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DNA identified this World War II soldier. Finally, almost 80 years later, he receives a proper burial

DNA identified this World War II soldier. Finally, almost 80 years later, he receives a proper burial

A bitter cold enveloped him. He wore wool clothing, but even that hardly withstood the harsh conditions.

Roy Searle, only 22 at the time, was huddled in that cold German winter on Dec. 9, 1944, when he died, wounded by shrapnel, during World War II. He was one of the more than 400,000 United States soldiers killed, and until last year, his body had never been recovered.

On Wednesday morning, almost one year after he was identified, Searle was given a proper burial and service at South Florida National Cemetery, west of Lake Worth Beach.

Betty Rhodes, 77, of Boynton Beach, Searle’s first cousin once removed, received a visit from the military last year, revealing Searle’s remains had been found and identified.

“They brought all of the forensic studies that were done. They explained everything to me and how he was buried initially in a cemetery in Germany, transferred to the American cemetery in Normandy, and then in 2021, his body was exhumed and sent to the U.S. for testing,” she said. “They tested his teeth, his bones DNA.”

Rhodes was asked if she had interest in helping lay Searle to rest. Save for her children, she is Searle’s only living relative, and he died two years before she was born, so she never knew him personally. But that did not stop her from wanting to help arrange a proper burial.

“Of course I did, and just so many military people have stepped up to help, to give me an idea of what to do. It was wonderful, just wonderful,” she said.

Rhodes brushed away tears during the service in Searle’s honor. She was presented with an American flag, a medal and a certificate signed by President Joe Biden.

Betty Rhodes, the first cousin to Roy Searle, a fallen World War II soldier whose body was found and identified last year, holds a certificate from the Biden administration on Wednesday, after a ceremony in Searle’s honor concluded. (Abigail Hasebroock/South Florida Sun Sentinel) 

The Rev. Julian Harris, from St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Boynton Beach, said he and other veterans rejoice at Searle’s homecoming.

“We have longed for this day when Roy has come home,” he said during the ceremony. “He was part of the 90th division. … They landed at Utah Beach and fought their way across into Germany. They crossed the Saar River at 4:15 in the morning, long before daylight with boats, and the Germans were dug in on the other side of the river.”

“It is in this campaign that Roy fell.”

Shrapnel wounded Searle, Harris said, and because the battle was so brutal, many of the dead were unable to be recovered.

“Our American soldier pulled into battle in the middle of the winter without the proper equipment, but with a great heart, and won a great victory for this country,” Harris said. “The 357th Infantry Regiment will stand in glory in the history of the nation and in our hearts, and all of that is here before us in a person, Private First Class Roy Searle, may God bless him as he has blessed us.”

Betty Rhodes, cousin of U.S. Army Pfc. Roy Searle, is given the flag from his casket during a ceremony at the South Florida National Cemetery, west of Lake Worth Beach, on Wednesday. Searle was killed during enemy engagement in World War II during December 1944, and his body was never recovered. Historians later discovered that a set of remains buried as an unknown at a site in France could be associated with Searle. The remains were disinterred in June 2021 and they were identified as Searle’s. (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun Sentinel) 

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Searle entered the Army in 1942 with his twin brother, Raymond, Rhodes said.

At the time of Searle’s death, his survivors included Raymond, his wife, Gertrude, and his mother and father, Mabel and Harvey.

His parents and wife wrote letters to the military pleading for Searle to be found, and while the American Graves Registration Command conducted several investigations in the area where Searle and others were killed, it ruled Searle as missing.

“When you come from a small town (during) World War II, everyone served,” Rhodes said. “I think they would have been so appreciative that the military would continue to look for those soldiers that were missing in action and buried in unknown graves. I think it kind of makes everything come full circle.”

A casket carrying the remains of U.S. Army Pfc. Roy Searle is carried into a ceremony at the South Florida National Cemetery west of Lake Worth Beach on Wednesday. Searle was killed during enemy engagement in World War II in December 1944, and his body was never recovered. Historians later discovered that a set of remains buried as an unknown at a site in France could be associated with Searle. The remains were disinterred in June 2021 and they were identified as Searle’s. (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun Sentinel) 

Rhodes recalled going with her parents to visit Mabel Searle, Roy’s mother, every Sunday in Rhode Island where she grew up.

“My parents would just sit with her and talk, talk about Roy,” she said. “In a small community, everyone thinks about those that don’t come home.”

Raymond Searle struggled because he lost his twin, a pain most people will never understand, Rhodes said.

During the ceremony, Rhodes said she thought about how she wished Mabel could have been there and how sad it was that she died without ever knowing what happened to her son.

“I was just the middle man, and just a vehicle to get this done,” she said. “I did it for her. I did it for her father, for his wife and all those who could no longer be here.”