Remains Believed to be WWII Vets Found on Tarawa Return to U.S.

Remains Believed to be WWII Vets Found on Tarawa Return to U.S.

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By David Vergun, U.S. Department of Defense

"Today we welcome home more than 20 American servicemen still unaccounted for from the battle of Tarawa during World War II," said Acting Defense Secretary Richard V. Spencer. "We do not forget those who gave the ultimate sacrifice, and it is our duty and obligation to return our missing home to their families and the nation. Thank you to everyone who took part in this repatriation."

The remains were flown to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, yesterday, where an honorable carry ceremony took place. Later, forensic archaeologists from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency will work to positively identify the remains and notify next of kin.

A team from the nonprofit History Flight Inc., which works closely with DPAA, found the remains in March.

The battle of Tarawa took place from Nov. 20 to 23, 1943, on the heavily fortified island of Betio, which was held by 4,500 Japanese troops. More than 18,000 Marines and sailors were sent to secure the island. When the battle finally ended, more than 1,000 U.S. troops had been killed. 

Marines killed in action were buried where they fell or were buried in a large trench built during and after the battle. These graves were typically marked with improvised markers, such as crosses made from sticks or an upturned rifle. Grave sites ranged in size from single isolated burials to large trench burials of more than 100 individuals, according to DPAA officials.

More than 3,000 Japanese soldiers were killed on the island, as well as an estimated 1,000 Korean laborers. These men were buried where they fell, or in bomb craters and existing trenches. Their remains are sometimes commingled with U.S. casualties, DPAA officials said.

Immediately after the final day of battle, landing troops were replaced by Navy construction battalions, known as "SeaBees," who had little knowledge of the burial locations. 

The Seabees engaged in construction projects requiring the movement or rearrangement of known burials or grave markers. Later recovery efforts found that multiple grave markers were relocated without moving the burials they marked. No record of these movements has been found, officials said, and it's likely none was kept.

To date, History Flight has recovered the remains of 272 individuals from Tarawa since 2015, with more discoveries expected.

At the end of the war, about 79,000 Americans were unaccounted for worldwide. This number included those buried with honor as unknowns, officially buried at sea, lost at sea, and missing in action, according to DPAA. Today, more than 72,000 Americans remain unaccounted for from World War II.

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