Decades after Carlson’s Raiders stormed Makin Island, an elite team of forensic sleuths found the remains of the Marines who died there.
IT WAS WINDY AND RAINY, and Christmas was fast approaching on that day in 1999 when Hugh Thomason received news he never expected to hear, news that might bring closure to a painful episode in his life. “We’ve found your brother.”
The startling message signaled another success for the elite forensic detectives at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, or JPAC. For four decades teams of specialists have been searching some of the most inaccessible places on earth for the remains of missing American servicemen, applying state-of-the-art techniques to identify those remains, and then returning them—more than 1,800 to date—to their families.
Now Hugh’s half brother, Sergeant Clyde Thomason—missing since 1942, and World War II’s first enlisted Marine to be awarded the Medal of Honor—was finally home.
Early in 1942 Lieutenant Colonel Evans Carlson was quite literally looking for “a few good men” to form a special commando unit, the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion. Among the volunteers was a tall, lean sergeant from Georgia, Clyde A. Thomason. “I’m really thrilled I’ve gotten into this outfit,” he wrote friends. “Hope I haven’t bitten off more than I can chew.” The training was rugged, but Colonel Carlson, a veteran China hand, inculcated his Marines in the Chinese spirit of working together—Gung Ho, he called it.
That summer of ’42 the battalion shipped to Hawaii, and at the end of July received its orders to proceed to Makin Island (now Butaritari) in the Gilbert chain and “destroy enemy forces and vital installations, and create a diversion from the attack [on] Guadalcanal.” Men drawn from two of the battalion’s companies were embarked upon a pair of U.S. Navy submarines, and in the early hours of August 17, 1942—10 days after the 1st Marine Division invaded Guadalcanal—the Raiders landed on the atoll’s windward shore.
Unsure of the enemy’s disposition, Carlson ordered Sergeant Thomason’s squad to reconnoiter the other side of the island. When a small detachment of Japanese appeared, the Marines melted into the thick brush to set an ambush. Disregarding his own safety, Thomason exposed himself to the enemy while deploying his men. As the Japanese closed the distance, he shouted to his fellow Raiders, “Let ’em have it!” A fierce firefight ensued.
His platoon leader, Lieutenant Wilfred S. LeFrançois, described what happened next in a letter to Thomason’s mother. “Then came a ‘thut’ and [Private Frederick] Metcalf said to me, ‘They got Thomason.’ He lay there stretched out not two feet back of me. I inched my way to him and felt his pulse. There was no beat, no more life in this Marine hero.”
Fighting continued throughout the day. What should have been an in-and-out 16-hour raid took more than twice that before the survivors were back aboard the subs. Of the original force of 219 men, 30 were dead or missing.
Before departing, Colonel Carlson said a prayer over his dead, and asked villagers to bury them. The locals, among them 16- year-old Bureimoa Tokarei, set to with solemn purpose.
At the time, the Makin Raid was hailed as a great victory— one of the first successful island assaults of the war. Carlson and his Raiders became heroes, their exploits splashed across the front pages of newspapers. (Only after the war did it become clear that the mission had actually been a disaster.) For his actions, Sergeant Clyde Thomason received the Medal of Honor.
Over the next three years, battles raged across the Pacific, growing ever nearer the final objective: Japan. Makin became a forgotten mote in a vast theater of war. After Japan surrendered, U.S. Army graves registration units—charged with identifying and retrieving or reinterring remains of American soldiers— fanned out across the myriad islands and atolls in search of bodies, reaching Makin in 1948. But they found nothing, and the families of the Raiders gave up hope of getting their boys back. And there things stood for the next half century.
In the late 1990s, the U.S. Marine Raiders Association persuaded JPAC to conduct a search for the lost Makin Marines. Two fruitless expeditions followed, in 1998 and early 1999. That might have been the end of it, had not a tropical storm in Vietnam intervened. Forensic anthropologist Bradley Sturm and army captain Mark Hollingsworth, had been in the final stages of planning a mid-November 1999 deployment to Vietnam’s Central Highlands to search for the remains of a downed American pilot. But the devastating floods left their recovery team high and dry on Oahu. They decided to try Makin one last time. Within two weeks the group was on site.
JPAC grew out of a small U.S. Army unit—the Central Identification Laboratory, Thailand—created in 1973 to focus on the recovery of missing American servicemen in Southeast Asia. The lab was moved to Hawaii in 1976, and its mission broadened to “conduct global search, recovery, and laboratory operations to identify unaccounted-for Americans from past conflicts.” The unit focuses on the 83,000 still missing from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War. JPAC’s 450 military and civilian scientists and support personnel chip slowly away at that total, making about two identifications a week. They take their motto—Until They Are Home—very seriously.
