NEW LENOX, Ill. - It was a more than 75-year wait, but the remains of a soldier killed during World War II have come home to the Chicago area.
The remains of U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Gerald Helms went "missing-in-action" in the Netherlands in 1944.
While he was missing for decades, he was never forgotten.
On Monday, he received a proper sendoff from his surviving relatives, who expressed deep gratitude to the U.S. Military for bringing him home.
Helms was just 29-years-old when he was assigned to Company E 325th Glider Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division.
He sent letters home and even a T-shirt for a niece reading, "My uncle is in the US Army." That niece is now 85-year-old JoAnne Born.
"I couldn't believe it. I mean after all these, 70 some years. My parents have of course been gone for 20 years. It was so exciting ... we've been waiting for this day for so long," said Born.
Born's granddaughter, Tiffany Stuart, a former Marine herself, said many mementos – including metals and letters from Helms – had been packed away for years.
"They don't lose their significance, but they become part of the background. And you just accept that, 'Oh yeah, that's what Uncle Gerald sent us.' But now it's on display. This is such an extraordinary thing to happen to a really ordinary family," Stuart said.
Helms was reported missing in 1944 after he failed to return from a scouting mission.
"He was a glider pilot and we always assumed he got shot down, but that wasn't the case. He went on a lone mission and never came back," said Born.
Despite several searches, his body was never found.
Fast-forward to 2019 when a Dutch citizen digging a trench in his yard found human remains and dog tags. Once confirmed to be those of Helms, the remains were accompanied home to Chicago by Army Staff Sergeant Brandon Burpo, a great-great-nephew of Helms.
"I'm just happy he's home," Burpo said.
A visitation memorial service was held for Helms at a funeral home in New Lenox.
The family had photographs and letters from Helms on display, along with his Purple Heart and dog tags.
Helms is survived by his niece Joann and several great and great-great nieces and nephews.
The Patriot Guard planned to escort the remains to Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood for a funeral with full military honors – a tribute long overdue for an American war hero.
In lieu of flowers, memorial donations can be made in his name to United Methodist Church, 339 W. Haven Ave., New Lenox, IL 60451 or to the Gary Sinise Foundation at Gerald Helms.