WHITE RIVER | After being lost for 66 years on a battlefield a world away, Sgt. Philip James Iyotte returned home to South Dakota last week. In so doing, the Army veteran killed so long ago in the Korean Conflict brought with him the tears of a nation melded with the happiness of his homecoming.
As a young man, Iyotte was given the Lakota name Akicita Isnala Najin, meaning “Soldier Who Stands Alone.” But in two days of observances on Oct. 24 and 25, Iyotte was feted as a proud warrior who paid the ultimate sacrifice so that his countrymen could live in peace. And he will never again stand alone.
Just 20 years old when he enlisted in the Army in 1950, Iyotte was assigned to the 21st Infantry Regiment of the 24th Infantry Division and soon was deployed to the Korean theater. Seriously injured in battle by fragments from an enemy missile on Sept. 2, 1950, Iyotte was hospitalized for treatment but returned to his regiment in just 19 days.
Then on Feb. 9, 1951, while in the heat of battle yet again near Seoul, Iyotte and several of his fellow soldiers were captured by Chinese forces and marched to a prisoner of war camp. Shot in the stomach by his captors and suffering from gangrene, Iyotte could not join two of his fellow Native American POWs in their flight for freedom. Instead, the young warrior sang them a Lakota honor song before their successful escape.
Then, the Lakota warrior disappeared for more than six decades, leaving behind anguished parents and 13 siblings who knew not what had become of their fearless son and eldest brother.
In the years since the last word of the Lakota warrior filtered down to rural South Dakota, the Iyotte family never gave up hope for the warrior who mysteriously disappeared at the hands of his Chinese captors. They maintained contact with the Army and attended meetings conducted by the Army’s Past Conflict Repatriations Branch, also known as the Army Casualty Office. And they provided DNA samples and contacted their state’s congressional delegation asking for assistance in finding their lost sergeant.
Eva Iyotte, 63, the youngest child of the large family, wasn’t even born when her oldest brother disappeared into the Chinese POW camp. But as she grew up, revering a soldier she had never met, Eva promised her father on his death bed that she would work to bring her brother home.
In August, the Army informed the family that Sgt. Iyotte’s remains had been identified with the assistance of Chinese officials. In short order, the serviceman’s remains were transported to Hawaii before being transferred to his South Dakota homeland.
On Oct. 24, Eva and her 40-year-old daughter, Dera, made the trek from their White River residence to a funeral home in Rapid City to retrieve the serviceman’s remains and begin two days of observances in honor of Sgt. Iyotte and his service to a grateful nation.
But what they encountered left them in wonderment. And what Sgt. Iyotte’s return created over the ensuing two days united Native nations, veterans of all colors and stripes, and a handful of remote reservation communities that dot western South Dakota.
“When we arrived at Kirk Funeral Home there were probably 75 people waiting, including the Black Hills Chapter of the American Legion Motorcycle Riders, two honor guards including Chauncey Eagle Horn and the Rosebud Legion Post honor guard, and the Oglala Sioux Tribe veteran’s group,” Dera said. “It was so amazing.”
Promptly at 10 a.m., the procession left Rapid City with an escort from the South Dakota Highway Patrol and stopped in Interior to top off the bikes, before being met at the reservation border by an escort from the Oglala Sioux Tribal Police. Along the way, the procession grew to two miles in length. At Wanblee and a stop at the Eagle Nest College Center, virtually the entire town and tribal elders greeted the procession, before Richard Moves Camp offered prayers and the Eagle Nest singers sang a Korean honor song.
“It was a riveting moment, and we were so overwhelmed with love,” Dera recalled last week. “I could not believe how much love our people poured out to Philip. It was the most beautiful moment of my life, the whole day.
“This was a man they never met, but a warrior, a hero,” she added. “They came out en masse to greet him. I loved the unity and happiness he brought to the whole state of South Dakota.”
As the procession departed Wanblee, Dera and Eva began noticing rural residents standing along the highway at the end of their driveways, many waving, others with their hand over their heart. Veterans stood alone on that endless highway, several in their uniforms, saluting the fallen soldier.
“Somewhere along the way, we passed a young man, maybe 14 years old, who was standing on the side of the road with his hand on his heart, just crying,” Dera said. “It was clear that Philip had brought the tears of a nation and happiness to his home. It’s been a long time since our nation cried tears of happiness, and that’s what he brought.”
Leaving Wanblee and proceeding toward the Rosebud Indian Reservation, still more local residents stood along the highway paying tribute to the soldier. At the reservation line, Rosebud Tribal Police Capt. Hawkeye Waln greeted the procession and escorted it to the Corn Creek community, with families standing at every turnout, many with American flags. Rosebud Councilman Russell Eagle Bear joined the motorcade, which headed south to the Black Pipe community, where they discovered every student and teacher with the Head Start program standing outside, all smiling and waving.
“I even saw a couple of homeless veterans carrying flags,” Eva said, her voice breaking as her eyes teared. “That really touched me. They showed such heart and such compassion in bringing this warrior home.
“The say there are bad relations in South Dakota, but everyone knows Philip was just a veteran like them. Perhaps it’s time for healing and reconciliation.”
At Parmelee, known to the Lakota as Wososo, once the capital of the reservation, the entire town turned out to welcome their lost warrior.
“They had it decked out so beautifully, with random soldiers, brothers and sisters of the struggle standing at attention,” Dera remembered. “I just cried. To see them come to attention after so many years, their pride so evident, was all you could ask out of your people.”
