Memorial services were held in Macon Friday for Sgt. Thomas Jefferson Barksdale, a Georgia soldier who died in Korea almost 62 years ago, but whose remains were only recently identified.
Motorcycle engines roared as more than 50 Patriot Guard Riders of Georgia stood at attention outside a mortuary in Fort Hill, the historically black neighborhood in east Macon where Sgt. Barksdale was born in 1929.
The young man was known by his friends and family as "Sugar Boy." During services inside, Barksdale’s first cousin and self-proclaimed keeper of the family secrets Louise Butts said the nickname came from the boy’s father.
“And since I know how their dad didn’t mind bragging about all of his kids, I have sort of thought that perhaps it was because he thought they were all pretty, sweet, and that Sugar Boy had a bigger dose of it than anybody,” Butts said, drawing chuckles from family members, veterans, and dignitaries in attendance.
At age 18, Barksdale volunteered for the Army. He served in Korea with the 503rd Field Artillery Battalion, along with future New York Congressman Charlie Rangel. At the ill-fated Battle of the Ch'ongch'on River near the Chinese border, Barksdale became one of nearly 700 American fatalities, in combat that Congressman Rangel would later describe as “a waking nightmare.” It was December 1st, 1950, and Sugar Boy was just 21.
“He sacrificed his life before Brown vs. Board of Education," Macon City Councilor the Rev. Dr. Henry C. Ficklin said, delivering Barksdale’s much-belated eulogy.
"[Barksdale died] before the streets were paved in Fort Hill, before the bus ran on the east side, before the lights were installed, before the first black was elected to anything," said Ficklin.
Barksdale’s body lingered on the battlefield for half a century, until a rare US expedition to North Korean in the summer of 2000 turned up the remains of many soldiers, including one unusually intact skeleton. But it wasn’t identified as Barksdale’s until recently, thanks to advances in DNA testing.
“When the bones of Sgt. Barksdale were unearthed, God had already put in them a computerized program that would tell who he was and bring out his story,” Ficklin said in his eulogy.
About 8,ooo American soldiers are still missing in action from the Korean War. Another mission to recover remains in North Korea was scrapped in March as diplomatic tensions flared with the regime in Pyongyang. But for her part, Louise Butts is thankful for her cousin’s homecoming.
“You cannot imagine how I feel, being probably one who knows more of the intimate stories of the family than anyone else, that finally we know what happened to Sugar Boy,” Butts said.
Following services, Sgt. Barksdale’s remains were interred at Georgia Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery in Milledgeville.