St. Petersburg Times, 11/25/2008
The Marines quickly buried their dead after the 1943 battle for Tarawa, one of the bloodiest fights against the Japanese in World War II.
Then the bulldozers came to build runways. Markers were lost. In 1946, the military went back to find those graves on the Pacific atoll.
They couldn't locate half of them.
But on Monday, a nonprofit group with headquarters in the Florida Keys announced that it had helped locate the graves of 139 missing Marines and sailors whose remains had long been presumed lost.
The group, History Flight, based in Marathon, worked with WFI Research Group in Fall River, Mass., to confirm the location of the remains in eight burial pits on the tiny atoll, 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii.
The discovery is described by the groups as the largest ever of MIA remains from any American war. The military could not confirm this.
"This is an incredible find," said Donald Allen, an Ohio author who wrote a book, Tarawa — the Aftermath, about the battle. He is not affiliated with WFI or History Flight.
"These were somebody's sons, brothers, fathers. It's extraordinarily meaningful to know where they are," he said.
History Flight, which has not removed or disturbed the remains, said it will notify the Marines and the Department of Defense, which is expected to recover and attempt to positively identify the bodies.
All are presumed to be those of Americans, given the location and manner of burial, History Flight said.
History Flight said 541 troops were eventually listed as missing after the three-day battle in November 1943, one in a series of ever-bloodier fights leading to the doorstep of Japan. Most who died on the atoll were Marines.
More than 1,600 Americans were killed in the battle. Of 4,500 Japanese defenders on Tarawa, just 17 survived.
Tracing the history of those missing troops has proven a complicated journey. It began in 1992, when WFI founder Ted Darcy, a Marine veteran who served 20 years ending in 1989, started research.
"There's no closure until that body comes back," Darcy said.
When the troops were buried in 1943, most were undoubtedly identified by the military, History Flight said. The graves were marked with the expectation that after the war the bodies might be recovered and sent home.
But war construction on the atoll, including air strips, covered many of the burials. After the war, the Army tried to locate the bodies.
But only 49 percent of the known bodies were found.
"They lost the bodies," said Mark Noah, executive director of History Flight, which operates a flight museum and works on identifying lost military personnel. "These Marines, each of them was somebody's son. They all perished and were left behind. And their families were fed the fiction that they were missing in action."
Capt. Mary Olsen, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon's POW/MIA office in Washington, said she had no information about History Flight's work and could not comment on the disposition of bodies on Tarawa.
During World War II, the Marines recorded where bodies were buried and created rosters identifying many of the dead.
But overwhelmed by the need to find 72,000 missing troops after the war, the military didn't do enough research to locate the dead and quickly abandoned the effort, Noah said.
"The war was over and people wanted to move on," Noah said. "The records pertaining to the burials were kept classified until the 1970s. By then, most of the Marines' parents were dead."
History Flight said it spent $88,000 to locate the graves using the military's own records. It then confirmed the number of dead using ground-penetrating radar this month and in October. The graves have not been disturbed, Noah said.
He said funding was provided by Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, among other groups.
Given the roster of the burials, Noah is confident that the military will ultimately identify many of the remains. Confirmation may be made using DNA matches with relatives.
Noah said most of the remains will be recoverable, even if they are buried under residential areas where people don't realize they live atop graves.
In fact, through the years, a few of the remains have been unearthed by residents digging sewer lines or even tending gardens.
Darcy, the Marine veteran who began the search for the remains 16 years ago, said he is still in touch with families who want to know what happened to missing kin. None could be reached for comment on Monday.
"In the Marines we were taught … to never leave any man behind," Darcy said.
Edited by captaxe, 29 November 2008 - 01:11 PM.