For 60 years, Clara Gantt hoped that her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Gantt might be alive, despite the fact that military officials had notified her in 1951 that he was missing and presumed dead.
Gantt, who was born and raised in Baltimore, was working as a medic with the U.S. Army’s Battery C, 503rd Field Artillery Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division when he was taken prisoner on Dec. 1, 1950 during the historic bloody Battle of Kunu-ri, Korea.
Clara Gantt, now 94, who was married to her husband for only two years when he became a prisoner of war, was notified in 1953 that he had died of pneumonia in a POW camp on March 27, 1951. But his body was not returned to her.
“She was living in military housing in Fort Lewis, Wash., when she got a telegram telling her he was dead,” said Sharon Barnes, the Gantts’ niece. “She was told that she had to move out of base housing. She moved to Los Angeles and she’s been waiting for him ever since.”
Clara Gantt’s waiting ended Dec. 21 when her husband’s remains were returned to the United States. She was reunited with him in an emotional ceremony at Los Angeles International Airport, where she wept over his flag-draped coffin. His remains had been found by a Korean citizen earlier this year and after extensive DNA testing in Honolulu, they were identified by authorities.
Gantt was buried before hundreds of loved ones and military officials with full honors Dec. 29 in Inglewood, Calif., where Clara Gantt had moved to live with her brother after her husband’s death. He was buried with full military honors before hundreds of loved ones and military officials.
Clara Gantt said seeing her husband laid to rest gave her the closure she had longed for for more than six decades.
“I was always hoping and praying that he would come home. As long as he was missing, I still held out hope that he might be alive,” she told the AFRO in an interview from her home in Los Angeles. “I had asked God to let me live until they had found him, until he was able to come home. My prayers were answered.”
Clara Gantt said she was told some time ago that her husband and members of his unit were notified that their position was being threatened by encroaching enemy soldiers in the wee hours of Nov. 29, 1950 and took up arms. According to historic accounts, Chinese military officials pledged to disrupt a plan by Gen. Douglas McArthur, who commanded forces in Korea, to drive the Chinese out of the country by the holidays. Chinese forces responded to the “Home by the Holidays” initiative by attacking American forces near the China/Korea border near south of the Ch’ongch’on River. Hundreds of American soldiers were killed.
Several were taken prisoner. Black U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) was awarded for valor for saving several men in his unit during the battle.
Clara Gantt said Army officials said her husband was held by the Chinese. She does not know details of his time as a prisoner and she never heard from him again.
An Eager Volunteer
Like many other young Black men of his day, Gantt believed—despite the injustices often visited on African Americans—that it was his responsibility to help his country rid the world of tyranny. He was only 18 when he enlisted.
His first assignment, after basic training, was the Phillipines, where he worked as a field medic.
The year was 1942 and the United States was at war in the Pacific and in Europe.
In the national media, the NAACP and others were pressuring the United States government to accept Black men into combat. In Alabama, Blacks were being trained as pilots, bombardiers, engineers and support personnel on the campus of the Tuskegee Institute. The pilots and others 30 years later would come to be known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
Gantt had been excited about the opportunity to earn a good living and see the world outside of the world George Gantt and Louella Parker Gantt had set up for him and brothers Philip and Gilbert in Baltimore.
And, “He had a heart for service,” Clara Gantt said.
Gantt had been 22 when they had met on a train in Texas in 1946. She was 28. The ninth child and one of only four girls in a group of 18 siblings, Clara Gantt had been heading to Los Angeles from her home in Jones Creek, Texas, south of Houston. He was heading to Fort Huachuca, Ariz.
He was handsome and gregarious and they talked easily.
“I knew he was the one I would marry,” she said.
He, too, was smitten. He kept in touch and proposed in short order, though she made him wait for two years before she agreed to be his wife.
“I wanted to get to know him and for him to know me,” Clara Gantt said. “And I wanted to make sure he wasn’t somebody else’s husband.”
They got married at the chapel at Fort Lewis on June 15, 1948. He struck a dashing pose in his crisp uniform. She wore a blue suit. They honeymooned in Alaska, then set up house on the military post.
Before he shipped out in 1950, he told her that if anything happened to him, he wanted her to remarry. She pledged to stay faithful to him, no matter what.
“I told him I would always stay his wife,” Clara Gantt said.
A Patriot Is Celebrated
According to military officials, Gantt was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with Valor for his heroism on the day he was captured.
He has also been awarded the Purple Heart, the Prisoner of War Medal, the Army Good Conduct Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Korean Service Medal, the Combat Infantry Badge, the United Nations Service Medal, the Republic of Korea War Service Medal and a Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation, among other honors.
“SFC Gant was a true patriot, and answered the call of his nation not once, but twice, and made the ultimate sacrifice,” Bob Kurkjian, executive director of the USO Greater Los Angeles told the Los Angeles Sentinel.
The organization’s Families of the Fallen Committee works with families of killed or missing soldiers. There are still almost 8,000 Americans who fought in Korea whose whereabouts are unknown.
Gantt’s funeral was a fitting tribute, his wife said. He was eulogized as a hero by the Rev. Lamont Leonard, pastor of The Dwelling Place Foursquare Church in Inglewood in Los Angeles, where Clara Gantt is a longtime member. A U.S. Army Honor Guard escorted his remains to Inglewood Park Cemetery for burial. There was a 21-gun salute.
In attendance was Lt. Col. Solomon Jamerson, who served with Gantt in Korea.
“General Douglas MacArthur said, ‘I’ll have you home by Christmas,’” Jamerson said, quoting the military leader’s words in 1950, according to KTLA TV news in Los Angeles.
“And this Christmas, [Gantt] returned home.”
A Widow Still Cries
Clara Gantt, who worked for 50 years with disabled children and adults, told the mourners Dec. 29 that she is still grieving.
All these years later, two framed photographs of her husband still smile down from her bedroom wall.
“They were still in the honeymoon phase when he went missing,” Sharon Barnes said. “Theirs was still young, fresh love.”
Regrettably, they never had children, Clara Gantt said. An attempt had ended in an ectopic pregnancy and a second chance had never come. Instead, she became a favorite aunt for dozens of nieces and nephews and their children.
Fifteen years ago, Clara Gantt joined the community of families of military men and women who are missing in action. She attends meetings regularly in Washington, D.C. and has found a second family among some of the other relatives. They urge legislation to help find MIA/POWs. They share stories about their loved ones. They grieve for their loss and share pain that others don’t understand.
She was notified in October at one such meeting in the District that her husband’s remains had been found.
Also among the speakers at Gantt’s funeral was the son of a military pilot who went MIA after his aircraft was shot down in Korea in 1951.
“His wife died before she got closure,” Clara Gantt said. “At least, I got closure.”
Donations to help with funeral expenses may be sent to Clara Grant at:
Mrs. Clara Gantt
C/O The USO Greater L.A.
203 World Way, #200
Los Angeles, CA 90045
A scholarship fund had been set up in SFC Gantt’s name. Donations may be made to:
The Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Gantt Scholarship Fund
C/O The Dwelling Place Church
3130 W. 111th Pl.
Inglewood, CA 90303