75 years later, Mich. WWII vet ‘can come home and rest'

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

For nearly 75 years, no one in Peter Counter’s family knew his final resting place.

Army Technician Fourth Grade Pete M. Counter poses with his younger sister, Lavina, in this undated photo.

While facing Japanese forces near Soputa-Sanananda Track in what is now Papua New Guinea during World War II, the Army technician was killed Dec. 5, 1942, military officials said.

The Michigan native was reportedly buried in an isolated grave north of the site. A message authorities relayed to relatives indicated the 24-year-old had died in action but was still considered missing, relatives recall.

Counter’s younger sister long had been haunted by the question: Where did he end up? But as more years passed, the chances of learning the truth seemed to fade along with his few remaining pictures.

“I never thought they would find him after this long,” said Lavina Kollias, Counter’s niece.

The Deckerville resident was proven wrong.

After an official identification, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced recently that Counter’s remains would finally be returned to his family for burial with full military honors. Melissa Chagnon Sayers, director at the Chagnon Funeral Home Inc. in Onaway, where Counter was buried Saturday, said about 100 people showed up for the service.

Coinciding with Veterans Day and allowing Counter to join his family’s grave sites in Onaway, the services marked a bittersweet closure.

“We can’t really put it in words what it means to have somebody come back after that long and finally get put where he should be,” said Don Garnett, service officer with American Legion Post 317, whose members attende the burial service.

The casket with the remains of Army Technician Fourth Grade Pete M. Counter, who served during World War II, arriving in Michigan this week.

Born Jan. 25, 1918, Counter grew up in Michigan. His family — parents John and Vivian Counter, brothers Glenn and John “Leland,” sisters Dorothy and Lavina — moved around the state, at one point living in Detroit, Kollias said.

Lavina Dzieglawski was about a decade younger and remembered Counter — known by his middle name, Mason — as “a joker” with a sense of humor, her daughter said.

He eventually enlisted in the Army and became a member of Company C, 126th Infantry Regiment, 32nd Infantry Division.

By 1945, Counter’s family knew from military correspondence that he had become one of the more than 400,000 estimated American casualties in the war. But the mystery of his remains’ whereabouts had never been solved.

“They all passed without knowing anything,” said Kollias, who was born in 1958.

Counter’s sister rarely spoke about him before her death in 2014, perhaps because the memory was too painful, yet she long “wanted to find out more,” said her son, Robert Dzieglawski. “Ma was looking for him for quite a while.”

Kollias promised to pursue what she could, though many of her uncle’s belongings were destroyed in a house fire. Then, several years ago, military officials reached out to her and requested DNA samples, she said.

As it turns out, Counter’s remains had been interred at temporary cemeteries overseas in the months after his death then designated as an unknown, tentatively associated with the 32nd Infantry Division. He was then given a grave elsewhere and designated an “unknown,” the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency reported.

His was among the estimated 11,000 graves an American registration service exhumed in 1947. The contents could not be identified at a mausoleum in the Philippines and were entombed at what is now the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial until the defense agency received authorization to re-examine them last year, officials said.

For identification, scientists from the agency and the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System used mitochondrial dental and anthropological analysis and circumstantial evidence.

Last week, military personnel escorted Counter’s flag-draped casket to Grand Rapids, where Chagnon Sayers took over for the trip to her funeral home in Onaway, in Presque Isle County.

Word about the long-awaited recovery has spread throughout the community, Chagnon Sayers said. “It’s really incredible — a remarkable story. Everybody is really moved by the whole thing.”

Counter’s family once lived on a farm near the small northern Michigan community. His mother, father, grandparents, uncle and two siblings are buried at its Elmwood Cemetery, so Kollias opted to have him join them there. “They’ve waited a long time,” she said. “He can come home and rest.”

The VFW and American Legion participated in the services. In an area where veterans find fanfare among locals and have been buried with honors, Counter’s return is significant, said Garnett, whose America Legion Post 317 includes about 70 members from several wars. “To us, it’s bringing a brother home.”

Counter is no longer among the nearly 73,000 service members from World War II still unaccounted for. His name had been recorded on the Walls of the Missing at an American Battle Monuments Commission site along with the other MIAs from WWII.

Days before the funeral, Counter’s sacrifice was celebrated at a school assembly that honored other veterans and military members, Kollias said.

“It nearly made me start to cry because everybody stood up. It was just unbelievable,” she said. “I’m glad to see that there’s still a lot of people that want to support the veterans.”