36 Marines Come Home
On Sunday, July 26, 2015, during a ceremony at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, 36 Marines came home. A Florida-based private organization called History Flight recovered the remains from the remote Pacific atoll of Tarawa.
I remember the accounting of the Marine landing at Tarawa as told to me that fateful 1977 summer I spent at a little vacation spot known as Parris Island. That summer I earned the title United States Marine and joined the brotherhood of Marines that served before me, and continue to serve today.
The story of Tarawa, an island I’d never before heard of, was lauded as one of the Marine Corps’ greatest victories. The Japanese Emperor had said 1,000,000 Marines in a 1000 years would never take Tarawa. At 0900 the morning of November 20, 1943, Marines landed on Tarawa, and seventy six hours later, Tarawa was under American control.
But the battle was costly. Of the 12,000 Marines of 2nd Marine Division in the battle for Tarawa, there were 3,166 casualties including 978 killed.
Not all thought the effort was worth the losses. General Holland ‘Howlin’ Mad’ Smith was critical of the Navy and the decision to launch an assault against Tarawa. In his biography, General Smith wrote:
“Was Tarawa worth it? My answer is unqualified: No. From the very beginning the decision of the Joint Chiefs to seize Tarawa was a mistake and from their initial mistake grew the terrible drama of errors, errors of omission rather than commission, resulting in these needless casualties.”
But others including Admirals Nimitz and Spruance disagreed with General Smith. Of Tarawa, Nimitz said,
“The capture of Tarawa knocked down the front door to the Japanese defenses in the Central Pacific.”
Right or wrong, Tarawa remains one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history.
No Marine Left Behind
More than just saying, the Marine mantra ‘No Marine Left Behind’ speaks to the teamwork, loyalty and brotherhood that exists between Marines. Marines will intentionally risk their own safety to aid wounded comrades, or to retrieve the remains of fallen comrades. It’s what we do, and we do it with the full confidence our brother and sister Marines will do the same for us.
The fallen Marines on Tarawa were never forgotten. But it took a 2009 History channel documentary, “Return to Tarawa: The Leon Cooper Story” narrated by actor Ed Harris to get the process started.
After seeing the film, Rep. Dan Lipinski, R-Ill., pushed an amendment through Congress that moved up Tarawa on the military’s priority list of missions to recover the remains of some 84,000 troops who have died while fighting overseas. The legislation called on the military to step up its recovery missions by 2015.
Leon Cooper, was a naval landing craft officer in 1943. When he returned to Tarawa in 2008, past memories of the 3 day battle became clear for the then 88 year old WWII veteran. Cooper said,
“It tears me up because I saw so many of these kids die. And they deserve to be brought home.”
History Flight, is a non-profit organization ‘committed to keeping World War II aviation history alive’. History Flight led a nine year, multi-million dollar research project to recover the fallen Marines. The Marine remains were excavated on Betio Island of the Tarawa Atoll.
While the remains of 36 Marines have been recovered, the tedious task of identification has now begun. History Flight is working with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency to confirm identification of each Marine.
After identification, the Marine Corps plans to return the remains to their families for internment.
In a ceremony with full military honors, the fallen Marines were welcomed back to America this past Sunday.
Marine Corps Commandant, Gen. Joseph Dunford, said he’s pleased to learn of the discovery of the remains at Tarawa. General Dunford said,
“This battle demonstrated the indomitable fighting spirit of our Marines. It was also the first contested landing against a heavily fortified enemy, and a turning point in the development in our amphibious capability.
The lessons learned at Tarawa paved the way for our success in the Pacific campaign and eventual end to the war.”
Seventy two years ago young men left to fight for their country, to defend freedom and defeat Japanese Imperialism. On Tarawa 978 Marines lost their lives defending our great country.
This week 36 of our nation’s finest came home. It’s been a long time coming, but I’m proud and honored to say,
“Welcome home Marines. Semper Fi!”