A local Marine, long buried in an unmarked grave plot on an island in the Pacific Ocean, returned home to Emporia Friday afternoon after nearly 78 years.
Pfc. Glenn White, along with many other fallen soldiers, was buried on the tiny island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands and the location of the graves were lost. For decades, White was listed as "not recoverable" as his family back in Emporia longed to bring him home.
On June 7, his remains were finally identified thanks to the efforts of History Flight, a non-profit organization that specializes in research, recovery and repatriating missing-in-action servicemen.
At 11 a.m. today, White will be buried at Maplewood Memorial Lawn Cemetery.
White was serving with the Able Company, First Battalion, Sixth Marines, when he was killed Nov. 22, 1943 after 24 hours of intense fighting on the island of Betio. He’d reached the island Nov. 21, a day after fighting began on the island. Marines advanced eastward along the southern coast of the island, heavily fortified by Japanese forces.
The details surrounding White's death were reported by A/1/6 executive officer Baine Kerr, who was in charge of organizing defensive positions.
“So, there we were. It was now almost dark, and right in front of our company position there were these burning trucks, and we had some people out in front of these burning trucks,” Kerr said. “The flames from the trucks would silhouette them or anyone else — particularly if they got up or moved around. So, I sent people out to bring in the people we had out there. Some of them were alive; some of them were wounded. It’s not an easy job to find them and bring them in with all the shooting that was going on.”
Kerr reported that one of his men had received a “terrible wound” and insisted he had to be left behind. He was a BARman — a sharpshooter using a Browning automatic rifle.
“He’d been in my platoon, and I said, 'Oh, God! I don’t want to leave him out there! We’re going to be calling in artillery and everything else!’” Kerr said. “They said, ‘Well, he’d never make it. You’d never get him here, and he said he wants to stay there with his BAR and kill as many of the Japs as he could.’”
It was White and by the time they reached him the next day, he was dead. A number of enemy soldiers lay dead around him.
He was just 19. White was posthumously awarded a Silver Star for his valor.
Jordan Windish, an osteoarchaeologist with History Flight, was part of the team on Betio that recovered White's remains. The island, which encompasses about one square mile of land, is home to more than 60,000 people. Windish said that made the excavation and recovery process challenging, having to navigate around — and sometimes under — homes.
"Initially following the battle they were burying their dead really fast because they're right on the Equator, so decomposition is going to hit really fast," she said. "There's over 6,000 dead; there's over 1,000 Americans and over 5,000 Japanese and Korean slave labor that they brought to the island."
White was found in Burial Row D in the East Division Cemetery on Betio. Windish said originally she and the rest of the History Flight team thought the mass grave site had 30 men. White was found in a row with 33, lined up next to each other.
Normally during these types of digs, Windish said they find "pieces and parts" of remains. The patella — or kneecap — is one of the most common finds. Row D was different.
"We had 33 men buried right next to each other, which is not usually what we find," she said. "This Row D was missing since World War II, so when we were going through excavating we were like, 'Oh my gosh, I think this is the lost Row D,' because they were full skeletons and we ended up finding the ring of one of the individuals and he was the only one who had those initials that had been killed during the battle. ... It was pretty special; everybody was pretty excited."
That discovery confirmed what the History Flight team had thought and Windish said the team began the process of recovering all 33 skeletons. The graves were sitting in the tide table, between 51-53 inches underground. Windish said dig teams were "fighting the ocean," using pumps to keep water from flooding them out as they excavated the site.
"We worked as fast as we could to get them out," she said. "From March 2019 to the end of August 2019, we recovered all 33 individuals and they were all sent home within that timespan, so that was pretty amazing."
History Flight partners with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency for identification. The DPAA conducts DNA testing and uses other methods such as comparing X-rays and dental records to confirm identities of the recovered remains. Windish said it's pretty amazing what type of information can be pulled from old bones and even by looking at old X-rays.
"With the X-rays, some of these guys were right on the cusp of getting a tuberculosis test and some of them have a chest X-ray on file," she said. "Then the scientist in the lab can look at the chest X-ray from 1940 and X-ray the bones that we recover on Betio and match up their clavicle, or collar bone, on the morphology of the bone and the fusion and they can actually work up an ID on those markers, so it's amazing."
Plus, not much DNA is needed to run a sample against next of kin.
Windish said she's grateful she is able to help bring closure to families through her work with History Flight.
"We're always saying the World War II families are losing people fast," she said. "The people that knew these men, the sisters, brothers, cousins that grew up with them — they're not gonna be around much longer. The faster we can work to get these men identified and brought home is our highest priority. Meeting sisters of these men that named their kids after their brother that's been missing that got killed when they were a kid, it just gives you goosebumps."
While Windish won't be attending White's funeral service, another representative from History Flight will be there. There's always someone from the organization in attendance, she said. In fact, White is one of seven men who are being brought home between now and the end of October.
"It's a lot of funerals, but these are good, happy funerals because these men are finally coming home," she said. "We'll just be busy sending people out there. Somebody always goes to represent History Flight and talk to the family."
Windish said recovery operations have been halted due to COVID-19, but she's hoping to return to Betio in the coming months to bring closure to more families.
To learn more about History Flight, visit https://historyflight.com. Donations can be made online and help fund future excavation efforts.