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And the procession continued to grow. Dera’s brother, tribal policeman Bryan Waukazoo, estimated the line of the procession at seven miles.
Moving forward on BIA Highway 1 past the Ironwood community, with observers manning every approach, the convoy drove through the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Forest, sacred as the final resting place of many of the tribe’s legendary warriors.
“I wanted Philip to go by our leaders because he was a great warrior, so that they could see him as well and sense the forest because that is our greatest resource as a nation — our land and water,” Dera noted.
But the surviving Iyottes were unprepared for their greeting at the town of Rosebud. As they crested the hill above the community, they were met by the students and teachers of St. Francis Indian School and stopped for two Korean honor songs, and enough time for them to show appropriate respect for Eva, who had spent a lifetime looking for her brother. In turn, each student gave the lone sibling survivor a handshake or a hug.
As the throng headed down the hill to Rosebud, a fire engine from nearby Valentine, Neb., had its ladder extended, supporting a giant American flag, while townspeople lined the streets.
“As we neared the fairgrounds at Rosebud, we were met by at least 2,000 people, a huge crowd, and they greeted my uncle like he was sitting in the back of a convertible,” Dera observed. “The unity was simply amazing.”
Still 30 miles from their destination, trailing nine miles of cars, the procession turned north onto U.S. Highway 18 for White River. Ten miles from that town stood Navy veteran Leonard Wright, decked out in his dress whites, saluting his fellow serviceman in the middle of nowhere.
Horseback riders joined the solemn parade six miles from White River and Philip’s remains, contained in a simple pine casket, were transferred from a hearse to a horse-drawn wagon driven by John Farmer, whose parents, the late Eddie and Tressie Farmer, had long supported Eva’s quest to bring her brother home.
Ever so slowly, the procession now estimated at 12-15 miles long, then followed the wagon through White River to Sgt. Iyotte’s sister’s home, where a tipi stood on the lawn in the Swift Bear community. A medicine man offered a homecoming prayer and the Red Leaf Singers, led by Pat Bad Hand Sr., sang several Wakte Gli (coming home) songs, which told the story of Philip’s enlisting, of his injuries suffered in battle, of his rejoining the war, getting captured and ultimately, his untimely death.
“It was powerful and one of the most riveting experiences I’ve ever seen, a tribute to Philip’s sacrifice in serving his country and his people,” Dera said.
As the sun set that Oct. 24, Philip’s casket was loaded into a pickup and taken to the White River School gymnasium, which had been decorated by family members and local veterans. Prayers were said and a POW/MIA dinner took place, conducted by retired U.S. Marine Corps veteran Brenda White Bull, the granddaughter of Sitting Bull, One Bull and White Bull, all noted Sioux warriors.
During a veterans roll call, Korean vets Dennis Spotted Tail, Homer Whirlwind Soldier and Eugene Iron Shell Sr., the latter of whom attended school with Philip, were recognized. As the roll call, conducted in darkness, concluded, the final name called was Sgt. Philip J. Iyotte, whose name was repeated three times. Then someone spoke for the fallen warrior and said, “Sgt. Iyotte has gone to the great beyond.”
As the long day and reverential evening ceremony came to its finale, taps was played, followed by the Lakota Flag Song. Then every woman in attendance gave Philip a trill, the highest form of respect a woman can give a warrior.
“Never have I heard that many trills in my life,” Dera said, the memory still sending a chill up her spine. “I think some were from woman of the past, from every corner, from every place, a powerful thing in our nation.”
Laid to rest
Last week on a sunny Wednesday morning, at the urging of Gov. Dennis Daugaard, flags in South Dakota were lowered to half-staff in recognition of Sgt. Iyotte’s service and sacrifice. In Washington, D.C., flags also were lowered and the serviceman’s name and honors were entered into the Congressional Record.
Half a nation away, at the tiny White River School gymnasium, Larry Zimmerman, secretary of the state Department of Veterans Affairs, gave remarks, followed by short speeches from representatives of U.S. Sens. John Thune and Mike Rounds, all lauding the young serviceman lost so long ago.
Before embarking on Sgt. Iyotte’s final journey to his resting place, Vietnam Army veteran Trudell Guerue, whose own uncle, John, is still missing in action from an American conflict, presented Eva with a handmade 24th Infantry Division flag made by his wife. Episcopal Church Bishop John Tarrant provided a blessing.
Sgt. Iyotte took his last ride on earth in a horse-drawn wagon to the family plot in a Two Kettle cemetery, escorted by horseback riders and making a slow, plodding trek up a hill, flags at half-staff streaming in a gentle breeze.
More prayers were made at the cemetery, followed by a 21-gun salute and the playing of taps. As the final notes spread across the prairie, a Black Hawk helicopter flew in from the east, passing over the assembled crowd and leaving several hundred people in awe in its wake. A member of the honor guard reverentially presented Eva with the folded flag that had cloaked her brother’s casket.
Wrapped in a buffalo robe, handmade moccasins with porcupine quillwork at his feet, and enough wasna (pemmican with crushed berries and buffalo jerky) “to last him long enough on his final journey to the new camp where he will find his relatives,” Sgt. Philip James Iyotte was laid to rest, ending a 66-year odyssey that took him from the rolling plains of South Dakota to a Korean battlefield and back home again.
As the graveside ceremony concluded, the serviceman’s nephews and grandsons began covering his casket with sacred soil. As they did, two bald eagles soared on the updrafts overhead, as if acknowledging the return of a young man taken too soon and a warrior never to be forgotten.
“That’s how we knew Philip was home,” Dera said.