After 77 years, Pfc. Louis Wiesehan, Jr., has finally returned home.
Wiesehan, 20, was a member of Company F, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division. He was among the cadre of Marines charged with securing the small, but heavily fortified, island of Betio in the Tarawa atoll on Nov. 20, 1943.
The Battle of Tarawa was part of Operation Galvanic, the U.S. invasion of the Gilbert Islands in the Pacific Theater of World War II. Now known as one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific during World War II, the Battle of Tarawa left roughly 1,000 Marines and Sailors dead and more than 2,000 wounded.
“There’s a quote from the commander in charge of defending Tarawa that goes, ‘A million men cannot take Tarawa in 100 years,’” said Col. Kirk Mullins, program manager for Advanced Amphibious Assault at Program Executive Officer Land Systems. “The Marines did it in 76 hours. It’s hard for us today to put what transpired over those three days into context — the difficulty of trying to win the battle in an area where hundreds of your fellow Marines lay dead. ”
Wiesehan was killed on the second day of the three-day battle. His remains — among others — were hastily buried amidst the fog of war in a division cemetery on Betio Island.
After the war, the Defense Department tasked the U.S. Army 604th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company with recovering American bodies and investigating Missing in Action personnel in the Pacific. In 1946, they centralized all American remains found on Tarawa at Lone Palm Cemetery for later repatriation.
Despite this, about half of the known casualties, including Wiesehan, were not found.
In October 1949, a Board of Review declared Wiesehan as “nonrecoverable.” Wiesehan’s family became one of many families who never saw their loved ones returned home.
Or, so they thought.
Body identified in 2019
The Defense Prisoner of War/MIA Accounting Agency’s mission is to provide the fullest possible accounting of missing U.S. military personnel to their families and the nation. History Flight is one of the many organizations working alongside DPAA to research, recover and repatriate America’s service members. They routinely send out emails and social media posts providing their followers with updates on their latest efforts and service member recoveries.
In late 2019, one such update caught the eye of Mullins, a fellow Indiana native.
“As I was scrolling through [my Facebook newsfeed], I received a notification [from History Flight] about a Marine they positively identified,” said Mullins. “As I started reading the post, I discovered that the Marine was from Richmond, Indiana, my hometown. I immediately turned to my wife and said, ‘I’m going home for his service, whenever it’s happening.’”
Wiesehan was discovered by History Flight alongside more than dozens of “nonrecoverable” Marines at a lost burial site — dubbed Cemetery 27 — on Tarawa in 2014. In 2015, History Flight turned the excavated remains over to DPAA, who then used extensive anthropological analysis to identify the service members. Wiesehan was finally identified and accounted for in September 2019.
Like Wiesehan, Mullins grew up in Richmond. Mullins describes it as a small, blue-collar town that is incredibly patriotic, with Midwestern values and a large contingent of veterans.
Mullins reached out to one of his former Amtracker colleagues, retired Sgt. Maj. Justin LeHew, who currently serves as chief operating officer at History Flight. Mullins knew that, as COO, LeHew could provide additional information on Wiesehan’s homecoming and service.
“Initially, I was just going to pay my respects and honor Pfc. Wiesehan, just as a fellow Richmond Marine,” said Mullins. “Justin communicates frequently with the Casualty branch of headquarters Marine Corps. The next thing I know, I’m getting contacted by them asking me if I want to be the presenting officer.”
Finally laid to rest
Wiesehan’s homecoming was a three-day affair. On Sept. 17, Wiesehan’s remains were transferred from Hawaii to Indianapolis, Ind. Marines then oversaw the transfer of his body from the Indianapolis airport to Richmond.
State and local police, along with numerous veterans’ organizations, accompanied Wiesehan’s hearse on the 86-mile journey to Richmond. American flags and supporters lined the streets of the small towns Wiesehan passed on his final journey.
Wiesehan was honored the next day, on National POW/MIA Recognition Day, at a small ceremony at the Wayne County Veterans Memorial Park. On Sept. 19, Wiesehan was finally laid to rest at the Goshen cemetery, with full Marine Corps funeral honors.
As the presenting officer, Mullins received the flag after it was appropriately folded by Marines during the ceremony. Mullins gave the folded American flag to Wiesehan’s oldest living relative.
“My role was very small,” recalled Mullins. “But for me personally, it was a significant opportunity to honor and participate, and be the one presenting the flag to the family. For so long, because Pfc. Wiesehan was deemed ‘unrecoverable,’ getting the opportunity to bring someone’s son or brother home seemed hopeless. So the significance of finally being able to do what seemed like the impossible after 77 years is an incredible accomplishment.”
LeHew said honoring a fallen Marine nearly eight decades later is part of the Marine Corps’ mission and purpose.
“During the Pacific island-hopping campaigns in World War II, things were moving so fast that they couldn’t bring everyone home — that they had to bury their fellow Marines on the island,” said LeHew.
“Part of what makes Marines different is how we never surrender. And when we have a mission, we accomplish that mission and bring everyone home as much as possible. Being a Marine is part of who I am, and that doesn’t stop when we [retire]. Bringing these Marines home is just part of the next mission.”
There are still more than 70,000 service members unaccounted for from World War II. To learn more about Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, please visit https://www.dpaa.mil/.