William E. Brandenburg

ACCOUNTED FOR

NAME
William Edward Brandenburg
NICKNAME
Billy
SERVICE NUMBER
500355
UNIT
Company A
First Battalion
2nd Marines
HOME OF RECORD
30 Miami Avenue
New Miami
Ohio
NEXT OF KIN
Mother, Mrs. Mattie Brandenburg
DATE OF BIRTH
January 3, 1924 (official records)
January 3, 1926 (family accounts)
ENTERED SERVICE
November 27, 1942
DATE OF LOSS
November 22, 1943
REGION
Gilbert Islands
CAMPAIGN / AREA
Tarawa / Betio
CASUALTY TYPE
Killed In Action
CIRCUMSTANCES OF LOSS
PFC William E. Brandenburg was killed in action on 22 November 1943, during the third day of the battle for Betio, Tarawa atoll. His remains were buried without identification, and in 1949 he was declared non-recoverable.

Brandenburg’s remains were exhumed from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, and officially identified on 25 September 2018.

INDIVIDUAL DECORATIONS
Purple Heart
LAST KNOWN RANK
Private First Class
STATUS OF REMAINS
Accounted For

DPAA Announcement
MEMORIALS
Honolulu Memorial

William Edward Brandenburg was born in Butler County, Ohio.[1] He was the eighth of ten children raised by Robert and Mattie Brandenburg, farmers in the village of New Miami, Ohio. William spent his entire childhood within the confines of Butler County; he enjoyed swimming, hunting, and sandlot baseball. He attended New Miami schools through the eighth grade, and left in 1941 after completing grammar school.

William was working on the family farm when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Most of the older siblings had left home, and the Brandenburg patriarch, Robert, was turning seventy-one. At sixteen, William was too young to serve, but old enough to help support his family. In early 1942, he got a job with the Mosler Safe Company in Hamilton, Ohio, and learned to operate a complicated straightening press in a matter of weeks. William’s weekly pay of $45 went a long way towards helping support the family – especially after tragedy struck in the summer. Robert Brandenburg fell under a loaded hay cart while working on a neighboring farm; crushed under the heavy wheels, he died on the evening of 29 July.[2]

By November, William had had enough of his straightening press. He quit Mosler and traveled down to Cincinnati to explore his options for enlistment. “He wanted to serve his country and that’s all he talked about,” said relative Patricia Moore. “He cried and begged his mother to sign and let him go in early.” The Marine Corps would take seventeen-year-olds with parental permission, so William collected a handful of forms from Captain Guy Beatty and went back to New Miami. On 27 November, armed with Mattie’s blessing, character references from respectable citizens – and, evidently, a doctored birth certificate that gave his age as eighteen – William was accepted into the United States Marine Corps and issued the service number 500355. Captain Beatty ordered Private Brandenburg and four other hopeful recruits aboard a train bound for Atlanta – the first stop on a journey to Parris Island.

William Brandenburg’s enlistment photo, 7 December 1942.

Two views of Brandenburg shortly after enlistment.

Boot camp lasted through the end of January, 1943. Brandenburg happily pinned on his eagle, globe and anchor emblem; his forest green uniform also bore the badges of a rifle marksman and qualification bars for grenades, submachine guns, and bayonet fighting. Shortly after graduation, he received orders to report to Company B, Second Separate Battalion, which was then training at New River, North Carolina. This unit soon transferred from chilly Jacksonville to sunny Oceanside, California – and Private Brandenburg had his first brush with military discipline. He went AWOL on 27 February and stayed away until 9 March; for this offense, he received the comparatively light sentence of five days on bread and water.

A few days after his release from the brig, Private Brandenburg was informed that the Second Separate Battalion was no more. Instead, he and all of his comrades were now members of the Second Battalion, 24th Marines. His company changed designations, too; from March to June, Brandenburg trained as a rifleman in Fox Company, 24th Marines. For some reason, he was transferred out of the unit and sent to the nearby infantry school at Camp Elliott. This may have been for additional specialized training; or, possibly, due to a few low “obedience” marks on his record. Regardless of reason, Brandenburg did well at Camp Elliott; he earned his PFC stripe by the end of his training.

While Brandenburg sweated at infantry school, his mother Mattie was appealing to the Commandant of the Marine Corps. “I am dropping you a few lines just to find out if I can get my son out of the Marines,” she wrote at the end of June.

