COSHOCTON -- They had once parachuted into the same Holland field, the old veteran who stood at the podium and the one in the flag-draped casket behind him.
Don Jakeway, a decorated World War II soldier with the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division, couldn't really keep from choking up as he talked about Army Pvt. Eugene "Gene" Appleby, whose homecoming from war came almost 74 years too late.
"I want to say that to see this gathering of people, to see the respect shown this man " said Jakeway -- 94 years old and one of Columbus's most-storied war heroes -- as he eulogized Appleby at the Miller Funeral Home in Coshocton. "As an old veteran in the fall of his years, it makes me proud to be an American."
As he spoke, there was hardly a dry eye in the place.
Jakeway hadn't known Appleby personally. He served with H Company of the 508th and Appleby had been Company A.
No matter. He still considered him a brother.
"I am so proud to be standing here beside my compadre in the 508th, and to see him coming home," Jakeway said. "God bless America."
He recounted the mission the men had been on: It was about 1 p.m. on Sept. 17, 1944 -- a Sunday -- when the sky turned black with paratroopers jumping into Drop Zone T, north of Groesbeek, Netherlands for "Operation Market Garden." The largest airborne assault ever undertaken to that point, the objective was to seize bridges and routes and get allied troops across the Rhine River.
Reports show that Appleby safely parachuted in, but then took enemy fire as the men were gathering equipment and rallying. He was shot and killed at the landing site at the age of 30. More than six decades passed, and his body was never recovered.
Then came Sept. 8, 2011.
Three Dutchmen looking for fossils and artifacts in a Groesbeek field came across some remains that day. The men notified police and the Royal Netherlands Army, which alerted the United States.
And it was just about a year ago that Gene Simonds' phone rang at his Florida home. It was a genealogist on the other end. She told Simonds that the U.S. government's Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency thought it might have his uncle's remains. Scientists needed DNA tests to be certain. Could anyone provide some? the government wondered.
That call was quite a shock.
"I didn't know a lot about my uncle," he said of Appleby, who died before Simonds was born. "But I knew he was my hero."
Eventually, Simonds sister, Denise Arnold, provided a sample, as did a cousin. In January, the government announced it was a match. That all led to this week.
Appleby was 29 years old when he enlisted in the Army out of Columbus in 1943. No one is left in the family that can recall those days, but Simonds, who with his family traveled from Florida for the services this week, said he thinks his uncle had spent some time studying at Capital University, had been in the Civil Air Patrol and owned his own plane.
Simonds does recall the photograph of a young man standing next to a plane that always sat in his grandmother's home. To a boy, the man in the frame seemed dashing and daring. Simonds was fascinated, and always wanted to know more.
Over the years, he would ask his grandmother -- who lived in Columbus by then -- about his uncle in the photo. She would always brush his questions aside.
"The hurt was so much that she didn't want to say much about it," Simonds said.
His mother (one of Appleby's sisters, Kathleen) shared a memory or two over time, especially of riding with her brother in his car, one of the few in their neighborhood.
"Mother would talk about how it had no windows, just rolled up flaps on the ride, and when you were riding you were always cold or wet," Simonds said. "And no matter where they went they always had flat tires and they always ended up getting out and fix it."
He paused when telling the story.
"I wish they were here to see this day," he said.
Reunited with mother
Appleby's remains were flown into John Glenn Columbus International Airport Tuesday. As American Airlines Flight 909 rumbled toward the gate, Simonds held his video camera aloft to capture the moment.
As the jet drew closer, Simonds patted his heart.
"He's home," he said softly. "Gene finally is home."
It was not a sad occasion, he said later, but a joyous one.
That scene, however, did little to prepare him for patriotism and emotion of Thursday's funeral.
The Coshocton County Veterans Honor Guard, which usually has a dozen or so at a funeral, was 28 strong for this one. A line of Coshocton County deputy sheriffs approached the casket one by one and saluted.
A horse-drawn caisson carried Pvt. Appleby to the center of South Lawn Cemetery, where it stopped beside the graves of his mother and sister. A crowd of strangers moved closer to surround the family, all there to honor a man they never met all because he had pulled on a uniform, defended a nation and laid down his life for the cause.
"After all these years to know that he could be found, and to finally know that he's there beside his mother," Simonds said. "That just makes my heart full."