William Horace Blancheri
|HOME OF RECORD
4403 Tourmaline Street, Los Angeles, CA
|NEXT OF KIN
Father, Mr. Louis C. Blancheri
|DATE OF BIRTH
August 10, 1924
August 14, 1942
|DATE OF LOSS
November 20, 1943
|CAMPAIGN / AREA
Tarawa / Betio
Killed In Action
|CIRCUMSTANCES OF LOSS
Pharmacist’s Mate Second Class William H. “Bill” Blancheri, a corpsman attached to the Second Battalion, 2nd Marines, participated in the amphibious assault of Red Beach Two on Betio, Tarawa atoll. He was killed in action by shrapnel wounds, and buried on the island.
Blancheri’s remains were exhumed from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, and officially identified on 14 August 2018.
|LAST KNOWN RANK
Pharmacist’s Mate 2nd Class
|STATUS OF REMAINS
National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific
William Blancheri was born in Culver City, California, on 10 August 1924. Little information is available about his childhood; he grew up in the Rose Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles and attended Abraham Lincoln High School. The school’s yearbook from 1940 – Bill’s freshman year – shows him participating in music theory classes and in the school’s ROTC Company A.
However, the life of an Army officer was not in Bill’s future. Over the summer of 1942, he decided to join the Navy and enlisted on 14 August 1942, just a few days after his eighteenth birthday. He quickly passed through initial training, was appointed a Hospital Apprentice Second Class, and ordered to Camp Elliott for field medical school. Upon successful completion of this course, Blancheri was qualified for service with the Fleet Marine Force as a corpsman on the front lines.
In early 1943, Blancheri shipped out from California and headed west across the Pacific to New Zealand. There, he joined the Second Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment which was recuperating at McKay’s Crossing after the battle of Guadalcanal. The young corpsman still had a lot to learn about life in the field, but fortunately he could draw on the experience of combat veterans at the battalion aid station. Although he was technically a member of the headquarters company, Blancheri was probably attached to a platoon in one of 2/2’s four line companies for training and daily operations. These were the men with whom he would fight – and whose lives he might be called on to save. Needless to say, strong bonds usually developed between the infantrymen and the “Docs,” and Blancheri likely had forty men coming to him with their medical ailments. He responded well to his work, advancing rapidly to the petty officer’s rank of Pharmacist’s Mate, Third Class by the summer of 1943.
On the seventeenth of October 1943, Blancheri boarded the transport USS Zeilin for several days of amphibious landing practice. These would have been the biggest such exercises he ever witnessed, and it was clear that something important was in the offing. On the day they left Wellington – 1 November 1943 – the medical officers assembled their men and announced that seven men were being advanced in rank to Pharmacist’s Mate Second Class, Blancheri among them. There was little time for celebration. A rumor went around that they would be back in camp after a few days, but this turned out to be official misdirection: the Second Marine Division was heading for combat. After a few days delay at Efate in the New Hebrides, the convoy sailed off for an island Bill Blancheri had never heard of. Its codename was “HELEN.” Its real name was Betio.
On the morning of 20 November 1943, correspondent Richard Tregaskis circulated among the men of 2/2 as they prepared to climb over the side of the Zeilin and into the tracked amphibious vehicles that would carry them ashore. He spoke with Lieutenant Edwin J. Welte – “a crop-haired young Minnesotan who had finished medical school only about five years ago”– who was the battalion surgeon and Blancheri’s boss. “Nobody is trying to get out of fighting this battle,” Welte told Tregaskis. “Out of the whole battalion only eleven are in the ship’s sick bay.”(1) A few minutes later, the bombardment began, and 2/2 started down the nets.
