LOS ANGELES – Army Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Gantt told his wife to remarry if he didn’t come back from the war. She told him no. He had a hard enough time getting her to say yes when he proposed. He was it.
In 1950, Gantt went missing during combat in the Korean War. He was presumed dead, but Clara Gantt, now 94, held out hope and never remarried.
On Friday morning on the Los Angeles International Airport tarmac, the widow stood from her wheelchair and cried as her husband’s flag-draped casket arrived home. He was one of hundreds of U.S. soldiers whose remains have been turned over by the North Korean government in recent years.
“I told him I missed him so much,” she said softly. “And I expect him to come home and he didn’t.”
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He never saw the house in Inglewood, just a few miles from where she greeted his remains. He hated yard work, and never wanted the hassle of owning a home. She bought him one anyway and hired a gardener so he could do whatever he pleased when he came home to her.
A wall of her bedroom is covered with military certificates and photos – his barracks, him in front of a white picket fence during World War II, his father. A copy of her picture – the one he always kept with him – stands nearby. A teddy bear in army fatigues sits in her living room, near an American flag with his photo tucked into the glass display.
She’s afraid to hang his medals, which include the Bronze Star with Valor, awarded posthumously, and a Purple Heart, for fear they’d be stolen during one of many break-ins that have happened on the street where she’s lived since the 1960s. She would rather they be safe in a museum.
Gantt said she never stopped waiting for word, but she forged ahead with her own life. She worked for years as a caregiver for people with disabilities, as well as children. She and her husband had always wanted to have kids, and working with them gave her pleasure.
“I would just pray and ask the Lord to let me live until they find a closure for him so I can be here to put him away myself,” she said, wearing a dog tag with his photo printed on it given to her at the morning ceremony.
Joseph Gantt joined the Army in 1942 and served in the South Pacific during WWII. Clara was one of 18 children who grew up on a farm in Texas. She tired of being at home, she said, so in her 20s she used the money she saved working in a cafeteria to take a train to California. It was on the train the two met in 1946, when Joseph beat his fellow soldiers to speaking to the woman who would two years later become his wife.
They were sweethearts for a long time because she refused to marry him – she feared he might already have a wife. She wrote “Uncle Sam” to get the truth, and finally agreed when the answer she was looking for came along.
They lived in Fort Lewis, Wash., until he left for the Korean War, assigned as a field medic, Battery C, 503rd Field Artillery Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division.
In December 1950, she received a letter from him and $100 for Christmas. That month, he was taken prisoner defending his unit’s position near Kunu-ri' Korea. He died in March 1951, officials later discovered.
Over the years, she’s been to dozens of meetings in Washington, D.C., meant to update the wives and family members of veterans. Some 84,000 service members, including 8,000 from the Korean War, are still missing.
Her family has told her she’s crazy to attend the meetings after so long, but he was her husband, she said. She’d keep going even if she was in a wheelchair.
When she got a call asking if she would be in Washington for the October meeting, she knew what was coming. She flew there, alone, and was told her husband’s remains had been found.
Then they read the letter she wrote the government so many years ago, inquiring about his marital status.
In recent years, the remains were finally returned to the U.S. by North Korea, then sent to a forensics lab in Honolulu to be identified, said Bob Kurkjian, executive director of USO Greater Los Angeles Area.
During the last 63 years, no one else caught Clara Gantt’s fancy as she waited for news of her husband. She told the base officials assigned to check wives’ homes for other men to come by anytime, they’d never catch her with anyone.
“I am very, very proud of him. He was a wonderful husband, an understanding man,” she told reporters at the airport. “I always did love my husband, we was two of one kind, we loved each other. And that made our marriage complete.”
Joseph Gantt will be buried in Inglewood later this month. One day, she'll be buried alongside him.
Times staff writer Christine Mai-Duc contributed to this report. Distributed by MCT Information Services.