One of the first things Sturm did on Makin was question islanders about the graves dug for the Raiders. That’s when Bureimoa Tokarei, then 74, stepped forward. In 1942 he had helped bury the men, he told Sturm. During a tour of the island, the villager noted that the beach was now 10 yards wider than it had been in 1942, and landmarks had been displaced. After some hesitation he pointed to the ground where, he said, two roads once intersected. “It wasn’t really visible unless you knew it was there,” Sturm recalled. The old man stuck a day-glo orange flag into the ground. “Here,” he said.
The JPAC crew began to meticulously excavate. After two days of digging, a spade struck something solid. Excitement filled the trench as the anthropologist got down on hands and knees to free the object from the coral sand, slowly revealing a human skull. Sturm had no doubt this was one of the lost Raiders. He directed his team to work cautiously. Still, discoveries came fast and furious. Another cranium, this one fused to a decayed steel helmet. Foot bones, then another skull and helmet. It looked as if JPAC had found its men, just five yards from where Tokarei had said they would.
Now JPAC’s even stricter archeological protocols came into play. All work on the trenches ceased until the boundaries of the mass grave were determined. They began to excavate an area around the periphery of the site to clearly define its extent and provide better access to the skeletons. What remained was a mound—a pedestal—of hard sand measuring 6 by 18 feet.
While Sturm laid out a search grid, team sergeant Randal Posey and his soldiers constructed an adjacent screening station. When excavation began in earnest, the soil removed was shoveled into numbered buckets, spread onto the corresponding sieve, and sifted through the wire mesh. Items too large to pass were minutely examined. Whatever genuine artifacts were found were bagged, tagged, and carefully logged, so that the exact position of each could be accurately plotted on a master site sketch.
Over the next eight days the site yielded 17 more skulls, along with bones, buckles, knives, coins, and live grenades. What would come to be identified as Clyde Thomason’s remains were tagged “Burial 16.”
With 20 skeletons now reposing in locked containers, the JPAC team excavated the pit down to what they referred to as “sterile soil,” meaning no more evidence could be found.
On December 16, 1999, after saying a short prayer over the grave, Bradley Sturm declared the site officially closed. Once it had been backfilled, a concrete tablet with crudely inscribed lettering—U.S.M.C. GRAVESITE, 2ND MARINE RAIDER BAT. 1942, 11 METERS TO CENTER—was placed as a marker.
A few days earlier, Sturm had radioed JPAC headquarters about the find. As always, an operation to bring the remains home was put in motion. Typically, a joint service honor guard meets planes bringing home the remains of servicemen and women when they land in Honolulu. But when news of the Makin discovery reached Marine Corps headquarters in Washington, a special ceremony was arranged.
Okinawa-based gunnery sergeant Dan Joy was directed to arrange a color guard to repatriate the Raiders. He had little time to organize, much less pack. He picked his four best Marines, and they immediately left for Makin.
A large crowd gathered around the tiny Makin terminal to watch the Marine C-130 Hercules transport arrive. Tokarei stood rigidly at the front of the building, alongside Bradley Sturm. Nearby, a truck idled, 20 boxes of remains stacked neatly on its flatbed.
The C-130 taxied to a stop 200 yards from the crowd. The rear cargo door began to yawn open, accompanied by the high-pitched squeal of hydraulic pumps. After the crew lowered the ramp, Joy’s guard marched solemnly toward the terminal. They formed a line, four abreast. The sergeant, barking orders, brought up the rear. When they reached the building, Joy’s crisp “Colors, halt!” cut through the hot midafternoon air.
The four men drew up in perfect unison just short of the terminal apron. Joy continued, “Countermarch, march!” The guards executed a neat about-face. The truck pulled in behind them, followed by Tokarei and Sturm. With Joy’s command, “Forward, march!” the procession moved slowly across the sandy strip, back to the squat, gray airplane.
The truck backed into the shadow of the looming tail. One by one, the metal boxes were pulled, with care and respect, off the flatbed truck and carried aboard. As each container was set on the floor, the guards and the plane’s crew honored their fallen comrades with a smart salute.
“I don’t think there was one word spoken on the aircraft,” recalled Joy, who was deeply moved by the brief ceremony on Makin. We “did not accept the full impact of this historical event until we were staring at the 20 boxes in front of us [and] realized we were finally ‘bringing our guys home.’ ” Tokarei, tears streaming down his face, watched from the tarmac as the C-130 roared down the runway.
Sergeant Clyde Thomason and his brothers in arms—men who had lain together beneath their field of honor for 57 years— were now on the first leg of an 18-month journey back to their loved ones.
In the modern forensics facility at Hawaii’s Hickam Air Force Base, anthropologists William Belcher and David Rankin spent most of the next year painstakingly piecing together skeletons. The scientists start the process without knowing any details about the men whose remains the seek to identify. By working “blind” they can concentrate on just the forensic evidence and avoid conclusions based on any given man’s height, weight, race, or age.