Most corpsmen expected their first time under fire to be chaotic, violent, and if they could admit it, even scary. Few experienced as traumatic an introduction Blancheri and the other “Docs” of 2/2. Their landing zone, Red Beach 2, was heavily defended by determined Japanese fighters in strong fortifications. Shells and machine gun fire starting hitting the LVTs as soon as they crossed the reef; six of the first wave amphibians were destroyed on the way in. Lieutenant Welte was shot and killed before reaching shore. Seven corpsmen from 2/2 were wounded in action on 20 November, and three – Pharmacist’s Mates Second Class Joseph Bowman, Richard Hamar, and William Blancheri – were killed. (2)
Exactly where and how Bill Blancheri died is not known for certain. He was somewhere in the vicinity of the Red Beaches – part of his battalion missed their landing zone and wound up on Red Beach 1 – and was hit either by bullets (according to his battalion muster roll) or by multiple shell fragments (according to his Navy casualty card). He might have been one of the corpsmen Sherrod saw, who “casually, almost slowly, bore their poncho-covered cargo in streams along the beach.” (3) Or he might have been aboard an LVT like the one driven by PFC Don Crain, wiped out before it hit the beach, the men killed by small arms fire or by the explosions of shells nearby. Only one of the infantrymen in Crain’s LVT #41 made it ashore.(4)
Blancheri’s body lay on the beach for two days. On 22 November 1943, with the sound of firing echoing from a few hundred yards away, a burial squad collected the mortal remains of the nineteen-year-old corpsman and carried them to one of the cemeteries that were springing up near the scenes of the heaviest fighting. One was established just inland from Red Beach 2 (appropriately, the Marines called it the “Beach Red 2 Cemetery”), and it seems likely that Blancheri was brought here. He was wrapped in a poncho and laid in the cemetery’s first row – records differed as to whether he was in Grave 5 or Grave 11 – alongside twenty-eight other Marines and corpsmen. (5) By the time the gravediggers finished, there were at least 119 marked graves in the cemetery, laid out in three uneven rows.
Bill Blancheri was likely identified when he was buried this first time. However, any marker erected for him would not last long. The Navy troops that garrisoned Betio embarked on a well-meaning but misguided plan of “beautification,” taking down the mismatched markers and replacing them with uniform crosses in neat rows – which had no correlation to the bodies buried below. They also re-numbered the cemeteries; Red Beach 2 became “Cemetery 26.” When the 604th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company arrived to exhume the cemetery in 1946, they found five rows of markers, not three; when the bodies were finally found, their identification tags were missing or badly corroded, clothing and personal effects had rotted or rusted, and tooth charts rarely matched the skulls they found. This last problem was so prevalent that the 604th complained that “the Marines had traded identification tags for some reason unknown.”(6) Live ammunition, corroded grenades, and even a Japanese mine added to the stress. Only a handful of the remains exhumed from Cemetery 26 could be identified prior to re-burial in the Lone Palm consolidation cemetery. Bill Blancheri’s were not among them.
In 1948, Lone Palm was itself exhumed and all remains, identified or not, were sent for further examination at the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii. Anthropologists there had more success, and dozens of men were identified for return to their families. Again, however, Blancheri’s remains confounded the experts. In 1949, his case was declared closed, and his anonymous bones were buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.
On 16 December 2015, workers in Honolulu unearthed the casket buried in Plot O, Grave 280, and sent the remains of a man known only as “X-16” for laboratory analysis. His X-File was consulted: originally buried in Cemetery 26, reinterred in Lone Palm Cemetery in March, 1946, personal effects including shoes, a corroded fountain pen, and a pair of gold-rimmed glasses.
Nearly two more years would pass before mtDNA analysis, dental records, and comparison of chest x-rays confirmed the identity of Bill Blancheri. He was officially accounted for on 14 August 2018.
Pharmacist’s Mate Blancheri will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery on 3 June 2019.
(1) Richard Tregaskis, Tarawa: The Story Of A Battle (New York: Duell, Sloane & Pierce, 1944), 59.
(2) Lieutenant Welte was buried at sea from the USS Ormsby. Bowman and Hamar were both buried in Cemetery 33; Hamar was temporarily designated as X-119 but was identified by the 604th QMGRC in 1946.
(3) Tregaskis, 75.
(4) Durk Steed, “Battle of Tarawa: Don Crain in the First Marine LVT Assault,” Warfare History Network (19 February 2018), accessed 15 October 2018.
(5) Blancheri’s Navy casualty card originally recorded that he was buried in “[Grave] #11, Row A, Central Division Cemetery,” which was later called Cemetery 26. A period correction that strikes out this notation, replacing it with “Large grave 26, Plot 1, Row 1, Grave 5.”
(6) Captain Ira Eisensmith, “Memorandum to Chief, Memorial Branch, Quartermaster Section, Memorial Pacific, APO 958” (3 July 1946).