state capitol on Friday.