World War II veteran at long last comes home

Wednesday, November 26, 2014
This February 1943 photo shows James "Hoppy" Walden wearing his U.S. Army uniform. He entered the service in March 1942, and he fought during World War II from 1943 to 1945 in Europe. Hoppy was also a prisoner of war sometime during the conflict. His family buried him in Seligman on Sept. 13, after nearly 16 years of trying to get his body transported from Morris, Ala. Contributed Photo

Family buries 'Hoppy' in Seligman

In September, a World War II veteran was buried in Seligman, nearly 16 years after his family discovered he was buried as an indigent in an Alabama cemetery.

Vicki (Fogg) Rencken, 60, who moved from Cassville to Oregon in 1974, wanted to know where her uncle, James "Hoppy" Walden, had died.

"You would think that a dead man would not be hard to find," said Rencken, who started researching after she retired as an elementary school librarian. "They don't move around. I've always been told that [his body] was in Alabama. I started searching there."

After months of dead ends, she could not find out anything. Rencken started calling county coroners until she contacted Bill Harris, coroner in Lee County, Ala., on Jan. 27.

"He said, 'Let me look into it,' and within minutes, he called me back, and he was able to tell me that my uncle had been buried in Morris, Ala., just outside of Birmingham," she said.

Walden had a massive heart attack and died on Oct. 20, 1998, and was buried as an indigent. He was 78.

Rencken made dozens of phone calls and talked to numerous people, including cemetery supervisors, court officers, vital records clerks and county officials, in an effort to bring her uncle's remains home. Walden grew up near Seligman and northwest Arkansas.

Rencken, who lives in Hermiston, Ore., said she decided to call Cassville, the city in which she was raised, for help because she figured there was someone there she could trust.

In June, Rencken contacted Jim Fohn, Barry County coroner.

Fohn required permission from the next of kin before exhuming Walden's body.

Rencken found Walden's daughters, Lisa Walden and Addie "Janay" (Walden) Fowler, who lived in Siloam Springs, Ark., and Rogers, Ark, respectively.

They were willing to help, so they signed the papers, giving Fohn permission to exhume their dad's body.

Fohn contacted and sent paperwork on Walden to the coroner in Jefferson County, Ala. A funeral home in Gardendale, Ala., had Walden's body disinterred and cremated. The funeral home mailed the ashes to Fohn. The whole process took about 60 days. Walden's ashes were then turned over to the family, who buried them in a private service at Seligman Cemetery on Sept. 13.

"[The family] couldn't get anywhere because they didn't know the places to call," he said. "Where they called, they ran into a wall."

Rencken said she was impressed with what Fohn has done for her family.

The son of James "Jimmy Dry" Solomon and Laura Belle (Young) Walden, Walden was born March 5, 1920. He had 10 siblings. His only living siblings are an 84-year-old brother, Everett "Johnsie" Walden, of Cassville, and an 89-year-old sister, Betty Jo (Walden) Wade, of Oregon City, Ore.

Walden entered the U.S. Army on March 18, 1942.

Wade told Rencken that Walden drove a tank in the 5th Armored Division, and his unit was captured in the Black Forest of Germany. He was honorably discharged on Oct. 14, 1945.

Her dad did not talk about his time as a POW in World War II, Janay said.

"I was told he lived, like, in a foxhole," she said. "He was all crumpled up and curled up. And of course, it crippled him."

Her dad had breathing issues, heart problems and rheumatoid arthritis that caused him a lot of pain.

Janay said she thought he also had scoliosis.

"He just constantly leaned forward," she said. "I've never known my dad to stand up straight. My whole life, he was horribly, horribly crippled."

He did not have a temper, Janay said.

"He was a very sweet man," she said. "He was a really good dad."

Walden drove a truck for many years in Springdale, Ark., after he got out of the U.S. Army, Johnsie said.

When he had his heart attack, Janay was at work.

Somebody called her mom, Mary Lou Grace, and told her he had a heart attack.

"We didn't know that he died at that point," Janay said. "They had said that the paramedics thought they had got enough of a heartbeat to maybe save him."

The Alabama physician gave her a different prognosis over the phone.

Walden died when he keeled over, Janay said.

"The thing is, he had always said, 'You girls will not have to worry about me. The VA will take care of me when my time comes,'" she said.

She called the Veterans Affair office in Fayetteville, Ark., talked to a woman about one or two days after Walden died.

Janay said she did know her name.

"She asked me if he had died in a VA hospital," Janay said. "And I said, 'Well, no. They had to get him to the closest medical facility.' And she said, 'If he didn't die in a VA hospital, he ceases to be any of our responsibility.' And, hung up on me."

Janay was still mourning for her 12-year-old daughter, Jaclyn Boling, who died Jan. 23, 1998, after being hit by a car.

"I hadn't even began to handle my daughter's death," Janay said. "I just didn't even know where to go with my dad. I just talked to the physician in Alabama.

"I was in shock for losing my daughter. There are things that I do not remember."

Her husband, Thomas, tried to ask for help from his and Janay's state senator, who could not do anything because the location of Walden's burial was unknown at the time.

"It was frustrating," Janay said.

She did not know he was buried in Morris, until her cousin, Rencken, called this year.

"They put his body in a bag and just buried him in a pauper's grave," said Janay, whose mom died in 2005.

After Walden died, the authorities also contacted two sisters in Springfield and a brother in Wichita, Kan., Rencken said. Her mother was Walden's sister, Norma Lee "Susie" (Walden) Fogg. She died of cancer in 1983 at the age of 55.

On Sept. 13, Janay; Lisa; Janay's son, Blake Boling; Johnsie; Rencken's brother, Greg Fogg of Springfield; and Walden's nephew, James Ray Amos of Springfield, attended the funeral in Seligman. Walden was buried next to his parents and his sister, Opal (Walden) Burton.

"It just kind of broke my heart because it was a long time in coming," Janay said. "It shouldn't have ever been this long. He deserved better than that. I can't hardly even describe what it was like to lay him near his mom and dad."

Janay has a sister, Patricia Walden, who is also buried in Seligman Cemetery, she said. Patricia was about 3 months old when she died. She would have been the oldest.

Walden was just a nice guy, and he was a friend to everybody, said Johnsie, who was born in Gateway, Ark., and fought in the Korean War as an Army paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division.

Johnsie lived in Oregon from 1954 to 1988. After he retired from the Mobile Oil Co., he settled in northwest Arkansas.

Walden visited Johnsie before going on the trip to Alabama to visit friends. Johnsie lived near the Siloam Springs Lake Dam in Benton County, Ark., at the time.

"He said 'Bye, I will see you when I get back,'" Johnsie said. "He never made it back."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: