Corpsman Up from Cemetery 27

On June 2, the DPAA announced the latest identification of a serviceman lost in action on Tarawa. Pharmacist’s Mate Howard Pascal Brisbane of New Orleans, Louisiana was about 22 years old when he lost his life. He was buried in a long trench with an estimated 39 other men, most of whom were from his own regiment, the 8th Marines.

I’ve recently been reading Tarawa’s Gravediggers by William L. Niven, a landmark book that’s finally back in print. If you have even a passing interest in the situation regarding recovery cases on Betio this is a must read. Niven was among the first (if indeed not the first) of the independent researchers to comb through the burial lists, IDPFs, reports from the 604th AGRS, photographs, and a host of other documentation (when such existed; he is also responsible for highlighting the many official gaps that exist) to create an accurate account of which men were buried where.

The story of Cemetery 27 – or the 8th Marines Cemetery, Cemetery #3, Division Cemetery #3 or Central Division Cemetery #3, depending on what record one consults – is a microcosm of the problematic nature of Betio burials.When the 604th AGRS team arrived in 1946, they found that “Cemetery 27” was a small plot dominated by a 1o-foot-high cross and a beautifully inscribed gold leaf plaque with the names of those ostensibly buried in the cemetery. As one might gather from the name, the majority of the men buried there belonged to the 8th Marines; according to Niven, of the 24 individuals identified by name, 22 belonged to that regiment. (The two others, 1Lt. Alexander Bonnyman and PFC Edward Nalazek, were from 2/18th Marines.) No individual markers were found.

This was not the first such gravesite encountered by the 604th. They had previously excavated similar sites (Cemeteries 10, 13, and 20) and discovered remains buried directly below similar crosses. However, they found nothing at Cemetery 27 – no remains, no debris, nothing to suggest that a single human being, let alone forty combat troops, had ever been buried in the area. After spending several days digging to a depth of seven feet and investigating other likely areas, the 604th abandoned their efforts “in view of the negative results of the searches, it was felt that this was only a memorial site and there was no further value in continuing to search in that area.” This turned out to be the case.

Why a memorial site? Where were the men from the 8th Marines?

During and immediately after the battle, Marines were often buried where they fell. Eventually, 33 “isolated cemeteries” (one to six burials and eight larger cemeteries (13 to 153 burials) dotted the tiny island. It appears that at some point during Betio’s long occupation by the US Navy, certain powers-that-be grew decided that some “beautification and reconstruction” was needed to bring order to the cemeteries and clear the way for construction projects. The old grave markers were taken up, replaced by beautifully painted and lettered white crosses laid out with military precision in a single cemetery. Other larger crosses dotted the landscape, marking some mass grave, and conveniently out of the way of any buildings, roads, or facilities the Navy needed to construct.

Sounds like a worthy project, on the surface – because that’s as far as it went. Only the grave markers were moved. The remains were left where they were buried.

This effectively erased the identities of hundreds of men.

Niven takes pains to point out that the 604th did the best work they could, given the information and resources they had available. Altogether, they found 514 discrete sets of remains – mostly Marines, but also some Navy, Army Air Corps, and even Japanese or Korean troops – and had them reburied in Lone Palm Cemetery, taking care to identify as many of them as possible. However, the forty men of the 8th Marines Cemetery eluded them, as did many others.

In his book, Niven postulated that the original location of the 8th Marines Cemetery was in the small swath of territory they managed to capture along Red Beach 3 in the first two days of the fighting. The dead, most of whom were killed shortly after landing on 20 November 1943, were buried as quickly as possible for sanitary and morale reasons as much as anything else. Due to the ongoing battle and the nature of the battle-scarred terrain, the beach area became one of the few places accessible to vehicular traffic. In this case, the needs of the living outweighed the needs of the dead. “I can imagine the horror of those witnessing the destruction of the cemetery they had just created,” writes Niven, “and their desire to rescue as many of the gravesites as they could.” Being unable to remove their already-buried comrades, the Marines may have moved the grave markers inland themselves, establishing a second site after the battle ended. Then, those markers were taken up during the “beautification and reconstruction” project, to be replaced with the large cross. Thus, the grave markers were moved twice – the remains were never moved at all.

According to Niven, the original burial trench contained the following individuals.

1. Unknown 21. Unknown
2. Pvt. Fred E. Freet 22. Unknown
3. Pvt. Palmer S. Haraldson 23. Sgt. Sidney A. Cook
4. Unknown 24. Unknown
5. Pvt. Frank F. Penna 25. Pvt. John F. Lally, Jr.
6. Pvt. Charles E. Oetjen 26. Unknown
7. Pvt. James B. Johnson 27. Pvt. John Saini
8. Unknown 28. Pvt. Robert D. Geddes
9. PFC George H. Traver 29. Unknown
10. PFC Elmer L. Mathies, Jr. 30. Unknown
11. PFC Anthony Brozyna 31. Pvt. Roland E. Schaede
12. Unknown 32. Unknown
13. Pvt. Harry K. Tye 33. Unknown
14. PhM3c Howard P. Brisbane 34. PFC Edward A. Nalazek
15. Unknown 35. Unknown
16. Unknown 36. Pvt. Richard M. Stewart
17. 1Lt. Alexander Bonnyman 37. Pvt. William E. Rambo
18. PFC Ronald W. Vosmer 38. Pvt. Warren G. Nelson
19. Unknown 39. PFC Paul D. Gilman
20. Pvt. John F. Prince 40. 2Lt. George L. Bussa

Some of these names should look familiar from the news. Haraldson, Oetjen, Johnson, Mathies, Broznya, Tye, Brisbane, Bonnyman, Prince, Saini and Schaede have all been accounted for in the past few months. And a few of the unknowns have had their identities returned to them: Pvt. Robert G. Carter, Cpl. Roger K. Neilson, Cpl. James D. Otto, PFC James P. Reilly and, most recently, PFC James F. Mansfield. This is thanks to History Flight’s discovery of the original 8th Marines Cemetery in 2015.

We look forward to welcoming Howard Brisbane home.

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