For the lost US Marines from Tarawa, a homecoming 70 years late
By MICHAEL E. RUANE | The Washington Post | Published: October 10, 2017
On the first day of the World War II Battle of Tarawa in the central Pacific, Marine Corps 2nd. Lt. George Bussa was assigned to take his platoon and assault a huge Japanese bunker on Red Beach 3.
Bussa, a battle-tested veteran, had earned the Silver Star for gallantry a year earlier at Guadalcanal as a platoon sergeant. He had a wife - and a baby girl he had never seen - back in California and several brothers in the service.
As the platoon attacked, it was assailed by enemy soldiers inside the bunker. Bussa, who was 29, was killed, and his men were driven back. After the battle, his body was buried in a trench, but after the war, it could not be found and he was declared lost.
On Tuesday, 73 years after his death, Bussa's body, recently recovered and identified, was buried in Arlington National Cemetery as his daughter, Jerilyn Heise, 75, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren looked on.
Next week, another Marine killed at Tarawa, Cpl. Walter Critchley, 24, of New Rochelle, New York, is scheduled to be buried in Arlington.
On Nov. 14, a third Marine killed and lost in the battle, Cpl. Anthony Guerriero, 21, of Boston, is to be buried there.
And on Dec. 8, a fourth killed and lost at Tarawa, Archie Newell, 22, of Faith, South Dakota, is scheduled for burial there.
The funerals are the result of work by the Defense Department and the nonprofit Florida research group History Flight, which have recovered scores of lost or unknown remains from the battlefield and a cemetery in Hawaii in the past two years.
More than 1,000 Marines were killed in the multi-day battle in late November 1943 in the amphibious landing on Betio Island in the Tarawa Atoll, 2,400 miles southwest of Hawaii.
Most were buried on the island in dozens of scattered plots. But after the war, some of the plots could not be found, and the bodies of hundreds of Marines were never located and brought home, according to History Flight.
The bodies of other Marines were found after the battle but could not be identified. They were eventually reburied in a cemetery in Hawaii, known as the Punchbowl, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA).
Last year and earlier this year, the Pentagon, spurred by scientific advances in identification processes, exhumed all 94 Tarawa caskets from the Punchbowl to try to identify those within.
In 2015, History Fight said it had recovered and subsequently turned over to the Pentagon 35 sets of remains found in a lost burial plot on Betio.
In 2016, it found at least a dozen more - Bussa's included, it turned out, the organization said. His remains were found under a building that had to be jacked up to gain access to his grave.
In July, History Flight announced that it had found and turned over an additional 24.
The DPAA's website indicates that 57 servicemen killed at Tarawa, most of them Marines, have been identified since 2014.
Hundreds more may still be on the island, said Mark Noah, executive director of History Flight.
Some of them may never be found on the now-densely populated island, he said.
"We've recovered Marines underneath houses . . . underneath roads, underneath pigpens," he said.
Bussa, who hailed from Chicago but was living in Van Nuys, California, had suffered multiple fractures of the skull, limbs and ribs from "blast injuries," according to a Pentagon report on his case last April.
His flashlight, canteen and toothbrushes, among other items, were reportedly found with him, the report said.
His body was identified using DNA comparison with his family as well as dental and anthropological examination and material evidence, the Pentagon said.
In January 1944, Bussa's wife, Ellen, 28, who had grown up on a farm in Kansas, wrote the Marine Corps commandant, asking for more details.
"I have a little daughter 15-months-old whom he never saw," she wrote. "I would like to tell her where and the date her daddy lost his life. . . . It's hard enough to lose them, then not to know where and how they were buried make it much worse."
That May, on a parade ground in Los Angeles, a military officer presented Ellen Bussa with the Silver Star her husband earned at Guadalcanal in 1942. The Los Angeles Times reported that daughter Jerilyn, not yet 2, "looked on in wonderment."
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The heavily fortified enemy outpost and airstrip at Tarawa was targeted for elimination as the United States began to roll back the Japanese tide of conquest in 1943.
But when the attack was launched by the Marines on Nov. 20, the massive American naval and air bombardment had failed to knock out many of the enemy positions.
In addition, to their consternation, the assault forces found that their landing boats couldn't get over Betio's outlying reef. Many men had to leave their boats and wade hundreds of yards in neck-deep water to the beach under heavy enemy fire, according to historians Eric Hammel, John Lane and news accounts.
Casualties were enormous, and the water was soon littered with dead Marines.
Once ashore, the Americans encountered two days of fierce fighting as they assaulted Japanese bunkers with flamethrowers, grenades and machine guns. In the end, the enemy garrison of several thousand was wiped out, and the burials began.
"Initial burials . . . were made by Marines with no graves registration training and resulted in poor [location] records . . . and in trench burial methods," DPAA historian Heather Harris wrote in 2006 memo.
And after the battle, military construction projects on Betio moved many grave markers without moving remains, she wrote, making rediscovery all but impossible.
Many of the Marines were buried with their gear, helmets and boots on. "There was no time for the modern conveniences," Noah, of History Flight, said in a telephone interview last week.
War correspondent Robert Sherrod, who covered the battle, remembered of the burials: "The bulldozer scoops a long trench, three feet deep."
"The bodies, not even covered by a blanket or poncho, are brought over and placed in the trench, side by side," he wrote. "A man's last ceremony should be dignified, but this isn't. The bulldozer pushes some more dirt in the Marines' faces and that is all there is to it."
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Jerilyn Heise was 14 months old when her father was killed.
Her mother remarried when Jerilyn was about 5, and she learned only "bits and pieces" of her father's life over the years, but "not a lot."
"I went to visit my grandparents that lived in Chicago," she said in a telephone interview from her home in Minden, Nevada. "I definitely should have asked more questions as I got older, but didn't."
Her mother died in 2012. And last May, she got a call from the Defense Department saying that her father had been identified.
"It was a surprise, and it's still a surprise to me," she said. "After 74 years, how would I even expect that I would be able to have his remains brought back to the United States."
She said it was important that he be buried at Arlington.
"I just felt that that was a very special place," she said.
As for the Silver Star, she still has a copy provided by the government, but the original, given to her mother in 1944, has been lost.
Members of the Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany funeral detail transport the casket of Marine Pfc. James O. Whitehurst to his final resting place at Cowarts Baptist Church Cemetery in Cowarts, Alabama, April 12, 2017. Whitehurst was killed in action at the battle of Tarawa during World War II, Nov. 23, 1943.
KRISTA JAMES/U.S. MARINE CORPS