In the case of Burial 16, Bill Belcher’s team reconstructed almost the entire skeleton. Following protocol, Belcher did not attach a name to the bones; he only confirmed the facts. The remains were of a Caucasoid male, age 25 to 29, between 71.2 and 76.7 inches tall. The fracture pattern of the ribs, he wrote in his final report, could “be related to gunshot wounds,” and it was clear the body had been buried for a long time.
Meanwhile, Robert Maves, a casualty data analyst, tracked down the families of all 30 Marines who went missing on Makin—not an easy task after nearly 60 years. Then he called and wrote family members, asking for medical and dental records and, when necessary, DNA samples.
Data sleuths like Maves tend to compile voluminous files—action reports, casualty reports, eyewitness accounts, maps, aerial photographs—so that the anthropological team has plenty of information to work with.
In another part of the lab, anthropologist Gregory Berg sorted through the personal effects found in the Makin grave—buckles, buttons, snaps, and eyelets. There were 22 dog tags embossed with the names of only 11 Marines. Some tags had fingerprints, which could be used as corroborating identification of the bodies.
A badly corroded Motorola handie-talkie was among the artifacts, as was the barrel of a Garand M-1 rifle. There were wire cutters, an aluminum canteen, a plastic pipe stem, several knives, compasses, gas masks, and two first-aid kits. And there were five helmets, two of which had holes, perhaps from gunshots.
Dental identification has always been one of JPAC’s key techniques. Forensic odontologists worked with the dental records for 27 of the 30 missing Makin Marines (none existed for the remaining three), comparing the skeletal jaws to the old charts. Navy odontologist Lieutenant Commander Christopher Fielding noted in his report on Burial 16 that the dental remains “show concordant features tooth-for-tooth in virtually every detail upon comparison with Sgt. Clyde Thomason’s antemortem dental information.” He was able to “reasonably exclude” the other 26 men. Given all the odontological evidence, he concluded, the dental “remains are consistent with those of Sgt. Clyde Thomason, 246433, USMCR.”
When Bill Belcher’s anthropological analysis of Burial 16 was compared to Clyde’s Marine medical records, the resemblance was striking. The sergeant had been 28 years old and 6 feet 21⁄2 inches tall. Only one other set of remains came close to a match. When Fielding’s dental findings were added to the mix, JPAC was able to “tentatively associate” the remains with Thomason, misleading terminology that generally denotes a close match.
There was one last step: to present the lab’s conclusions to the family. Five Marines visited Hugh Thomason’s home and showed him JPAC’s report on his brother. When asked if he agreed the remains of Burial 16 were Clyde’s, he said “Yes.” That made it official: JPAC had found Clyde Thomason.
And so it went with all the others. Though the identification of Thomason’s bones was fairly straightforward, the lab required DNA analysis to identify five other sets of remains. In the end, JPAC identified 19 Makin Marines. (The 20th set of bones were those of a Makin islander.)
This recovery is JPAC’s largest ever, though 11 of Carlson’s Raiders are still missing. Two searches of Kwajalein, an island farther north where some of the Americans were known to have been imprisoned (and later beheaded), turned up nothing. As JPAC teams well know, 100 percent recovery is a goal rarely reached.
Since the Makin mission, more than 700 missing American servicemen have been recovered and identified. In 2010 Congress directed the command to double the annual number of identifications within five years. To that end, in 2012 JPAC deployed 85 teams on 30 missions to a dozen countries. Techniques and technology have been growing more and more sophisticated, but success still hinges on JPAC’s human efforts: field digs, piecing skeletons together, turning up key records, and puzzling out the answers.
At Arlington National Cemetery on August 17,2001—59 years to the day after the Marines stormed ashore at Makin—Hugh Thomason finally laid his brother to rest. “He was such a promising young man,” he remembered. “Smart. Full of fun. Ambitious.” Other Makin Marine families joined him that day to bury their brothers, uncles, cousins. Said one, “Today really signifies how the Marine Corps takes care of their own.”
They all stood in a warm drizzle as the Marine Band led the solemn procession, playing “Onward! Christian Soldiers” (the favorite hymn of the 2nd Raider Battalion). Thirteen caskets arrived at the open gravesites, one on a horse-drawn caisson, the others in hearses. When the attendees gathered around, the Marine Raider Association chaplain prayed. The sound of 21 guns pierced the leaden air. Taps floated over the sacred ground, each note reverberating off tens of thousands of granite tombstones. Marines reverently lifted the flags from the coffins, carefully folding them before presenting them to the families. It was done. And JPAC had once again fulfilled its motto, Until They Are Home.
STEVEN TRENT SMITH, a writer and historian, is a regular contributor to MHQ. He lives in Kalispell, Montana.
Originally published in the Winter 2013 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.