Memorial Day: Arlington Honors for World War II Marine
Memorial Day is observed in the U.S. to honor of those who gave their lives in defense of their country. As part of the commemorations, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke at Arlington National Cemetery where a U.S. serviceman, unaccounted for since World War II, was finally buried with full military honors.
In November 1943, Marine Pfc. James B. Johnson of Poughkeepsie, New York, was assigned to Company K, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, 2nd Marine Division, which landed against stiff Japanese resistance on the small island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll of the Gilbert Islands, in an attempt to secure the island. Over several days of intense fighting at Tarawa, approximately 1,000 Marines and sailors were killed and more than 2,000 were wounded, but the Japanese were virtually annihilated. Johnson died sometime on the first day of battle, November 20, 1943.
The battle of Tarawa was a huge victory for the U.S. military because the Gilbert Islands provided the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet a platform from which to launch assaults on the Marshall and Caroline Islands to advance their Central Pacific Campaign against Japan.
In the immediate aftermath of the fighting on Tarawa, U.S. service members who died in the battle were buried in a number of battlefield cemeteries on the island. In 1946 and 1947, the 604th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company conducted remains recovery operations on Betio Island, but Johnson’s remains were not recovered. On February 28, 1949, a military review board declared Johnson’s remains non-recoverable.
However, in June 2015, a nongovernmental organization, History Flight, Inc., notified the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency that they discovered a burial site on Betio Island and recovered the remains of what they believed were 35 U.S. Marines who fought during the battle in November 1943. The remains were turned over to the Agency in July 2015.
To identify Johnson’s remains, scientists from DPAA and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory used Y-Short Tandem Repeat DNA analysis, which matched a nephew; laboratory analysis, including dental analysis, chest radiograph comparison, and anthropological comparison, which matched Johnson’s records; as well as circumstantial and material evidence.
Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, more than 400,000 died during the war.
Barack Obama at Arlington
U.S. President spoke at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day:
“Honor, courage, selflessness. Those values lived in the hearts of everyday heroes who risked everything for us in every American war - men and women who now rest forever in these quiet fields and across our land.
“They lived in the patriots who sparked a revolution, and who saved our union. They lived in the young GIs who defeated tyranny in Europe and the Pacific. And this year, we mark a historic anniversary - 70 years since our victory in World War II. More than 16 million Americans left everything they knew to fight for our freedom. More than 400,000 gave their lives.
“These same values lived in those who braved the mountains of Korea, the jungles of Vietnam, the deserts of the Middle East. And in the past decade, we’ve seen these values on display again in the men and women of our 9/11 Generation.
“For many of us, this Memorial Day is especially meaningful; it is the first since our war in Afghanistan came to an end. Today is the first Memorial Day in 14 years that the United States is not engaged in a major ground war. So on this day, we honor the sacrifice of the thousands of American servicemembers - men and women - who gave their lives since 9/11, including more than 2,200 American patriots who made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan.
“The Americans who rest beneath these beautiful hills, and in sacred ground across our country and around the world, they are why our nation endures. Each simple stone marker, arranged in perfect military precision, signifies the cost of our blessings. It is a debt we can never fully repay, but it is a debt we will never stop trying to fully repay. By remaining a nation worthy of their sacrifice. By living our own lives the way the fallen lived theirs - a testament that “Greater love has no other than this, than to lay down your life for your friends.”
Obama’s full speech is available here.