Remains found on Pacific island likely to be those of 139 WWII Marines

The bodies of U.S. Marines killed in the Battle of Tarawa lie in a trench grave in this November 1943 photo.


By LEO SHANE III | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 28, 2008

WASHINGTON — A group of researchers believe they have uncovered the final resting place of 139 Marines killed in World War II, and they are now lobbying the military to positively identify the fallen heroes.

"These guys can finally be brought home," said Mark Noah, a member of History Flight, one of the nonprofits behind the research. "There’s no question about it."

If verified, the discovery on the Tarawa Atoll in Kiribati would be one of the largest recoveries of U.S. war casualties, and it could provide final answers for some of the hundreds of families who lost loved ones to fighting in the Pacific.

A three-day battle at Tarawa in November 1943 was the first major U.S. amphibious assault in the Pacific Ocean fight. While American forces were victorious, nearly 1,700 Marines and sailors were killed in the battle.

The Marine Corps still list almost 550 Marines from the battle as missing in action, unsure of their final resting place. Noah believes that his group’s research has uncovered at least some of their remains and that more still can be found in the islands.

"But as the area gets more populated, the chance to get this work done decreases," he said. "We need to get the government out there and help them do their job."

Over the last few years History Flight, which restores military aircraft, and the Massachusetts-based WFI Research Group together raised $90,000 for identification efforts at Tarawa.

Noah said over the last 15 years he and other volunteers from the groups have been looking into the issue of missing U.S. troops. They focused in on Tarawa a few years ago, locating old grave maps and photos in government archives, and used that data to plot out areas of interest.

Earlier this month they traveled to Kiribati with a ground-penetrating radar system to survey those sites, successfully identifying what they believe to be old Marine Corps graves that fell off official maps decades ago.

"We haven’t done any digging, because that needs to be done by a professional," he said. "But we have the spot of a lost grave on a map, we have radar showing human remains there, and we have eyewitness video saying they’ve found U.S. gear and equipment in the area.

"That’s three pretty compelling reasons to go out there."

Noah said the groups are currently compiling a full report on their work so far for presentation to the military. They haven’t contacted family members, he said, because they can’t make positive identifications like military researchers can.

Officials from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii said they will review those findings before taking any action.

"Tarawa is not on our planning schedule for 2009," said Lt. Col. Wayne Perry of the command. "But we can’t say whether that might change until after we see what they found."

Noah said the groups hope not only to convince officials to start an official recovery effort but also to raise more money for future research of their own.

"We’ve already been working on a number of different places, and we think there is more work on Tarawa too," he said. "There are more missing guys out there."

Geophysicist James Harrison uses a ground penetrating radar system to search for human remains buried on the island of Tarawa. Private researchers believe they have found the final resting place of 139 Marines killed in the WWII battle for this island. More than 500 killed in the fighting have never been found.