War hero’s long journey finally ends in Arlington

Sgt. Cornelius H. Charlton

Sgt. Cornelius H. Charlton

Nov. 12 2008

WASHINGTON-This time it was a happy occasion. Fairy Mae Papadopoulos sat calmly in her wheelchair, swinging her legs as the buglers played a now-familiar call, and the chaplain recited the 23rd Psalm.

The uniformed men were honoring her brother, Sgt. Cornelius H. Charlton, a Korean War hero who died in battle more than 57 years ago. Charlton was finally in his rightful resting place in Arlington National Cemetery-and Papadopoulos finally found closure.

“It’s all settled now,” the 81-year-old Pawcatuck resident said after Wednesday’s ceremony, surrounded by a few of her 11 children and countless grandchildren. “I don’t have to worry about him too much anymore.”

This was Charlton’s third funeral. He was killed on June 2, 1951, at the age of 21 while serving with the Army’s all-black 24th Infantry, the legendary Buffalo Soldiers. After his commander was killed, Charlton rallied his fellow soldiers and spearheaded three successful assaults before suffering a mortal grenade wound. For his bravery he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Charlton was interred in his family’s burial place in West Virginia. In 1990, the Congressional Medal of Honor Society had Charlton’s remains exhumed and reburied in the American Legion Cemetery in Beckley, W. Va.

But Charlton’s relatives always knew that “Uncle Connie” belonged in Arlington.

“He finally got put to rest,” Thomas Fisher, Charlton’s grand-nephew, said after the ceremony. “He’s where he belongs now.”

The event was as much family reunion as funeral. Fisher came down from the Bronx-which is where Charlton and his siblings grew up-along with two busloads of relatives. Some Connecticut and New York cousins were meeting for the first time, exchanging hugs and posing together for photos.

During the ceremony, the youngest family members sat on their fathers’ shoulders, flanked by veterans proudly wearing their “Buffalo Soldiers” jackets. Relatives held up digital camcorders and media were invited graveside, a rare event at an Arlington funeral.

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, called Charlton a “superhero for our country” and thanked Charlton’s niece, Zenobia Penn of New London, for leading the reburial effort.

It’s not clear why Charlton wasn’t buried in Arlington in the first place. The military says it was an administrative oversight, but some members of the family have always believed it was because Charlton was black.

Sgt. Turhan Papadopoulos, Fairy Mae’s son, strongly disputed this notion.

“It was not a racism issue,” he said after the ceremony. “Millions of people have been in the military and some are going to fall through the cracks. One happened to be my uncle.”

Still, the issue of race hung over the ceremony-which took place a week after the country for the first time elected an African-American as president-though any residual anger seemed to be overpowered by a sense of pride and vindication.

“Last Tuesday, this country took a historic step forward,” said Rep. Jose E. Serrano, D-N.Y., whose office chartered the buses for the Bronx delegation. “Many would say that step was part of the reconciliation with our past as a nation. Today continues that reconciliation.”

The celebratory mourners responded with a resounding chorus of Amens.

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