The remains of a U.S. Marine who was killed in action during World War II finally completed the 70-year journey from a South Pacific atoll to his home in Texas. His body has been missing since 1943.
In November 1943, U.S. Marine Corps Private First Class Elmer “Rabbit” Mathies, Jr. was killed during the Battle of Tarawa. Private Mathies was one of 1,200 Marines killed during the 3-day battle battle. His remains were finally identified and have been returned to Hereford, Texas in time for Memorial Day, the Amarillo Globe-News reported.
Mathies’ sister, 85-year-old Mary Jo Hopson was contacted by the Marine Corps last summer. They asked her for a sample of her DNA to test against those of yet unidentified Marines. A match was found and the private will now come home to his family.
Colonel Elwin Hart was with Mathies when he was killed, the Tacoma News Tribune’s Adam Ashton reported in February. Colonel Hart told Ashton he heard the crack of the sniper’s rifle shot. He saw his friend drop dead after being shot through the heart. Hart was a sergeant at the time and rose through the ranks during his 33-year career to colonel.
Hart said Mathies’ body lay just outside the pit where he and other Marines were taking cover for three days before they could move him. Their job was to relay messages to other Marines as to the entrenched positions of Japanese troops.
Mathies’ body, like those of 73,000 other missing Americans from WWII, became lost and were classified as “unrecoverable” until recently.
A previously unknown cemetery was discovered on Betio Island, the KCBD-NBC11 reported.
Col. Hart, now 91 and living in Federal Way, Washington, joined a Marine Corps honor guard that provided full military honors on Saturday as Private Mathies was laid to rest.
A non-profit organization called History Flight works with the Pentagon’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) to help find and identify missing American service members who were killed during WWII. Nearly a decade was spent searching for lost cemeteries before the one where Mathies was buried was finally discovered.
The DPAA tested the remains of 35 Marines found on the island. The tests included mitochondrial DNA analysis, dental analysis and anthropological comparison, as well as circumstantial and material evidence, the NBC affiliate reported.
Col. Hart had fond memories of his first-ever Marine Corps friend, Ashton reported. “He was always in a little bit of trouble. Everyone liked him. He always had a smile, always pulling a trick on someone,” the colonel said.
The two men both enlisted in the Marine Corps before their 18th birthday, he said. Hart was only 15 at the time and Mathies was 17. They spent time in American Samoa together and fought in Guadalcanal before moving on to New Zealand for training leading up to the campaign to take back the Pacific.
Shortly after landing on Tarawa, the two men were taking heavy fire from Japanese machine guns and mortar rounds. They sought shelter in a pit left from a mortar explosion. From this position the two Marines would relay messages from the ships offshore to other Marines along the beach. Hart said Mathies was sitting on the edge of the pit when the sniper ended his young life.
On Christmas Eve, 1943, Mathies’ family received a telegram from the War Department advising them that Elmer Jr. was missing in action.
“That’s how they let you know,” Mary Jo Hopson told Ashton about the telegram. “Mother and dad, they were very strong people. I can remember that we had friends that came in, and they just went back to work the next day.”
Now, 70-years later, Hopson, Col. Hart, and Mathies’ niece, Denise Cable, age 63 from Plano, Texas, know their loved one has returned to his final resting place – Texas.