A grieving father approached the casket as soldiers raised rifles for a 21-gun salute into the balmy summer air.
"Please," Henry Praglor said in heavily accented English. "I want to see my son."
An officer shook his head.
"Mr. Praglor,'' he said, "I don't know if your son is in there or not."
Praglor stared at the gravestone, a stone soldier with a rifle.
"Then who am I burying?" he asked.
Sixty-six years after that wartime burial at a cemetery in New York state, the family still doesn't know what happened to Henry Praglor's son Harold.
The mystery came rushing back this week for Phillip Praglor. Now 81 and living in Spring Hill with his wife, Marlene Shaw-Praglor, he still recalls the day he stood with his father at what they thought was his brother's burial.
On Thursday, two letters arrived from his 89-year-old sister. She had sent them to Harold in March 1944 while he was overseas in the war, but seven weeks later, the battered envelope came back to Brooklyn, N.Y. — covered in purple routing messages and stamped "MISSING."
Phillip Praglor had never seen the letters, which his sister had kept all these years before sending them along. They have renewed his interest in finding out what happened to his older brother, who disappeared at 19 while serving with the Army's Darby Rangers.
"All these years, I never thought he died," Praglor said. "I still think about him every day."
The family's story is a snarl of conflicting reports, missing information and faded memories.
The Department of War sent the Praglor family three telegrams in the spring of 1944.
The first said Harold was a prisoner of war in Italy. The second said he was shot down — but Praglor said his brother never served in the Army Air Forces and hated flying. The third, sent to Praglor's father, said his son had been killed in action.
That's when the military held a burial in Elmont, N.Y., for Harold. The officer in charge said that no one knew what, if anything, was in the locked casket.
Phillip Praglor remembers the details of that day clearly. "Another officer leaned over and told me, 'Don't you ever believe it until you know for sure.' We never knew for sure."
Throw into the mix the sort of spelling mistakes common to immigrant families as they arrived in the United States, and it gets even more complicated.
The family's Lithuanian name was shortened at Ellis Island to Praglor. Depending on who you ask, it could also be Praglar, Pragler, Pralgo, Pralgor or Prolgo.
On his dining room wall, Praglor displays two certificates for Harold. One says "Pvt. Harold A. Praglar" died Jan. 30, 1944. The other says "Harold H. Pragler" died April 20, 1944, while serving in the Army Air Forces.
Praglor also displays a Purple Heart, which "Harold Praglar" won for actions on Jan. 30, 1944.
The closest match in the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor is "Harold Prager."
Even verifying Harold's service record proves difficult.
A 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis destroyed 80 percent of personnel records for Army troops discharged between 1912 and 1960.
In 1945, Praglor even went to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., to see Harold's closest Darby Rangers buddy. But the friend, Kenny, came back from Europe mentally unstable and unable to speak.
Praglor knows reuniting with Harold grows less likely every year. Still, he clings to shreds of hope: the inconsistencies in the government reports, and stories of families reunited years later.
"The whole thing just doesn't jibe and it isn't kosher," Praglor said. "I know he made it."
Laura J. Nelson can be reached at (352) 848-1342 or firstname.lastname@example.org.