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World War II Marine finally returns home, 75 years after his death

A U.S. Marine honor guard carries the casket of Marine Tech. Sgt. Harry "Bud" Carlsen inside a cargo hangar at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago on October 10, 2018. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Devastated by his divorce and stunned by the attack on Pearl Harbor, auto mechanic Harry Carlsen climbed into his car and headed west to Los Angeles, where he enlisted in the Marines.

Less than two years after the attack on Dec. 7, 1941, Tech. Sgt. Harry “Bud” Carlsen, 31, a native of suburban Brookfield, died in November 1943 during the Battle of Tarawa in the Pacific theater of World War II.

His remains, along with those of 549 other Marines killed in the battle, were not identified or recovered for decades.

Nearly 75 years after his death, Carlsen finally returned home.

“When his name would come up at family parties, my grandmother always got very quiet, as Harry was her brother, and even years later it was still very painful,” said Ed Spellman, a great-nephew of Carlsen.

On the afternoon of Wed., Oct. 10, Spellman gathered with members of his family and veterans from the area at O’Hare International Airport to greet the arrival of Carlsen’s remains with a hero’s welcome.

His casket was accompanied by the Patriot Guard Riders as it traveled to a funeral home in Arlington Heights, where a wake will be held.

“We all would have preferred he had lived, but for our family, that was not one of the outcomes of the war,” Spellman said. “We all just kept hoping we would find him someday.”

The mission that eventually would unravel the mystery surrounding Carlsen’s remains did not begin until decades after the Marine was killed in action Nov. 20, 1943 — the first day of the Battle of Tarawa on the small island of Betio.

Carlsen was among the Marines and sailors who encountered formidable Japanese resistance as they attempted to secure the island over several days of intense fighting, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency website.

About 1,000 U.S. military personnel were killed and more than 2,000 were wounded during the three-day battle that left the Japanese “virtually annihilated,” officials said.

Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, more than 400,000 died. By the war’s end, 79,000 Americans who lost their lives were unaccounted for, officials said; more than 72,000 of them remain unaccounted for today.

Efforts to identify Carlsen after his death included a search of family records and letters written by his mother, Amalia Carlsen, to the U.S. government, questioning the whereabouts of her son’s remains and when they might be returned home, Spellman said.

“The government wrote back in a letter from 1947 that they were sorry, but they did not have them,” Spellman said.

In the wake of the Battle of Tarawa, U.S. service members who died in the fight were buried in a number of battlefield cemeteries on the island, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. During remains recovery operations in 1946 and 1947, Carlsen’s remains were among those that were not identified, agency officials said.

Even though the Marine’s dog tags were removed, his gravesite was ravaged and records were lost, the family learned that Carlsen’s unidentified remains were moved to a mausoleum in Hawaii in 1946 and reinterred in 1949 at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Hawaii’s Punchbowl in grave E1212.

Nearly six decades later, Carlsen’s niece, Nancy Spellman, who is Ed Spellman’s mother, was looking for a hobby to occupy her time after moving from Arlington Heights to Marco Island, Fla., upon her retirement, Ed Spellman said.

“We had bought her a computer, which she didn’t know how to use, but she figured it out,” he said. “She was troubled that we still knew nothing about what happened to her uncle’s remains, so she started to reach out to people online at military chat sites.”

Nancy Spellman was often frustrated as her efforts were stymied by what her son described as “bureaucratic red tape” as she sought answers from the U.S. government, Ed Spellman said.

But she was encouraged by three private researchers who confirmed that Carlsen’s remains were likely found among those in grave E1212. The family then found a supporter in U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski.

In 2009, the Democrat from Western Springs, Ill., called for renewed efforts to bring home the remains of the more than 500 U.S. service members who, like Carlsen, were killed in the Battle of Tarawa.

“I wanted the Department of Defense to do more about returning the remains of the servicemen killed in this battle, with the goal of returning 200 remains (from all branches of the military) every year,” Lipinski said.

When Lipinski heard from Carlsen’s family, he recalled, “They had private organizations that had done some great research, but unfortunately, the government agency in charge was having a lot of internal problems at the time.”

“It’s a shame it took so long, but I’m glad we were able to help this family finally have some closure after all of these years,” the congressman added.

Encouraged by Lipinski’s initiative in 2009 and his support in Congress, Nancy Spellman shipped a DNA sample to Quantico, Va., hopeful that government officials would act to exhume the remains.

“At that point, my mother was ill with cancer, and she told me she still hoped that someday, we would find him,” Ed Spellman said. “But when you’re dealing with a government agency, things happen painfully slow.”

Spellman said he rarely checks voicemail messages on the landline in his family home in St. Charles, so when he discovered an urgent message in July from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, he was flabbergasted.

“The call came out of the blue, and when I talked to them, they told me they had made a positive identification to my uncle with the DNA sample we had sent them,” Spellman said. “It pretty much knocked me over.”

While seven years have passed since his mother died in October 2011, Nancy Spellman’s quest to bring her uncle home finally neared a conclusion Wednesday when Carlsen’s remains made it to O’Hare.

As his casket arrived at an Arlington Heights funeral home, veterans from the area lined the road to salute Carlsen’s remains.

World War II veteran Woody Hughes, 93, who said he fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945, stood beneath a steady drizzle as he awaited Carlsen’s arrival.

“People say I’m a hero, but I tell them, ‘No, I’m not, because I survived,’” Hughes said. “Those who were killed like (Carlsen) and never made it off the island are the real heroes.”

Ed Spellman said the moment represented “a promise to my mother that I helped fulfill.”

“The government should try to do everything they can to bring these remains back home because it’s so important and meaningful for families like ours,” he said.


Pioneer Press is a Chicago Tribune publication


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