Lipinski's Actions Spur Pentagon to Act on Recovering Remains of Fallen Heroes

The final version of the defense authorization bill that passed the House of Representatives today includes an amendment written by Congressman Dan Lipinski (IL-03) that calls on the Department of Defense "to undertake all feasible efforts to recover, identify, and return" the missing remains of 564 brave U.S. service members killed in the WWII Battle of Tarawa. But even before passage of the bill, Lipinski's call for action resulted in the Department of Defense sending a team of investigators to Tarawa last month.

"Though they lie buried on a distant island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, we cannot forget the courage and sacrifice of those who perished on the shores of Tarawa sixty-six years ago," Lipinski said. "We must do everything possible to see that their remains are recovered and their families are given a chance to return them to the nation in whose defense they died. I am glad that the Department of Defense has responded to the need for further investigation, and proud to have succeeded in focusing attention on the heroism of those who lost their lives on Tarawa. But our work is far from over, and I intend to continue to press to recover their remains."

The vote in the House was 281-146. The Senate is expected to vote on the bill as early as next week.  

After the initial version of the defense authorization bill passed the House in June with Congressman Lipinski's amendment included, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command sent an eight-person investigative team to Tarawa for a week in September. During the course of the mission, a total of six possible burial sites were located. The team also gathered data on infrastructure pertinent to the safety and impact of any future excavations. Skeletal remains and a small amount of material evidence were received as unilateral turnovers from a local museum and police. The possible burial sites are being evaluated by JPAC to determine future actions. 

Tarawa, located halfway between Australia and Hawaii, was the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. More than 1,100 American lives were lost in three days beginning on Nov. 20, 1943, as the 2nd Marine Division and part of the Army's 27th Infantry took the island in an amphibious assault, dislodging an entrenched force of 5,000 Japanese soldiers.

Many bodies were buried in temporary graves while the battle raged. While some were disinterred and reinterred in the area by the Navy between 1943 and 1946, no detailed records of the locations have been found. In 1946 and 1947, the Army disinterred all known remains and returned them to Hawaii for identification and repatriation.

Over the last three decades, the remains of several servicemen have been discovered by accident, as a result of construction projects. Recent privately funded research has shed new light on the location of unmarked graves, indicating successful recovery is still possible despite development on Tarawa, part of the independent Republic of Kiribati.

Locally, 11th Ward Chicago Alderman James Balcer, a decorated Marine veteran of the Vietnam War, has also fought to focus attention on the missing remains on Tarawa, showing leadership on the issue by introducing a resolution that passed the Chicago City Council on a unanimous vote.

"The Marines, soldiers, and sailors who lost their lives as they stormed the beaches of Tarawa under withering fire are true heroes," Lipinski said. "It is our solemn duty to see that they are afforded proper burials with all the honors that are their due."

"I want to thank Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton for working with me to include my amendment in the bill, and I look forward to working with him to continue to address this issue in the future," Lipinski added.

Congressman Lipinski also supports a broader provision in the defense authorization bill that directs the Secretary of Defense to implement a "coordinated, integrated, and fully resourced program" dedicated to the recovery of the remains of missing military personnel. The bill sets a goal of accounting for missing and unrecovered personnel, starting at 200 service members a year.

In addition, and among the many ways in which it protects and benefits our service members, the bill provides needed equipment and training for our troops, including $10 billion for mine detection vehicles and anti-IED technology; gives service members a 3.4 percent raise; retroactively prohibits fee increases on TRICARE inpatient care for one year; expands TRICARE health coverage for reserve component members; increases oversight of military contractors to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse; and increases funding for non-proliferation programs to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists.

(October 8, 2009)


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