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04-11-06, 12:07 PM
April 17, 2006
The Lore of the Corps: A 5-minute history lesson
Recovering Marines’ remains took 57 years

By Charles A. Jones
Special to the Times

A time-honored military tradition is to “leave no one behind,” meaning that armies try to retrieve their dead from the battlefield.

It is an ancient, almost sacred, tradition.

But the nature of warfare — chaos, confusion, inhumanity and the large numbers of combatants, dead and missing — means that the custom of leaving no one behind cannot always be honored.

The American Battle Monuments Commission, the agency responsible for cemeteries of American war dead in foreign countries and for the Honolulu Memorial on Oahu, Hawaii, recognizes this with monuments that list the names of the missing.

For example, adjacent to Oahu’s famous “Punchbowl,” the National Military Cemetery of the Pacific, is the Honolulu Memorial, which includes monuments listing the names of those missing from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

One includes the names of Marine Raiders missing and killed during the “Makin Raid” in World War II.

In August 1942, two submarines took members of 2nd Raider Battalion from Pearl Harbor to Makin Atoll, in the South Pacific. The Marines left the submarines in rafts and traveled to Butaritari Island, the atoll’s principal island, to attack the Japanese defenders.

The Raiders encountered numerous difficulties during the attack, requiring a hasty and chaotic evacuation to the submarines.

In such conditions, the bodies of 18 Marines who had been killed could not be evacuated and were left on the island.

One of those left behind was Sgt. Clyde Thomason, who became one of the first enlisted Marines to receive the Medal of Honor during World War II when he was awarded the honor posthumously for his actions during the Makin Raid.

Twelve living Marines were also left behind on Butaritari. Three vanished. Nine were taken to Kwajalein and executed.

Unsuccessful searches for those left on Butaritari were performed in 1948, 1998 and 1999. During a second search in 1999, personnel from the Army’s Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii found a mass grave containing the bodies of 19 Raiders.

The families of six Raiders elected to have them buried in private cemeteries. The remaining 13 were buried in Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery.

In August 2001, in an elaborate and solemn ceremony at Hickam Air Force Base on Oahu, the flag-draped caskets of the 13 Raiders, including that of Thomason, were loaded on a Marine KC-130.

The remains were transported from Hickam for burial at Arlington on Aug. 17, 2001, the 59th anniversary of the Makin Raid.

Thirteen tombstones at Arlington list Aug. 17, 1942, as the Raiders’ date of death. There is also a large marker — covering the Raiders’ commingled remains — with the names of the 13 Marines. On the reverse of the marker is the Raider symbol.

Next to the marker is Thomason’s tombstone, with gilded lettering indicating he received the Medal of Honor.

The writer is a lawyer and Marine Corps Reserve colonel in Norfolk, Va.