Remains of long-missing Marine greeted with gratitude and respect in his hometown
By STEVEN MAYER | The Bakersfield Californian | Published: November 15, 2019
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — His arrival home was long-delayed — not by hours, not by days, but by decades.
Seventy-six years after he was killed in action on a little-known island in the Pacific during World War II, the remains of U.S. Marine Pfc. Joseph Robert Livermore arrived in Bakersfield by motorcade Thursday as hundreds of residents lined the streets and gathered on freeway bridges to welcome him home.
The motorcade, led by California Highway Patrol motorcycle officers and supported by several members of the Bakersfield Patriot Guard Riders, included a hearse carrying Livermore’s remains and a van carrying members of Livermore’s family.
“It’s been a very emotional day for me because I finally got all my family together — and I didn’t know I had so many," said Darrell Feliz, Livermore's 67-year-old nephew.
Livermore, an East Bakersfield High School football player, was 19 when he enlisted in the Marines the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
According to a presidential unit citation awarded to the Second Marine Division and related units "for outstanding performance in combat during the seizure and occupation of the Japanese-held Atoll of Tarawa" in late November 1943, the amphibious landing by some 18,000 Marines turned out to be victorious. But it came at great cost.
Livermore was only 21 when he was killed by an enemy bayonet, fighting in hand-to-hand combat on the heavily fortified, Japanese-held island of Betio. The date was Nov. 22, 1943.
He was buried on the island, along with nearly 1,000 other Marines. But after the war, when the remains of servicemen were brought home, Livermore was not among them.
The location of his remains and the remains of other Marines would remain a mystery for decades until efforts by the nongovernmental organization History Flight located a burial site.
On July 30 the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency identified Livermore's remains.
After passing Livermore’s childhood family home in east Bakersfield, the motorcade procession wound around East High, Livermore’s alma mater, where hundreds of students and visitors from the larger community waved flags and showed the love he never had the chance to enjoy as a young serviceman returning from war.
Elise Sotello, a teacher at East, was there — and like a good educator, she had researched school records to learn more about who Livermore was as a student.
When the school opened in 1938, Livermore was there as a sophomore, Sotello said. During his junior year, he was very involved, and was elected junior class president.
Livermore joined the football team in his senior year, but he did not graduate with his class, Sotello said, though it is unclear why.
“It means a little bit more to me,” Sotello said. “I graduated from here so I’m not just a staff member, I’m also an alumnus. I’m very proud of our veterans and their service and to have a Blade be able to come home like this after being in a foreign place where his family doesn’t know where he is, I’m so happy we got to honor him in this way.”
Chase McLewis, 17, a senior at East, said it was a different feeling knowing that a combat infantryman who lost his life in World War II was once a student at East.
“There are students that I know now that are the same age doing things similar to what he did and I can kind of compare the students that I know to him in a sense.”
EBHS junior Alexandria Gonzales, 16, said learning Livermore’s story was kind of a wake-up call.
“It kind of hit home because I do have people in my family who serve in the military,” she said. “I’m glad that we were able to show what our legacy is about, our family, how we care for one another."
And even though the better part of a century separates her from the World War II generation, “we still respect them and we still honor them.”
When the motorcade reached Union Cemetery, Marines wearing their dress blues carried the casket inside where visitors could pay their respects.
State Sen. Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, whose office helped coordinate Livermore’s emotional homecoming, said Kern County is known for its respect and love for those who serve in uniform.
“It’s just been an amazing day for a hero to come back to Bakersfield, and I’m honored to be a part of it,” she said. “We have an amazing and incredible community here.”
Indeed, many in the community share in the grief of the family’s loss and in the joy of this Marine’s return home so many years after his death. It’s a homecoming that brings closure to an unfinished chapter of the family’s and the city's history.
“I’ve never been as emotional as this, that I can remember,” Feliz said upon the return home of his uncle, an uncle he never knew.
Feliz was right when he said he didn’t know he had so many members in his family.
By Thursday it had grown to the size of an entire city.
Stephanie Bedolla contributed to this report
©2019 The Bakersfield Californian (Bakersfield, Calif.)
Visit The Bakersfield Californian (Bakersfield, Calif.) at www.bakersfield.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.