Veterans honor prisoner of war Talmage Sexton

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INDEPENDENCE — It’s not every day that a memorial service is held without a soldier, but it happened at the Saddle Creek Cemetery on U.S. 58 west of Independence on Oct. 30.


A color guard from Independence VFW #7726 conducted the service for Talmage Johnson Sexton, honoring him for his service to America.

Sexton served in the Korean War, and when it ended more than 50 years ago, the enemy never returned or accounted for more than 8,000 American servicemen.

Sexton, born Nov. 29, 1926, served in the Korean War and was listed lost as a prisoner of war on July 12, 1950.

A tombstone was erected at the cemetery bearing Sexton’s name, beside the grave of his father, Walter Sexton.

Dan Boyer, commander of Post 7726, conducted the service at the cemetery. The color guard fired their guns in the air as part of a salute to Sexton.

The tombstone is in place but Sexton’s grave remains empty.

His body has not been recovered.

A new method of DNA testing is being used to identify remains of some of the bodies that are being recovered in North Korea.

Harold Davis, a 78-year-old combat veteran of the Korean War, is working with the U.S. Military’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) to ensure those soldiers’ remains are sent home.

Buford Wilson of Galax, a local genealogist, has been working with Davis in connection with the Sexton case.

Wilson began with the 1930 U.S. Census. Wilson said he found 36 Sexton families listed in the census for Grayson County.

Wilson found Sexton in the 35th family by locating his father, Walter.

Wilson said he used a book being developed by the Grayson County Heritage Foundation, to find where Sexton’s parents were buried — Saddle Creek Cemetery.

When he found out that information, he went to the Galax Public Library to look at old obituaries in past issues of The Gazette on microfilm.

He found that Sexton’s mother was listed as a parent of three children, and had died in 1950. His father died nine years later.

Wilson found that Sexton was stationed in South Japan when his mother died. His brothers and sisters lived in the Fox community of Grayson.

Sexton’s sister, Nancy Rice of the Gold Hill community, attended the ceremonies at Saddle Creek and said she hoped that someday they could find his remains so the family could have some closure.

Wilson located Ruth living in Mouth of Wilson, and after talking with her daughter, he was told Ruth would be willing to give the necessary DNA sample.

“Genealogy is one of the main things we do,” Wilson said of the Grayson County Heritage Foundation, located in the Guynn Shopping Center Mini-Mall in Independence. “We help people track their families.”

Wilson said after he knew a name, he sent it to Davis, who said he would get the family in touch with the necessary people to obtain the DNA sample.

According to Wilson, the entire process took less than a week, and the key was using the cemetery book and old microfilm Gazettes to track down the family.

Sexton is one of 24 servicemen that Davis is currently tracking down families for.

Davis said after being given Ruth’s name, he said the family was in contact with the Casualty Office and is providing the DNA that is needed.

Geneva Walters of Reins-Sturdivant Funeral Home in Independence, worked with the government to obtain the tombstone. The funeral home crew set the stone at the graveyard.

A reference to Talmage Sexton's time as a prisoner of war can be found in a Reader's Digest article from January 1997 and at the magazine's Web site, www.readersdigest.com.

The article, “Johnson's List,” by Malcolm McConnell, talks about prisoners' brutal ordeal during three years of captivity in North Korea.

One prisoner, Wayne “Johnnie” Johnson, secretly kept a detailed list of all the men he was held with. Among them is listed PFC Talmage J. Sexton of Virginia, 21st Infantry.

That's the article's only mention of Sexton, but it details some of the hardships and horrors the POWs suffered under the tyrannical rule of a North Korean army major prisoners called The Tiger.

Of the 758 POWs that The Tiger took command of in October 1950, only 262 were alive at the war's end in 1953. The rest had gotten sick, died in captivity or been executed. Some were killed when American planes accidentally strafed a building where he and other POWs were held.

Johnson risked his life to keep the list, which he buried in the wall and floor of his hut.

According to the article, Johnson's POW groups was moved north, to a pen in the village of Manp'o, by late October 1950. They were fed rotten food, many were sick and malnourished and seven had been executed.

Johnson recorded the soldiers' names for their families, so they wouldn't be forgotten. He used strips of paper torn from guards' discarded cigarette packs and a strip of wallpaper.

The Tiger ordered the weak and sickly prisoners on a nine-day march through the cold, steep mountains, “until they die,” Johnson recalled him saying. Those who fell by the wayside were shot.

The officers who didn't keep their men moving fast enough were shot.

The Tiger also ordered the POWs to turn in their dog tags, making it difficult for future generations to identify some of the remains recently found.

But, Johnson kept his list going and recorded the names of more than 100 who died on the march.

Almost 300 more prisoners died that winter in a prison camp near the Yalu River.

Johnson's list continued to grow, and he made two copies in case one was found.

One day, it was, after the POWs were transferred to Chinese control.

Johnson was beaten and whipped because his captors thought he was keeping the list for the U.S. government.

At war's end, he smuggled the list out of North Korea in a toothpaste tube when prisoners were liberated. It was turned over to the Department of Defense and used to verify the final fates of hundreds of POWs, many of which were still erroneously listed as “escaped” or missing in action.

In August 1993, Johnson received the Silver Star, the nation's third-highest medal of valor, for his courage and determination to keep his list, even in the face of death.