My husband is dead and I have a small child to raise. And I have a farm and no one to help me…. I can’t afford to hire anybody because I can’t get money to pay them. And I need my Son Awfully bad. He could get a job in a Defense plant here and be helping in the war and at the same time be helping me out. And I can’t get my farming done without help.

Mattie was rather curtly reminded that, by signing William’s enlistment papers, she relinquished “all claim to his service, wages, or compensation.” Only William could request a discharge, she learned, and William, evidently, had no desire to be discharged.[3]

Ironically, the transfer out of his line unit meant a faster overseas deployment. On 2 August 1943, PFC Brandenburg was assigned to the 26th Replacement Battalion, a unit slated for duty with the Fleet Marine Force. Brandenburg spent about seven weeks Stateside with the replacement battalion. One hopes he managed to enjoy a few liberties in southern California – because once he sailed from San Diego, virtually the rest of his life would be spent aboard ships.

William Brandenburg’s long last voyage began on 21 September 1943 aboard the USS Mount Vernon bound for Noumea, New Caledonia. They arrived on 4 October, and after a day ashore, boarded the USS Tyron for transit to Wellington, New Zealand. Upon arrival (10 October) the 26th Replacement Battalion was disbanded, and the Marines dispersed among the units of the 2nd Marine Division. PFC Brandenburg landed in a rifle platoon of Company A, 2nd Marines – a veteran unit which had fought on Guadalcanal. He had barely a week to get used to his new surroundings before once again boarding a transport ship – the USS Harry Lee – which would ultimately carry him to combat.

100301010

Brandenburg and Company A would get to know the inside of the Lee intimately in the month that followed. They practiced abandon ship drills, amphibious landings, and everything in between. There were calisthenics and weapons cleaning and lectures and lines for chow. In their spare time, Marines could read or gamble or talk or just stare into space – anything they cared to do, as long as it was done on the ship. In early November they sailed for Efate for more training and rehearsals, and perhaps a brief spell ashore, though there was little to see or do. When they departed, and the objective was finally announced, they knew they were bound for action. William Brandenburg – like many others in his battalion – spent the last month of his life entirely aboard the Harry Lee.

“At dawn, or shortly thereafter, we assembled at our debarkation stations,” recalled William Rogal of A/1/2.

Within a short time we descended the cargo net into a waiting LCVP. A bit tight, but these boats will handle an entire 40-man platoon…. I am unsure as to how long we circled in the boat but estimate we arrived at the outer edge of the island’s reef at about ten o’clock. The assault wave had been ashore for less than one hour. The scene presented to us was discomforting to say the least. Good size caliber shells were hitting around us, and not all were missing….

Our battalion commander, Major Wood B. Kyle, pulled up to our side in the Battalion headquarters boat and directed, “Grab empty amtracs as they return from the beach and go to Red 2, they need help.”

One of the men, a kid we called “Hollywood” because that was his home town, stood up in the front of the compartment behind the port side .50-caliber machine gun. He wanted to see ahead to our landing beach. It was a fatal mistake. A 37- or 40-millimeter shell hit the ammo box of the machine gun, exploded, and almost decapitated “Hollywood.” The force of the explosion threw his body to the rear of the amtrac, showering everyone on the port side with blood and brains. WELCOME TO TARAWA![4]

127-gr-17-119-63578_001-ac_web version
Beach Red 2, Betio.

Somewhere nearby, William Brandenburg was experiencing his own welcome to the hell of Betio. He managed to survive the initial landing, and fought for at least two days and two nights before a bullet struck him in the abdomen on 22 November 1943. The young Marine from New Miami died shortly thereafter. He was one of 33 A/1/2 Marines killed in action on Betio; he had served with the company for just under six weeks.

127-gr-17-118-63510_001-ac
“First Marine Graveyard, 2nd Regiment” – PFC Brandenburg’s resting place.

