A final return from Tarawa

U.S. Service members with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) carry transfer cases at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam during a solemn movement of remains believed to be of unidentified military personnel lost during the Battle of Tarawa. Photo by MC2 Claire Farin

MC2 Seth Coulter

Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency

Members of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Pacific (MARFORPAC) and History Flight conducted a repatriation on July 24 of 23 cases containing the possible remains of unaccounted for personnel who gave the ultimate sacrifice during the Battle of Tarawa in World War II.

“It is a distinct honor for me to be a small part of this solemn movement of remains, the first step in the process of at long last returning the remains of whom we believe may be United States Marines home to their families and their final resting places,” said Lt. Gen. David H. Berger, MARFORPAC commander.

The Battle of Tarawa took place Nov. 20-23, 1943, on the heavily-fortified, Japanese-controlled Betio Island in the Pacific Ocean. American forces began the battle with a pre-dawn bombardment by sea and air, in which nearly 3,000 tons of explosives were used. Even before the smoke cleared, members of the 2nd Marine Division began their amphibious assault. The low tide prevented a majority of the landing craft from clearing the reef surrounding the island, leaving many chest-deep in water hundreds of yards offshore with no cover in a hail of gunfire as they moved forward.

At the end of the 76-hour battle more than 1,000 Marines had been killed in action and to this day nearly 500 are still missing from the battle.

“As Marines, we value the men and women who have answered the call to serve, and that commitment does not end when they fall in combat. Taking care of them and their families is a responsibility we take very seriously,” Berger said.

Now, nearly 74 years later, some are hopefully returning home thanks to the recovery efforts of History Flight. The nonprofit organization has been working tirelessly around the world alongside DPAA to locate missing service members and return them to American soil. With more than 80,000 service members still unaccounted for from conflicts since WWII, it will take the combined efforts of both organizations to bring the missing home.

“We’re deeply grateful to History Flight for their efforts in helping recover these remains, and the efforts of DPAA over the next several months to confirm their identities so that they might be sent home for burial in accordance with their families’ wishes,” Berger said.

There is still much work to do. The remains will be brought to DPAA laboratories and undergo testing to identify the Marines. After that, they will be turned over to their respective family members to be given a proper burial with full military honors and with that, hopefully, a sense of closure for the families that have waited so long.

“I couldn’t ask to do something more impactful or more meaningful,” said Capt. Kelan Hughes, DPAA team leader.

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Category: News