Sunset Park native Raymond A. Smith was only 18 years old when his regiment was attacked by North Korean forces on December 2, 1950, near the Chosin Reservoir. Following the battle, Smith’s remains could not be recovered and the young man was reported as missing in action.
That is until a few weeks ago.
In 2018, North Korea turned over 55 boxes containing the remains of American service members killed during the war. Using DNA analysis, the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System was able to identify many of the soldiers, including Smith.
On August 23, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency reported that Smith, who died during the Korean War, was accounted for.
Smith’s flag-draped coffin arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport on September 21, where he was met by his sister, Helen Bilbao, niece Linda Kiers, and nephew Gary Bilbao. A full U.S. military honor guard and the Port Authority Police were also present on the tarmac to salute and welcome him home.
For the family of the deceased, Smith’s return home was an unexpected but comforting surprise.
“It’s a homecoming after 71 years,” said Gary Bilbao. “It’s amazing when we got the information, because as far as me and my sister were concerned Uncle Raymond was gone.”
Raymond Smith and his sister were orphans who grew up together in a foster home on 46th Street.
“My mother always had Uncle Raymond’s picture and his Purple Heart hung up on the wall,” Gary Bilbao explained. “They were orphans, so they didn’t really have a core family, only each other. She was four or five years older and would hold his hand when they walked to school.”
Raymond was always fascinated by the Armed Forces, and joined the Navy when he was only 14. The Navy eventually found out and made the underage young man leave with an honorable discharge.
When he was 18, Smith legally joined the Army. Within six months he was shipped off to North Korea, never to be seen again.
Helen Bilbao, now 93 years old, was the first to meet her brother’s coffin at JFK Airport. It was a moment of closure decades in the making.
“When Uncle Raymond died, my mother was heartbrokenGary Bilbao continued. “The only family she had was gone, with no burial or finale to it. So to finally get closure on her only family is huge. We couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Private First Class Smith was buried with full military honors on Saturday, September 25. A wake was held at Clavin’s Funeral Home in Bay Ridge, immediately followed by burial at Greenwood Cemetery.
Smith’s name is recorded on the Courts of the Missing at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, along with the others who are still missing from the Korean War. A rosette will be placed next to his name to indicate he has been accounted for.
Helen Bilbao and her daughter both live in Bay Ridge now, while her son Gary lives in New Jersey. Even though Brooklyn has changed dramatically since Raymond Smith left in 1950, the family never lost hope that he would someday return home.
“My mom made sure she had her rosary with her when she went up to the casket,” Gary Bilbao explained. “I believe she still had her faith after all these years.”