The remains of a World War II veteran from Taos will finally be laid to rest at the Santa Fe National Cemetery after a long, strange journey.
James Lang, who according to documents was born Nov. 19, 1916 in Taos and died Aug. 11, 1989 in Bremerton, Wash., will be among six New Mexico military veterans interred during what is termed a “Forgotten Heroes Funeral” planned Tuesday (March 26) at 2:15 p.m., according to an announcment from the New Mexico Department of Veteran’s Services.
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez is scheduled to deliver the eulogy.
The cremated remains of U.S. Army PFC James Lang will be interred along with U.S. Army PVT Joe Zamora Garcia of Bernalillo County (who died Nov. 28, 2012), U.S. Army PVT Gerald Joseph Ortiz of Bernalillio (Aug. 1, 2012), U.S. Army SPC Michael Riley Phillips of Bernailillo (March 10, 2013), U.S Marine Corps PVT Daniel Keith Reid of Otero County (Nov. 16, 2012), and U.S. Navy Seaman Albert Zarick of Bernalillo (May 25, 2012).
The veterans, “who upon death went unclaimed by family members,” will receive full military honors at the ceremony, according to NMDVS Public Information Officer Ray Seva.
The public is invited to join this final salute. The cemetery is located at 501 North Guadalupe St. in Santa Fe.
The “Forotten Heroes Burial Program” is based on the NMDVS’s “strong conviction that all honoably discharged veterans have earned the right to be buried with honor and dignity as a result of their service to our country,” Seva states.
Lang’s remains have, essentially, been in limbo for more than 23 years.
The existence of a box containing his cremated remains came to light at a November 2012 meeting of the western district of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, when Lawrence Vargas of Taos said he was contacted by Washington state VFW Commander Krist Huesby III.
Huesby told Vargas, who is post quartermaster of Fernández de Taos VFW Post 3259, that he had an unusual task for him: To repatriate the remains of a Native American military veteran from Taos.
Sadly, Vargas said he was told the remains had been found in a Dumpster and then turned over to the VFW. That story turned out to be untrue, according to one of Lang’s relatives — but the truth turned out to have tragic overtones as well.
According to Vargas’s research, Lang’s remains were given to his wife, Mary E. Lang, following is death from cardio-repiratory arrest at Harrison Memorial Hospital in Bremerton. The specific circumstances are not known, but apparently the box containing Lang’s ashes were placed in a closet where they remained for several years.
Vargas said he learned that, at one point, Mary Lang was being moved to an assisted living facility and her home was being sold. While her home was being cleaned, the remains were found and then reportedly turned over to a relative who then eventually turned them over to the local VFW.
According to Huesby, Lang’s final expressed wish was to have his ashes scattered on Indian land in Taos.
The only information Vargas had at the time was what was written on the box: Lang’s name, the name of the mortuary where his body was cremated, his social security number, and the number assigned to the remains.
From there, Vargas said, “I’ll take care of it.”
Two and a half weeks later, Vargas received Lang’s death certificate and later a letter containing his form DD214 record of military service. The form stated he served during World War II from May 21, 1943 until he was honorably discharged at age 29 on Jan. 19, 1946.
“But the letter we got said his records were burned in St. Louis when they had a big fire years ago,” Vargas said. “His records were burned but they sent an equivalent document indicating (naming) his place of birth: Taos, New Mexico.”
The documents state that his Indian name was “White Fang” and that his father’s was “Sam Rising Sun” and his mother, “Alice Silver Willow.” However, after Vargas contacted Taos Pueblo tribal officials, he said he was told there was no record of tribal affiliation here. The scattering of cremated remains in this fashion is also outside of Taos tribal traditions; members prefer a physical burial as soon as possible after death.
Vargas was prepared to bury Lang’s remains in his own family’s cemetery plot if no family could be located here. “My concern,” he said at the time, “is fulfilling his wishes, for his ashes to be spread in Taos.”
He is happy now that the NMDVS has taken the initiative to provide a fitting end to Lang’s journey, along with those of his five brother veterans who, like him, have been undisposed following their deaths.
“Every time I go and pass his remains, I say, ‘Mr. Lang, we’re coming one step closer to put you at-ease, and put you at rest.”
As Vargas was driving Lang’s remains to be turned over to the NMDVS in Santa Fe, he said he told him “You’re finally going home now.”