A U.S. military team returned from the remote Pacific atoll of Tarawa this week with the remains of what are thought to be two U.S. servicemen who died in a fierce World War II battle there.
A C-17 plane with the remains landed at Hickam Air Force Base after a 6½-week excavation mission, Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command spokesman Army Maj. Ramon Osorio said Wednesday. Forensic scientists are due to analyze the bones to identify them. The process can take months or even years.
More than 990 U.S. Marines and 30 sailors died as the U.S. wrested control of the atoll from Japan during the three-day Battle of Tarawa in 1943. The fight was one of the first major amphibious assaults in the war, and one of the most brutal. Many Marines were killed by Japanese machine gunfire when their boats got stuck on coral reef during approach. Many others died in hand-to-hand combat after crawling ashore.
JPAC had indications it might find the remains of a couple hundred servicemen on the trip. Osorio said the mission was successful even though it returned on Monday with the remains of only two.
“Any time we can come back with even just one, that’s a good thing. It really is,” Osorio said.
The excavations also helped identify where servicemen aren’t buried, so future JPAC missions will know where not to dig.
“We, of course, now know where our Marines are not,” Osorio said. “We’ve set the conditions for a very successful and efficient operation to take place in the future.”
The JPAC team excavated places that a private group had helped identify as possible grave sites by using ground-penetrating radar, which can detect anomalies in the soil.
Ground-penetrating radar can be an appropriate tool in some situations, but Tarawa was probably not one of them, Osorio said. It wasn’t clear when JPAC would return for another excavation mission but it likely will, Osorio said.
About 78,000 Americans are still missing from World War II. JPAC estimates some 35,000 are recoverable, with the remainder lost at sea or on sunken ships. Four Medals of Honor — the nation’s highest award for combat valor — were earned at Tarawa, one of them posthumously. Thirty-four Navy Crosses, the Navy’s second-highest award for valor, were issued along with some 250 Silver Stars.