Brandenburg was reportedly buried in Grave 112, Row C of the Central Division Cemetery on Betio; the spot was almost certainly marked by a rough cross or stick of wood bearing his name. Mattie Brandenburg must have pictured the scene countless times in her mind’s eye when she received the Western Union telegram and the small box containing a pair of slippers and a cross on a chain – the sum total of her son’s personal belongings.[5] When the war ended, she began watching the mail for a letter telling when she could have William’s body brought home. Instead, she received heartbreaking news in a form letter from the new Commandant, General Vandegrift:

Recently the American Graves Registration Service, under direction of the Quartermaster General of the U. S Army, has been disinterring the bodies of the dead buried in various isolated plots and reburying them in a centrally located cemetery preparatory to transporting the remains to a final resting place selected by the next of kin.

I regret extremely that I must inform you that the remains of your son were not found to be beneath the marker previously reported. Subsequent investigation has revealed that in some instances well-meaning persons had erected individual commemorative markers in memory of our heroic dead. Since the Graves Registration Service has been unable to locate the remains of Private First Class Brandenburg, it must be assumed that his body was among the unidentified dead and that the cross was erected in his honored memory rather than actually as a marker identifying the location of his grave.[6]

Mattie had little choice but to accept the decision. She died in 1968, little suspecting that her son’s case would be reopened fifty years later.

General Vandegrift was only half right. While the plot beneath the marker at Grave 2, Row 2, Cemetery 26 on Betio was indeed vacant, troops from the 604th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company had, in fact, located William Brandenburg’s remains.[7] He was found in a burial trench on the site of the old Central Division Cemetery, still wearing a pair of size 7.5 EE Marine Corps boondockers. The 604th, however, did not see William Brandenburg – they saw an unidentifiable mass of bones with no tags or personal effects bearing a name. Although they had copies of dental records for every Tarawa casualty, they were of no use: there were no teeth to examine. “Maxillary & mandibular arch has been shot off,” noted a dental technician on 26 March 1943. “No means of identification.”[8] There was not much else they could do, and so the remains were reinterred in Lone Palm Cemetery (Plot 1, Row 4, Grave 9) as “Unknown X-74.”

“X-74” was eventually exhumed again and sent to the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii for more professional analysis. Even these trained anthropologists were unable to make much headway: they depended on dental data and facial descriptions, and could divine neither from X-74. “Picture a short, rather slenderly built young man of 20-21 years of age,” they noted. “As there is no skull associated, there can be no description. Judging on the size of the shoe, this man had wide feet.”[9] This description might have been applied to any one of hundreds of unidentified Tarawa casualties. On 22 March 1949, X-74 was buried in Plot O, Grave 423 of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. William Brandenburg was declared permanently non-recoverable in October of that year.[10]

In October 2016, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency exhumed the remains of X-74 for identification. Using mtDNA analysis, anthropological analysis, and circumstantial evidence, they concluded that X-74 was William Edward Brandenburg. Official identification was announced on 25 September 2018.

The confirming DNA sample was provided by William’s last surviving sister, Mae Black. Sadly, she passed away in 2013.

Brandenburg will be buried in Hamilton, Ohio on 27 July 2019.


[1] William Edward Brandenburg, Official Military Personnel File. There is considerable confusion about Brandenburg’s exact date of birth; his birth certificate states January 4, 1924, while his enlistment records state January 3, and his classification card gives January 23. Family trees available online claim he was born in 1925, while current obituaries give his year of birth as 1926. It is entirely likely that Brandenburg falsified his date of birth in order to enlist.

Brandenburg’s birth certificate, included in his military file, indicates he was born in 1924.

[2] “Butler County Man Killed Under Wagon,” The Dayton Herald (Dayton, OH) 30 July 1942.
[3] Brandenburg OMPF.
[4] William W. Rogal, Guadalcanal, Tarawa And Beyond: A Mud Marine’s Memoir of the Pacific Island War (Jefferson: McFarland Publishing, 2014). “Hollywood” might have been PFC Jess Roy Harrison, Jr. of South Gate, CA, or PFC Roger Van Maidment of Anaheim, CA. (Maidment was killed by a gunshot wound in the head; he has not been accounted for.)
[5] Brandenburg OMPF
[6] Ibid.
[7] “Cemetery 26” was the Navy designation for the Marine “Central Division Cemetery.”
[8] Schofield Mausoleum #1, “X-74 Betio.” This suggests an obvious conflict with the report that Brandenburg died of abdominal wounds, and may be the result of some postmortem trauma.
[9] Ibid.
[10] William Edward Brandenburg, Individual Deceased Personnel File.

 

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