Thursday, October 24, 2013

Unidentified War Dead

This hits a little closer to home for me than most WWII stories, but not because I have any family members like these.

The Chicago Tribune reported Sunday on the continuing failure of the U.S. government to identify the remains recovered from the battle of Tarawa 70 years ago. The article opens this way:

In September 1943, Tech. Sgt. Harry Arnold Carlsen wrote a letter to his mother and ailing father in suburban Chicago. The Marine told his parents he wouldn't be home for Christmas but was hopeful he'd visit them the next year.

"I would like to see you and dad once more," he wrote.

Carlsen still hasn't made it home.

About two months after writing to his parents for the final time, the 31-year-old died in a battle with Japanese forces on a Pacific atoll called Tarawa, part of the present-day nation of Kiribati. In west suburban Brookfield, where Carlsen grew up, the news arrived in a grim telegram sent two days before Christmas.

Carlsen is among tens of thousands of Americans who fought in World War II whose remains have never been identified. At Tarawa alone, where more than 1,100 U.S. troops died, upward of 500 service members were never found. Another 90 or so sets of remains still haven't been identified.

But a historian who once worked for the Department of Defense said Carlsen is a "most likely" match for a body cataloged decades ago as "Schofield Mausoleum No. 1: X-82" and buried as an unknown in a Hawaii military cemetery.

"I'd bet my house, your house and every house down the block that it is Tech. Sgt. Carlsen," said the historian, Rick Stone, a former chief of police in Wichita, Kan.

Carlsen's grand-nephew, Ed Spellman, has pushed without success to have the government exhume X-82's grave and test the DNA against a sample submitted by the Marine's family. He has been discouraged as bureaucrat after bureaucrat politely noted his request without seeming to act on it.

My dad didn't serve in World War II. He turned 15 about halfway between VE Day and VJ Day. His dad, though, was career Army. Born (as far as the Army knew) in 1900, Grandpa was a Major in his 40s by the end of WWII, and he spent the war stateside, training troops.

After the war, Grandpa was assigned to Graves Registration in France, and he was able to bring the family with him. From 1946 to 1948, they lived in three different cities: Paris, Fontainebleau, and Strasbourg. My dad was free to explore on his own much of the time, while Grandpa worked at identifying the remains of our war dead so their families could get the closure Tech. Sgt. Carlsen's family has yet to be given.

When the remains in the Tomb of the Unknown from the Vietnam War were identified in 1998, then-Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen announced at the opening of the grave, "We disturb this hallowed ground with profound reluctance, and we take this step only because of our abiding commitment to account for every warrior who fought and died to preserve the freedoms we cherish."

Apparently, that abiding commitment doesn't yet extend to the thousands of World War II dead who have not been identified. My grandfather would be ashamed.

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