Pentagon Continues Archeological Dig for Local WWII Heroes (August 19, 2010)

Des Plaines Valley News
August 19, 2010
By James Pluta

On the day before his 18th birthday in the autumn of 1943, U.S. Marine George A. Polich of Lyons was gunned down in the famous World War II Battle of Tarawa on a small island in the South Pacific.

A day earlier, on Nov. 20, 1943, Tech Sergeant Harry A. Carlsen of Brookfield also lost his life – as did a few dozen other Illinois soldiers.

But in life, as in war, the sad story of their unfortunate demise was but a footnote in the Big War that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of men in uniform.

Worse yet, the families and friends of men like Polich and Carlsen were only left to honor their loved ones at empty memorials, for their remains never made it home.

Now, nearly 67 years later – in response to efforts by U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-3rd District, of Western Springs – a Pentagon archeological team is searching for the missing remains of dozens of American Marines and soldiers who perished in the battle.

The search by the U.S. Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command is the result of Lipinski's success in attaching an amendment to last year's defense authorization bill calling on the Pentagon "to undertake all feasible efforts to recover, identify, and return" the missing remains of service members killed in the Battle of Tarawa, according to the congressman's legislative spokesman, Nathaniel Zimmer.

Among the missing are Illinois residents from Evanston, Chicago, Alton and Rock Island, Mount Vernon, Maywood, Lombard and Danville, and those from Lyons and Brookfield as well.

Polich, Carlsen records sparse

Polich, who was born in Summit on Nov. 22, 1925, was a distant cousin of former Lyons village clerk Wiliam A. Polich, who only recalled knowing of him and his family.

"The Poloch's were like Smiths back then," he said of the Yugoslavian surname, many of whose families lived east of Lawndale Avenue along 44th and 45th streets."

Military records showed George's father lived at the time of his death in the 8200 block of 39th Street.

Little is known of Carlsen, whose mother was listed as living at the time of his death in 8900 block of 39th Street.

Carlsen, who served aboard the USS Virgo, was killed on the first day of the 76-hour battle, Nov. 20, 1943, suffering gunshot wounds to the abdomen and head, according to one researcher who communicated with a relative of his on a Tarawa website.

The "muster roll" remarks on Carlsen, indicated he was among five Marines of the 2nd Amphibian force killed in action of the division's 57 casualties (a 49 percent casualty rate) during the amphibious assault on Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands and is buried in Cemetary 2 on the island.

The amphibious vehicles on which he likely deboarded his ship "were all in the first wave of the assault, and they took a beating," according to the research.

"Being a Tech Sgt., he was probable in charge of several amtracs in the assault," the researcher wrote, noting the beach where he landed "was the 'hot spot' on the landing and took a very heavy toll on men and machines."

An island graveyard

An initial investigation by JPAC in September 2009 located a total of six possible burial sites on the island of Betio, where the battle was fought.

JPAC expects its search, which is currently underway, will last roughly six weeks.

In a statement released this week, Lipinski called the men American heroes.

"The men who died defending our nation on the shores of Tarawa 67 years ago are true heroes," Lipinski stated. "The extraordinary courage they demonstrated in the face of withering fire and overwhelming odds will never be forgotten."

He further stated he was pleased his amendment prompted a return to Tarawa.

"I thank all those who diligently working to locate the bodies of the hundreds of Marines and sailors who gave their lives there in America's defense. We must do everything possible to see that their families are given a chance to bring them home."

The island of Betio in the Tawara atoll, located halfway between Australia and Hawaii, was the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of WWII.

The victory, in the words of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, "knocked down the front door to the Japanese defenses in the Central Pacific," and the lessons learned in the art of amphibious warfare guided and influenced all subsequent landings in the Pacific.

More than 1,100 American lives were lost in three days beginning on Nov. 20, 1943, as the 2nd Marine Division took the tiny but heavily fortified strip of land with the support of the Navy and Army units, destroying an entrenched force of 5,000 Japanese troops in bitter close-quarters combat.

The remains of some 564 Americans were never recovered, as many bodies were buried where they fell and recordkeeping was difficult and limited in the battle's chaotic aftermath.

In the event remains are recovered, the findings will be analyzed by scientific experts in the hopes of making positive identifications.

Chicago Alderman James Balcer, a decorated Marine veteran of the Vietnam War brought this issue to Lipinski's attention and introduced a resolution on the matter that passed the City Counsel on a unanimous vote.

Lipinski's efforts to ensure the remains of missing service members are recovered go beyond Tarawa.

He supports a provision in the defense authorization act that directs the Secretary of Defense to implement a "coordinated, integrated, and fully resourced program" dedicated to locating missing service members killed in action.

Lipinski recently led 14 colleagues in sending a letter to Subcommittee on Defense Appropriations Chairman Norman Dicks urging him to ensure the Defense Department moves quickly to establish the mandated program.

"It is our solemn duty to see that those who made the ultimate sacrifice on Tarawa are afforded proper burials with all the honors that are their due," added Lipinski. "I look forward to seeing them brought home, and to continuing to work toward recovering the remains of all those who gave their lives in America's defense, wherever they may be found."

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