COLUMBIA, Tenn. (AP) — Discovering the origins of family members you never knew is one of the joys in researching one's lineage, but it isn't every day a person learns they are related to a long-lost war hero.
Brenda Dugger of Columbia never met her grandfather, U.S. Army Cpl. Vernon V. Ginnings, but she certainly knew what he did during his time on Earth, especially his final year as he took up arms to serve alongside others of his generation, the Greatest Generation.
Up until now, her only memories were from stories passed down by her late father, a Vietnam vet. She and her husband, Walter, also keep items around her house tied to Ginnings' service, such as a framed American flag adorned with his various pins passed down from her father, or a newspaper from 1941 reporting the attacks on Pearl Harbor, which hangs in the living room.
"When he went to serve, my father had just been born," Brenda said. "So even he didn't have a relationship with my grandfather, only what he would hear from stories told by other people."
For decades, Ginnings' story had always ended in tragedy, becoming a prisoner of war (POW) captured in the Philippines, and never to come home. Now, thanks to modern forensic technology, his story can have its proper end, and his legacy given the honor it has always deserved.
This story begins at Christmas in 2018.
Brenda's daughter, Gail Manning, received a DNA kit from Ancestry.com. While awaiting the results of the kit, Brenda was contacted by the U.S. Army, saying there were remains of a World War II soldier they were trying to identify from a mass grave discovered in the Philippines. Up until then, the only identifier on the remains was a set of dog tags.
"With me being connected (on Ancestry), my Mom got connected," Gail said. "I'm not sure how it happened, but she got something in the mail and it just took off from there. And then I asked her if she wondered if he had any medals, because I researched it and thought it would be something I'd like to have."
After a few more correspondences with Army and other governmental representatives, it became clear that this was indeed the family's long lost kin. Though returning the remains to America wouldn't be easy, Ginnings' military records showed he in fact was the recipient of several military honors, including seven medals, two unit citations and a Philippine Defense Ribbon with one bronze service star. Those, Brenda said, could be returned much easier, and were to be delivered and presented by U.S. soldiers to her home in Columbia.
Ginnings' military honors included the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, the Army Good Conduct Medal, the Prisoner of War Medal, the American Defense Service Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, the World War II Victory Medal, the Presidential Unit Citation and Philippine Republic Presidential Unit Citation.
"It makes your heart just want to burst right out of your chest, especially when he opened up and showed us the Purple Heart," Brenda said after first seeing the medals. "All of this here that's on the table is what let's us stand and be free right here today."
As one of only a few remaining blood relatives with ties to Ginnings, Gail said she will be forever grateful that her family's history could finally be preserved, and that she can pass her great-grandfather's legacy on to her children.
Born Jan. 20, 1918, Ginnings enlisted into the U.S. Army on March 20, 1941.
After receiving basic training, he was deployed to defend the Filipino islands, manning an anti-aircraft cannon as Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his men made their retreat. While fighting off the Imperial Japanese Army to ensure MacArthur to safety, Ginnings was captured and brought to a POW camp in Bataan, where he was presumed to have been imprisoned for about four months.
This was at the time of the infamous Bataan Death March, which began April 9, 1942 when an estimated 60,000-80,000 American and Filipino POWs were forcibly transferred nearly 70 miles on foot to Camp O'Donnell, Capas, Tarlac, later to be loaded onto trains. The march occurred following the three-month Battle of Bataan, resulting in approximately 5,000-18,000 Filipino deaths, as well as 500-650 American deaths.
The march was notorious for involving cases of severe physical abuse and prisoner killings. It was later declared a Japanese war crime by an Allied military commission.
Ginnings' death was estimated to have occurred sometime in August of 1942. He was 26 years old.
U.S. soldiers arrived on the Duggers' doorstep Wednesday morning, presenting each of Ginnings' medals, and sharing each one's significance, to the family.
The group included Lt. Col. Jim Ridings, CW4 Lance Jenkins, Staff Sgt. Matthiew Perry and Survivor Outreach Services Program Coordinator Shelia Brigham Jones.
The soldiers shared Ginnings' story with the family, describing it as one of a true American war hero, a man who gave his life to defend his general, and his country, to ensure victory and the freedoms Americans can enjoy today.
"It's an honor for us to be here and even be a part of this," Ridings said. "These are the pieces of this history you can't write down on a certificate. You can only talk about the actions, and if you know anything about the Philippine conflict, you know that he provided a defense so that others could escape, that they could live and fight another day, which ultimately led to us having victory in the Pacific."
Ridings, a more than 30-year U.S. Army veteran, said in all his years as a serviceman, this was the first time he had seen some of the medals, specifically the POW medal.
"I've never had an opportunity like this," he said. "In my 30 years, that Prisoner of War Medal just in itself, you just don't ever see it."
Ridings also acknowledged the significance of receiving a Bronze Star. Though a common medal awarded to modern-day servicemen and women, a Bronze Star in World War II meant you did something special to earn it.
"The Bronze Star, these days, is often awarded just for serving the year while you were deployed, if you served honorably," Ridings said. "But everything up through the Vietnam conflict, if you were awarded the Bronze Star it was a pretty big deal. You didn't earn it just by being in the war zone, but for your actions. The Bronze Star being awarded is a huge deal."
Presenting the medals to the Dugger family was also a reminder of just how much World War II veterans are continually held in high regard, especially by military personnel serving today. Jenkins, another 30-plus year veteran, said despite multiple tours overseas, including stints in Iraq, his experiences will never come close to what those previous generations or servicemen had to endure.
"Those ones are the heroes. What we went through was pretty serious, but (past veterans) went there, and were there for multiple years, and with no contact with family unless you waited for a letter that might come," Jenkins said. "They were over there for what seemed like a lifetime. To me, we're all veterans, but I have to put what we did a lot lower from what these gentlemen did, and if this stuff doesn't make you proud, something's wrong with you."
Brenda's husband, Walter Dugger, an avid historian with a family history of military service, said having these medals is a reminder of how important it is to honor this part of American history, and to remember just how much the actions of that generation of soldiers mattered.
"When my brother was in Desert Storm, he would talk about things you wouldn't believe, but he would always talk about the generation before, and about how they went through a lot more than he did," Walter said. "It was just amazing some of the things they had to go through."
Brenda added that one lesson learned from the whole experience is that you never know what you might find when you take the time to trace your roots. With modern science and a little patience, you never know what stories they have waiting to be told.
"I hope this leads to other people finding their loved ones," Brenda said. "If it triggers somebody else to do this, it might bring more of them home. He wasn't the only POW out there, and there are plenty more."
The Dugger family still hopes their long-lost relative's remains can one day be returned to the U.S., where Brenda wishes to bury them alongside her late father, Ginnings' son. She said her father would have been the most proud in seeing his father's story, and his service to his country, finally come full circle.
"Now he's home, and it would be an honor if they do find all of his remains to bring them home. That's the only knot we haven't gotten tied off yet," Brenda said. "The only regret is that my father didn't get to see this, because if he was sitting here, he'd probably be crying. He would be so proud."
This article was written by The Daily Herald and Jay Powell from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.