Were 80-year-old Donald V. MacLean stepping off that plane Wednesday at O'Hare, he might drape his arm around his wife of 50 years, walk into a welcome from their grown children and a gaggle of grandkids, and hug his twin sister, Donna.
Instead, Donna Mitchell holds her hand near her mouth as if stifling a gasp as her brother, Army Cpl. MacLean, leaves a United Airlines cargo carrier in a flag-draped silver casket carrying the remains of a life that ended 63 years ago on a rocky, bitterly cold battlefield in North Korea.
"We got the telegram Dec. 2, 1950," Mitchell says, referring to the official government notice that her brother was missing in action. His parents and siblings always held out hope he was alive.
"We still did -- until now," says Mitchell, 80, who lives in McHenry. "Now, at least, there's going to be closure."
More than 60 military personnel, police officers, veteran groups, and motorcycles and riders from the Rolling Thunder and the Patriot Guard Riders turn out to welcome the fallen soldier home. A procession that includes nearly four dozen motorcycles escorts the hearse to Justen Funeral Home in McHenry for a full military funeral. MacLean will be buried at 1 p.m. Saturday in Windridge Memorial Park in Cary, says Mark Justen, who operates the funeral home and helps arrange the welcome-home event.
The youngest of 10 children, MacLean enlisted in the Army at age 17 when the family lived in Tuscarawas, Ohio.
"My mother kept arguing about it. He wasn't even through high school yet," Mitchell remembers.
Trained in light infantry, MacLean went to the Korean War as a private 1st class in Company D, 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division.
During the brutal Battle of Chosin Reservoir that raged for nearly two weeks in below-zero temperatures with U.S. forces overwhelmingly outmanned and outgunned, MacLean was killed in an attack near the reservoir and reported as missing in action. His remains were buried on the eastern bank of the reservoir alongside other members of the "Chosin Few" killed during the bloody battle. The U.S. Army declared him "presumed dead" on Dec. 31, 1953, and promoted him posthumously to corporal.
In a 1954 agreement between the United Nations and the Chinese and North Korean Communist forces, remains of soldiers thought to be American servicemen were turned over to the U.S. Army's Central Identification Unit in Japan. Declared "unidentifiable," MacLean's remains were interred in Section U, Grave 1117 at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, a scenic ancient volcano crater known as "The Punchbowl" in Honolulu, Hawaii.
His family never forgot about him. His sister June, now deceased, wrote the U.S. Army and provided a DNA sample three years ago in the hope that it might help identify her brother's remains. In 2012, the Central Identification Unit re-examined the records and determined that modern testing might help attach names to the unidentified dead soldiers. MacLean's remains were exhumed earlier this year and testing revealed his identity.
"We know where they've been and what they've done. That's why we have this duty to honor them," explains Wayne T. Kirkpatrick, 66, a retired Army colonel from Algonquin who serves as board chairman of the Rolling Thunder chapter that meets in Wauconda.
"It's sad that it took 60 years to get him home, but I am glad to see he's finally home," says Debbie DeMarchi, 49, who lives in Schaumburg and is ride captain for the Patriot Guard Riders.
"It's an honor," says fellow Patriot Guard Rider Marvin Bochum, 56, of South Elgin.
With almost 90,000 Americans still listed as "missing in action," Kirkpatrick says these solemn ceremonies are reminders that many still are working to bring home all of those who served their nation. "When remains come back like this, we are privileged to participate in the repatriation," he says.
The last time Mitchell saw her brother was when he came home on leave months before the deadly battle. She remembers him stepping outside to a waiting car and noticing the flowering rhododendrons.
"Look how beautiful they are," he said. Then he told his sister, "I won't be back."
"Don't say that. You'll come back," she replied.
"Then he got in the car and left, and that was that."
Sitting in a wheelchair pushed by her daughter, Donna Keefer, Mitchell says she often imagines how life would be if her brother hadn't been killed as a teenager 7,000 miles from home.
"You wonder about what he'd look like now," she says, noting that her full life includes four grown children and 16 grandchildren. Not knowing what he'd be like today, or what he'd appreciate, Mitchell had to search to find a proper tribute to her brother.
"Rhododendrons," she says of the plant with the clusters of showy flowers. "They were hard to find, but I brought some with me."