After being listed as a prisoner of war/missing in action for more than 73 years, Marine Corps Pfc. James O. Whitehurst, of Ashford, will be buried on April 12 in Cowarts.
Whitehurst was killed during WWII, but his remains were not found until 2015. By using dental records and the dog tags found with the remains, Whitehurst was positively identified.
Whitehurst’s body will arrive at the airport in Tallahassee, Florida on April 11, where his remains will be greeted by family members on the airport tarmac. His body will be transported to Glover Funeral Home where a memorial service will be held followed by a burial service at Cowarts Baptist Church Cemetery.
In November 1943, Whitehurst was assigned to Company E, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, and 2nd Marine Division which landed against stiff Japanese resistance on the small island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll of the Gilbert Island, in an attempt to secure the island.
“Approximately 1,000 Marines and Navy sailors were killed during this attack,” said Charles Odom, Whitehurst’s nephew. “There were more than 2,000 wounded. The information we were given states our uncle died during the first day of battle, November 20, 1943.”
With the heavy casualties suffered by the U.S. forces, the military success in the battle was a huge victory for the United States military. The Gilbert Islands provided the United States Navy Pacific Fleet a platform where assaults could be launched on the Marshall and Caroline Islands, which advanced the Central Pacific Campaign against Japan.
“Due to aftermath of fighting on Tarawa, service members who died in battle were buried in a number of battlefield cemeteries,” Odom said.
In 1946 and 1947, the 604th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company conducted remains recovery operations on Betio, but Whitehurst’s remains were not found.
“In 2015, a non-governmental organization, History Flight Inc., notified the Department of Defense that they discovered a burial site on Betio Island,” Odom said. “They recovered 35 Marines and one Navy sailor in the same burial plot. The remains were turned over to the Department of Defense in July 2015. After I received information regarding the cemetery plot location, I agreed to donate a swab which would contain my DNA. I was later informed my DNA was not needed. Whoever buried the Marines buried them in ponchos to help preserve the bodies. Besides two ribs missing, my uncle’s skeleton was completely intact. His dog tags also rested in the poncho. To verify my uncle’s remains, dental records were used and they matched perfectly.”
According to a news release from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency Public Affairs office, the DPAA is appreciative to History Flight Inc., and their partnership for the recovery mission that led to the remains of the Marines and Navy sailor being located.
“During our childhood years, we all heard different stories regarding what might have happened to our uncle,” Odom said. “We are grateful to the History Flight for locating our uncle. Now, we can properly lay him to rest with respect.”
Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, more than 400,000 died during the war. Currently there are 73,070 service members still unaccounted for from World War II.