CHICAGO (MCT) — In September 1943, Tech. Sgt. Harry Arnold Carlsen wrote a letter to his mother and ailing father in suburban Chicago. The Marine told his parents he wouldn't be home for Christmas but was hopeful he'd visit them the next year.
"I would like to see you and dad once more," he wrote.
Carlsen still hasn't made it home.
About two months after writing to his parents for the final time, the 31-year-old died in a battle with Japanese forces on a Pacific atoll called Tarawa, part of the present-day nation of Kiribati. In west suburban Brookfield, where Carlsen grew up, the news arrived in a grim telegram sent two days before Christmas.
Carlsen is among tens of thousands of Americans who fought in World War II whose remains have never been identified. At Tarawa alone, where more than 1,100 U.S. troops died, upward of 500 service members were never found. Another 90 or so sets of remains still haven't been identified.
But a historian who once worked for the Department of Defense said Carlsen is a "most likely" match for a body cataloged decades ago as "Schofield Mausoleum No. 1: X-82" and buried as an unknown in a Hawaii military cemetery.
"I'd bet my house, your house and every house down the block that it is Tech. Sgt. Carlsen," said the historian, Rick Stone, a former chief of police in Wichita, Kan.
Carlsen's grand-nephew, Ed Spellman, has pushed without success to have the government exhume X-82's grave and test the DNA against a sample submitted by the Marine's family. He has been discouraged as bureaucrat after bureaucrat politely noted his request without seeming to act on it.
Other families of missing Chicago-area Marines share similar frustrations, which are echoed in a scathing report released in July by the Government Accountability Office. The internal watchdog agency said identification efforts "continue to be thwarted by organizational fragmentation and discord" within the Defense Department.
Now just weeks from the 70th anniversary of the Tarawa invasion, the American called X-82 remains in a Honolulu cemetery beneath a slab of granite etched with the word "UNKNOWN." There are no imminent plans to disinter him. ___ Just days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Harry Carlsen, known simply as "Bud" to his family, walked into a recruiting station in Los Angeles and joined the Marine Corps Reserve. He was quickly assigned to active duty.
Carlsen was a lot older than many of the men he served with and died alongside. Just a few months shy of his 32nd birthday, Carlsen had already married, divorced and worked 15 years as an auto mechanic before U.S. forces swooped in on Tarawa.
Barb Rapp, a niece who said Carlsen was "like an older brother," remembers riding around the Brookfield area in Uncle Bud's car.
"It had this rumble seat where you'd have to climb into the back," recalled Rapp, now 85 and living in Palatine.
Higher-ranking Marines attested to Carlsen's technical know-how in a series of complimentary evaluations, according to his military records. By the time U.S. forces were preparing to invade Tarawa, Carlsen was working on the amphibious tractors, or amtracs, that would be used as troops moved onto the atoll. Tarawa was significant to the war because of its airstrip and the thousands of Japanese troops entrenched there.
On Nov. 20, 1943, Carlsen was fatally shot in the head as U.S. forces stormed the atoll. In addition to the 1,100 or so Americans who died in the battle, more than 3,000 Japanese lost their lives.
Eerie post-battle photos show bodies lining sandy beaches. Cleanup was a daunting process for the survivors. With sanitation concerns making speed important, burial records were imperfect.
Back in Illinois, Carlsen's mother was assured in letters and telegrams from the Marines that her son's body had been buried on Tarawa and would be returned home when the war ended.
Bodies recovered from Tarawa after the war were sent to Hawaii and examined in hopes of being identified. Officials there recorded hair color and approximate height, weight and ages of the men. Any identification tags or uniform parts that suggested a rank were also noted.
For years, it seemed that most of the Marines killed on Tarawa would remain unidentified. But recent advancements in DNA testing made identifying them more realistic.
The Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command is one of the federal agencies charged with finding and identifying Americans killed in past conflicts. JPAC is based in Hawaii, about 11 miles from where X-82 and other Tarawa unknowns are buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. Lee Tucker, a spokesman for the agency, said officials are working hard to identify the Tarawa Marines and Americans from other conflicts, but he declined to discuss specific cases because "we don't want to potentially raise false hope from family members."
JPAC frequently dispatches teams to far-flung battlefields to look for missing Americans, often from World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. Agency officials say they are doing the best they can amid challenges from technology, complicated search locations, foreign governments, finite resources and the passage of decades.
Johnie Webb, JPAC's deputy to the commander for external relations and legislative affairs, said Tarawa has proven especially challenging. A 2012 mission eventually yielded the identification of a Marine from Indiana, but Webb said the recovery teams are fighting geography and time, as shifting terrain and rapid urbanization have limited dig sites.
"The island has changed," Webb said. "The shoreline is not today as it was back in World War II. Trying to orient the exact locations of those burials has become very difficult."
But critics, including some within the federal government, say the military's efforts to identify its dead have been hampered by internal turf wars, contempt for new technology and simple stubbornness. The title of the government report published in July summarizes the grievances: "Top-Level Leadership
Needed to Resolve Longstanding Challenges in Accounting for Missing Persons from Past Conflicts." In 2009, Rep. Dan Lipinski, who represents parts of Chicago's South Side and southwest suburbs in Congress, added an amendment to legislation encouraging officials to "undertake all feasible efforts to recover, identify and return" the missing from Tarawa. Four years later, Lipinski said he's seen improvements but that more needs to be done.
"I'm just hopeful that things at JPAC get cleared up because this is an extremely important obligation that U.S. armed forces have," said Lipinski, a Democrat. "They make it a priority to say that they leave nobody behind and are always going to continue to search for those who didn't make it home."
(c)2013 Chicago Tribune Distributed by MCT Information Services