The remains of a long-unidentified American soldier and prisoner of war, who died after being captured by the Japanese military in the Philippines during World War II, were escorted from Graham-Hitch Mortuary in Pleasanton to his final resting place in Dixon last week after scientists were able to positively identify him 80 years after his death.
When Japanese forces began invading the Philippine Islands in December 1941, U.S. Army Pvt. Leroy M. Slenker, 28, of El Segundo in Los Angeles County was one of the U.S. soldiers who was sent off to fight alongside Filipino service members.
But after several months of intense fighting in Bataan -- a small province on the Philippine island of Luzon -- and at Corregidor Island, the Japanese army forced the Allied troops to surrender. That's when Slenker, along with 12,000 U.S. troops and 66,000 Filipino troops, were taken in as prisoners of war.
Those 78,000 prisoners of war were then subjected to the infamous 65-mile Bataan Death March, according to a July 5 press release from the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service (DVIDS), a media outlet that is part of the U.S. Department of Defense.
"The men, already desperately weakened by hunger and disease, suffered unspeakably during the March," according to an overview of the march from the National Museum of the United States Air Force. "Regardless of their condition, POWs who could not continue or keep up with the pace were summarily executed. Even stopping to relieve oneself could bring death, so many chose to continue walking while relieving themselves."
After marching up the east coast of Bataan, the prisoners were dropped off at a Japanese prisoner of war camp near the city of Cabanatuan where more than 2,500 prisoners died, according to the July 5 DVIDS press release.
According to historical records, Slenker died on Nov. 15, 1942 and was buried at the local Cabanatuan Camp Cemetery in Common Grave 721 along with other prisoners.
After the war ended, the American Graves Registration Service (AGRS) exhumed Slenker's remains along with the others buried at the Cabanatuan cemetery and relocated them to a temporary U.S. military mausoleum near Manila.
Then in 1947, AGRS personnel attempted to identify the remains, and according to the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, six sets of remains from Common Grave 721 were identified, but the rest -- including Slenker -- were not. Those unidentified remains were then buried at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial.
But in June 2018, those remains associated with Common Grave 721 were dug up and sent to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency laboratory at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, for analysis, according to a March 28 press release from the agency.
It was there that scientists from the agency used anthropological and dental analysis to identify Slenker's remains. According to the March 28 press release, scientists from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System also used mitochondrial DNA to help identify his remains.
After having been officially identified on Feb. 3, Slenker's remains were then transported to Graham-Hitch Mortuary where members of the Pleasanton Military Families joined U.S. Army veterans and other members of the community for a memorial service on July 12.
Bob Sanchez, a veteran who helped on the design committee for the Veterans Memorial at the top of Pioneer Cemetery, told the Weekly that the reason Slenker's remains were brought to Pleasanton was because it's where his last remaining descendants lived.
As someone who came from a military background with his father, all three of his uncles and other members of his family having served or are currently serving, Sanchez said that it's important to remember fallen soldiers and to give them a proper burial.
For him, that closure is not only a sign of respect for soldiers, it's also a way to show respect toward their family in that now Slenker's family knows where his remains are and they can now visit him any time they want.
"For some people, that's extremely important," Sanchez said. "They feel a loss if they never know what happened to their loved one."
That's why Sanchez felt it was important to share the news of Slenker's service with Denise Harper, president of the Pleasanton Military Families organization, who shared the news with the community.
Harper, along with about 20 other community members, showed up on July 12 with American flags in hand and paid their respects as Slenker's remains were put in a hearse to be transported to his final resting place at the Sacramento Valley National Cemetery in Dixon in Solano County.
"The utmost respectful closure for our fallen military hero who died while serving our country is to be able to come home to their family with full military honors and their name read out loud," Harper said.