WWII MARINES KILLED ON MAKIN ATOLL, KIRIBATI NEAR END OF JOURNEY

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By Mike Gordon Advertiser Staff Writer

HONOLULU, Hawai‘i (November 30, 2000 Honolulu Advertiser)---Decades after their loved ones died on a remote Pacific atoll, the families of 19 U.S. Marines finally can bury the young men they sent off to World War II.

The Marines were killed during a commando raid on Makin Atoll in the Gilbert Islands and buried by local residents. Their military epitaph, delivered to families 58 years ago by telegram: Killed in action, body not recoverable.

But a team of Army anthropologists from Hawai‘i found their remains and identified them. The Pentagon released the names yesterday, ending some of the mystery of the Makin Raid.

The remains of the Marines, part of the famous 2nd Raider Battalion, were unearthed last December by the Central Identification Laboratory-Hawai‘i.

Hugh Thomason said his family never thought anyone would find his half-brother, Sgt. Clyde Thomason, who received the Medal of Honor for his courage under fire during the raid.

"It comes as quite a gratifying sense of relief to know that at last we have found his remains and they are available to come home," the 79-year-old Thomason said yesterday from his home in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

That feeling is shared by William Giesin, named for his uncle Pfc. William Gallagher, who was killed by a sniper on Makin a year before Giesin was born.

"It will present some closure for me," he said from his home in Louisville, Kentucky. "It means a lot to us."

Giesin said his uncle, a record-setting high school swimmer who sent tender letters to his three sisters, was an inspiration.

"My mother would always talk very highly of him, that he was a hero," said Giesin, himself a former Marine. "They would always say throw shoulders back and walk proudly, implanting the idea that I too would one a day be a Marine."

The raiders were all handpicked volunteers who had trained on O‘ahu for amphibious assaults. They landed on Japanese-held Makin Atoll on August 17, 1942.

Their mission was a success, but 18 Marines died in combat; 12 went missing in action. Eighty-three of the enemies were killed. The raid created mysteries for the families.

The leader of the raid, Lt. Col. Evans Carlson, had paid an islander to bury the men because he was unable to bring back the bodies.

But no one knew the location of the grave.

Some of the landscape on the atoll has changed since the war, as well as its name -- it’s now called Butaritari Island. But many of the 4,000 residents knew the approximate location of a mass grave. The Raiders had even become a part of their folklore and were dubbed "the submarines" by the residents because they had arrived in two submarines. Survivors of the raid urged the Hawai‘i identification experts to investigate in 1997.

"This has been a major issue for them since 1942," said anthropologist William Belcher. "Many of these guys have gone back to the island looking for the grave. It’s a hole in their life."

The lab surveyed the island and interviewed residents in the summer of 1998, then sent an excavation team the following May. In the beginning, luck was with the anthropologists. When they arrived they met Bureimoa Tokarei, an islander thought to be in his mid-70s who helped bury the Marines when he was a teenager. He spoke no English and could not be interviewed for more than an hour before tiring.

None of the trenches dug by the team yielded remains, however. On their last trip, just after Thanksgiving 1999, Tokarei was interviewed again as team members kept searching for a landmark the old man said was important -- the intersection of two roads. They found the intersection in a coconut grove.

After digging a few trenches, the team quickly discovered human remains in a 6-by18-foot mass grave. It was one amazing find after another -- helmet, a skull, another helmet, a foot.

"They were just piled in," said Johnie Webb Jr., deputy director of the identification lab. "Essentially, the only thing holding them in place at this point is the soil. As you begin to remove the soil, you begin to lose the integrity of the remains if you are not careful."

The recovery team used brushes, fine picks and trowels to expose entire skeletons from the sandy soil, and then sifted the soil through a screen so they wouldn’t miss anything.

The Marines were buried with their gear. The recovery team found gas masks, ammunition, 55 live grenades and 22 old dog tags that were etched with the fingerprint of their owner.

When the job was finished, the result was the single largest collection of human remains in the history of the lab: 19 Marines and an islander.

"It was overwhelming," said anthropologist Brad Sturm. "A find like this is one of those things that doesn’t happen very often."

Marine officials sent a C-130 transport plane to Butaritari and startled everyone with a full-dress honor guard marching across the grassy runway to claim the remains. It was an emotional moment, Sturm said, especially for Tokarei, who had already asked to have his photo taken beside the containers with the Raiders.

Tokarei, tears streaming down his face, sang the only English he knew: the words to "The Marines Hymn."

At the lab, near the beach on the far side of Hickam, the identification went smoothly, despite the fact that most of the Raiders were of similar age and build -- early 20s and about 6 feet tall.

But the identifications only solved part of the mystery.

Military officials learned after the war that nine of the 12 missing Raiders were later captured by the Japanese. They were taken to Kwajalein Atoll and beheaded.

The Japanese commander who ordered their execution was put on trial after the war and hanged, but neither the names of his prisoners nor the location of their graves was ever revealed.

Army Col. David Pagano, commander of the lab, said he needs more information before he can send a team to Kwajalein to start digging.

Each family will choose where the Marines will be buried, but the survivors of the raid want to see them placed at Arlington National Cemetery with full honors next summer.

Giesin hopes the Marine Corps will do something for the surviving Raiders -- the ones who pushed so hard to find their lost comrades. When the time comes to fly the remains from Hawai‘i to the Mainland, the raiders need to be there.

"If we could get a Makin raider to escort these guys," Giesin said, "it would be a way to make a final goodbye."

 

Medal Winner Among Remains

The Central Identification Laboratory-Hawai‘i will return to family members the remains of 19 U.S. Marines killed during a World War II commando raid on Makin Atoll.

The remains include those of Sgt. Clyde Thomason of Atlanta; the first enlisted Marine awarded the Medal of Honor -- the highest military award for heroism in combat -- during World War II.

In addition to Thomason, the remains are those of:

Cpl. Mason O. Yarbrough of Sikeston, Missouri; Capt. Gerald P. Holtom, of Palo Alto, California; Field Musician 1st Class Vernon L. Castle, of Stillwater, Oklahoma; Cpl. I. B. Earles, of Tulare, California; Cpl. Daniel A. Gaston, of Galveston, Texas.

Cpl. Harris J. Johnson, of Little Rock, Iowa; Cpl. Kenneth K. Kunkle, of Mountain Home, Arkansas; Cpl. Edward Maciejewski, of Chicago; Cpl. Robert B. Pearson, of Lafayette, California.

Pfc. William A. Gallagher, of Wyandotte, Michigan; Pfc. Ashley W. Hicks, of Waterford, California; Pfc. Kenneth M. Montgomery, of Eden, Wisconsin; Pfc. Norman W. Mortensen, of Camp Douglas, Wisconsin; Pfc. John E. Vandenberg, of Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Pvt. Carlyle O. Larson, of Glenwood, Minnesota; Pvt. Robert B. Maulding, of Vista, California; Pvt. Franklin M. Nodland, of Marshalltown, Iowa; and Pvt. Charles A. Selby, of Ontonagon, Michigan.

For additional reports from The Honolulu Advertiser, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Honolulu Advertiser.

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