Flags of red, white and blue fluttered gently in the breeze at Maplewood Memorial Lawn Cemetery Saturday morning, as more than 100 people gathered to honor the life of a local Marine who was killed nearly 80 years ago.
Pfc. Glenn White was just 19 when he was killed in action on the island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll of the Gilbert Islands on Nov. 22, 1943, while serving with the Able Company, First Battalion, Sixth Marines. He had reached the island Nov. 21, a day after fighting began there. Marines advanced eastward along the southern coast of the island, heavily fortified by Japanese forces. White was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for valor after it was reported that he told his platoon to leave him behind after incurring a “terrible wound.”
White was already deceased when he was found the following the morning, with a number of dead enemy soldiers around him.
“His commitment and sacrifice were not in vain, as his brother Marines eventually secured Betio island,” said Marine chaplain Lt. Joseph Totton during Saturday’s service. “These are the efforts that ultimately led to the victory in the Pacific. Like countless families on the home front, parents Frank and Eva, his siblings Lewis, Delia and Don anxiously awaited for the news while praying for his safe return home.”
Totton said his surviving family members had waited “nearly 80 years” for White’s return home.
“Today, we return the mortal remains of this hero to his native soil,” Totton said. “As a nation we do so with gratitude, not only to Pfc. White, but to his family, his late parents and to his siblings that are buried here, his surviving brother and his many nieces and nephews.”
White was born July 27, 1924, to Jesse “Frank” and Eva (Rector) White, growing up in Emporia with his brother Lewis, sister Delia and a few years laters, his cousin Don Stair, who was born July 27, 1927. Stair was raised alongside him as another brother. Frank White died in 1936 and Eva White would later marry Samuel Hildebrand.
White dropped out of high school to join the Marines on Feb. 10, 1942, at the age of 18. He didn’t tell anyone he was going, Stair said. When he left for boot camp in San Diego, Stair recalled Hildebrand’s grief at her son’s departure.
“When he was gone, she mentioned it one time that we’d never see him again,” Stair told The Gazette in an earlier interview. “And she was right. He never got a furlough or leave.”
Following the battle, White was buried on Betio in grave No. 26, Row D of the East Division Cemetery. When the military returned to bring them home, the mass grave site had been lost and the family was informed that White could not be located. By 1949, he was declared “unrecoverable.”
“My grandmother was very, very upset that they couldn’t get him back home,” said Lynnette Stair, White’s great-niece, who grew up with stories about her Uncle Glenn.
Her grandmother participated in every Veteran’s Day event following White’s death and joined the American Gold Star Mothers. Stair recalled her grandmother telling her once that attending the Veteran’s Day functions was the only thing she could do for him.
“Grandma always had his picture,” Stair said in an earlier interview. “She never gave up hope that he’d be found.”
Bringing Pfc. White home
History Flight — a private non-profit organization dedicated to locating the remains of lost American service members, still missing in action from past American conflicts — was founded in 2003. History Flight conducts archival research and site development to uncover previously unrecovered burial sites. The organization recovered three U.S. MIAs on Tarawa in 2010, and two years later located six U.S. MIAs in Europe that were later identified by Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. It also recovered one U.S. MIA in Europe and five more MIAs in Tarawa that year.
Between 2013 - 2020, History Flight volunteers recovered more than 150 MIAs in Tarawa.
In the spring of 2019, White’s remains were among those recovered though at the time neither the organization nor the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency after osteoarchaeologist Jordan Windish and other members of the History Flight excavation team uncovered Row D — the missing grave site. That same year, Lynnette Stair found out the DPAA was seeking DNA to help identify remains and convinced her father, Frank White, to provide a sample.
Unknown to the family, a maternal first cousin had also previously sent off DNA. That sample had already narrowed it down to four possibilities. Frank White’s DNA narrowed it down to one. Dental records made the final confirmation.
A hometown hero comes home
And on June 7, 2021, Pfc. Glenn F. White was officially listed as recovered. On Friday, his remains were repatriated to the family in a private ceremony at the Kansas City International Airport in Kansas City, Mo.
“The repatriation ceremony, that was lovely,” Lynnette Stair said. “We watched the plane land, come in and taxi in just very close to us. We watched him come off. That was a little bit of a tearjerker, knowing that he was so close to home.”
Stair said when the plane taxied toward the family, fire trucks that had been parked on the tarmac sprayed an arch over the plane.
“That was beautiful,” she said. “It was lovely, the plane came through that. ... We were very emotional.”
To see so many show up for her uncle’s funeral on Saturday meant a lot to Stair and the rest of the family. Aside from the many Marines on hand for the ceremony, members of the Patriot Guard, American Legion and VFW, local law enforcement and emergency personnel and many community members came out to show their respect.
“It felt very good and very comforting, and it gives me a little hope that we still have got people out there that are believing in our country and loving our country and supporting our country,” Stair said. “I feel that our country’s slipped a little bit that way, and I think more flags that were out that people saw, it would help remind our people to love and support our country and our military, and what a sacrifice people have given for us to have the rights we have, and it was lovely.
“And I could tell you, I’ve cried and so much yesterday, I didn’t know I’d looked today and all the flags, it just makes a cemetery so beautiful, and I’m happy that this is what we had for Glenn and I hope that others that were not family or even friends that we didn’t know, I hope this gave them the feeling in their chest that it did me. It was wonderful.”
Stair said she hoped her grandmother could rest easy now, having her son buried beside her.
“This hometown hero is home, that’s how it feels. I pray that my great-grandmother, who anyone and everyone that knew her loved her and knew how important this was to her, too,” she said. “I hope she’s happy and proud of me getting him back here.”