BILLINGS – For nearly two decades, the cremated remains of World War II veteran Orville Clinton Hatch have sat unclaimed and mostly forgotten on a shelf in a basement storage area at Dahl Funeral Chapel in Billings.
Hatch’s 5 pounds of ashes have languished since October 1994, marked as “Cremation No. 4037.”
By his side for almost six years have been the cremated remains of U.S. Marine Corps veteran Anthony Mills. His box of ashes is “Cremation No. 6673.”
The remains of both men are stored in urns that have been tucked inside velvet bags in an effort to dress up what has become one of the nation’s troubling challenges.
The cremains of hundreds of veterans across several generations, many of them indigent, or abandoned through loss of family and friends, have collected dust on funeral home shelves across the nation.
Now some of those forgotten souls are being claimed.
The Missing in America Project is seeking what potentially could be tens of thousands of unburied veterans who served in wars throughout the past century. Their stories, forgotten by society, have begun to emerge from the shadows as the American Legion partners with the Missing in America Project to ensure that these men and women are given what they are owed: a dignified and respectful burial with full military honors.
To date, Missing in America Project leaders nationally have visited 2,782 funeral homes and have found 16,100 cremains, 3,500 of them in one institution. Some 2,044 of the veterans’ cremains have been identified and 1,854 of them have been interred.
The Missing in America Project’s Montana chapter has recently located and identified the cremains of seven veterans left unclaimed in funeral homes in Billings, Kalispell and Whitefish. Missing in America Project volunteers visited funeral homes, taking inventory of unclaimed remains and authenticating death certificates with U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs records.
The seven men are Jon William Ball of Kalispell; James M. Brodniak of Kalispell; Orville Clinton Hatch of Billings; Anthony Mills of Billings; Michael Lynn Shannon of Whitefish; Charles J. Shelton of Kalispell; and Charles Rollin Spears of Kalispell.
“These men served their country and sacrificed their lives,” said Marty Malone, Montana state coordinator for the Missing in America Project. “To have them sitting on a shelf in a box is tantamount to a crime.”
On Friday morning, two motorcycle processions, one from Billings and one from Kalispell, will meet and escort the remains of the seven men to Fort Harrison. Riders from Kalispell, Livingston, Bozeman, Belgrade, Missoula and Butte will all eventually combine as one procession into Fort Harrison.
At 2:30 p.m. the Missing in America Project, Montana VA and other state and federal organizations will inter these American heroes with full military honors at the Montana State Veterans Cemetery at Fort Harrison.
The Montana American Legion and Disabled American Veterans have contributed $880 to ensure that each of the seven men receives a burial vault and headstone.
“These people served their country,” Malone said. “It’s the least we can do to pay honor and respect to them in a way they deserve. I would hate to see any veteran buried in a potter’s field.”
John Dahl, owner of Dahl Funeral Chapel, heralds the efforts of the Missing in America Project. It gives funeral directors another option when repeated attempts to locate family and friends of a deceased veteran fail. He and his staff have worked closely with the Missing in America Project, giving members the access they need to crematory records to identify veteran remains.
Dahl’s father served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and one of his uncles was killed in action in Germany. Another uncle was a prisoner of war, and two of his aunts served as nurses during the war. Each had a timely and respectful burial. His goal is to help ensure that all veterans, especially those whose remains are in his care, receive a proper burial.
“You can’t put the fault on the family,” Dahl said. “They’ve obviously signed a cremation authorization and the intent is there to do some type of interment, but they have not been able to follow through for whatever reason.”
One family wrote him a note saying money was scarce and therefore they could not collect the remains.
This is the second ceremony that the Missing in America Project in Montana has provided. The first was in 2009 when project members interred the remains of two veterans after discovering them in a Ronan funeral home.
Malone said he has no idea how many more remains are unclaimed because some funeral homes around the state have denied them access.
“This will be a lengthy project and will require many man-hours to ensure that we have done our utmost to discover every forgotten veteran and procure, for each, a dignified resting place,” Malone said. “This will also be a labor of love, a task of redemption, for a debt of service that can never be repaid.”
Fred Salanti of Grants Pass, Ore., a Vietnam veteran, founded the Missing in America Project movement and is national director. While working as a regional facilitator for the Patriot Guard Riders, Salanti helped conduct monthly services at regional and state cemeteries for veterans with no family and no money.
Salanti is expected to be at the burial service at Fort Harrison on Friday. Also expected are Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, Maj. Gen. Matthew T. Quinn, commanding officer of Fort Harrison; and Joe Foster, administrator of the Montana Division of Veterans Affairs.