Kenneth W. Likens



Kenneth William Likens
Company B
First Battalion
6th Marines
Mount Clemens, MI
Father, Mr. William Likens
October 30, 1923
at Sandwich, Ontario
December 14, 1942
at Detroit, MI
November 22, 1943
Gilbert Islands
Tarawa / Betio
Killed In Action

PFC Kenneth W. Likens served with Company B, 1/6th Marines, during the battle of Betio, Tarawa atoll. He was killed in action on the night of 22 November 1943, as his company fought to repel a Japanese banzai charge.

Likens was later buried in a mass grave designated “Row D” of the East Division Cemetery. This grave was rediscovered in March, 2019, and Likens’ remains were among the first exhumed for identification.

PFC Likens was officially accounted for on 31 May 2019.

Purple Heart
Private First Class
Accounted For

DPAA Announcement
Great Lakes National Cemetery
Honolulu Memorial

Kenneth William Likens was born in Sandwich, Ontario on the thirtieth of October 1923. He was the first child of William and Gladys Pipe Likens, a recently married couple making their home in Windsor. A second son, John, arrived in 1925, followed by Marjorie in 1927. William, a machinist by trade, secured a job working for Chrysler, and in May of 1932 the family of five moved across the river to Detroit, Michigan.

Shortly after settling in the United States, John Likens – known affectionately as Jack – complained of troubled breathing. In July, he underwent an operation for empyema, but his condition gradually worsened. On January 25, 1933, just three days after his eighth birthday, Jack Likens died of acute enterocolitis, exacerbated by months of suffering from his lung ailment.[1] The tragedy left a pall over the Likens home at 2243 Lillibridge Street, and a few years later they relocated to nearby Mount Clemens.

Kenneth might have grown up with his father’s stories of life in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. A veteran of the 123rd Pioneer Battalion, Royal Grenadiers, William had served as a sapper on the Western Front; his stories, if he chose to talk of his experiences, would have conjured up images of Arras, Vimy, and Passchendaele. As war clouds gathered again in Europe, and his native land was drawn into conflict with Germany, Kenneth might have considered joining the Royal Canadian Air Force.[2] He had just turned eighteen when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and the following summer registered for Selective Service.

Kenneth Likens’ Selective Service registration card, 1942.

Kenneth Likens upon reporting for active duty, 1943.

Ultimately, his registration would not be necessary. Kenneth volunteered for the Marine Corps Reserve on 14 December 1942 and was ordered to active duty on 11 January 1943. Following his boot training at MCRD San Diego, and advanced infantry school at Camp Elliott, California, Private Likens was assigned to the 13th Replacement Battalion, and sailed from the United States in the early summer of 1943. On the tenth of July, he arrived in New Zealand and reported for duty with Company B, 6th Marines.

For the next three months, Kenneth Likens trained hard with his new comrades of the 6th Marines. He learned fieldcraft from Guadalcanal veterans, practiced and perfected the use of firearms, and learned to stand up to any man, Marine or sailor, American or Kiwi, who dared make a crack about the “pogey bait Sixth.” October brought an increase in the intensity of amphibious training and culminated in the entire battalion boarding the USS Feland for landing exercises at Hawkes Bay. Then, one day, they sailed off over the horizon, leaving New Zealand behind for good.

After three weeks at sea, the Feland arrived at its destination: an expanse of ocean designated as the transport marshaling area for Operation GALVANIC. The objective – a tiny island codenamed HELEN – was hard to see, but the plumes of black smoke rising from its burning surface were impossible to miss. It was 20 November 1943, and the landing on Tarawa was clearly not going according to plan. For all of the Navy’s claims, the defenders had not been obliterated, and in fact seemed quite determined to defend the speck of land, barely large enough to support the airstrip that made it militarily important. Many in the 6th Marines were annoyed to find themselves, once again, latecomers to a fight.

An assault team, believed to be part of the 6th Marines, advances on Betio.

The last day of Kenneth Likens’ life was marked by activity and adrenaline, chaos and confusion, exhilaration and terror. His battalion was committed to the battle on the afternoon of D+1, and they paddled ashore in small rubber boats. It was just like training at Hawkes Bay – except for the barbed wire that snarled their oars, and the mines that threatened to blow them to pieces, and the screams of the LVT crew who died when their massive vehicle hit a mine and was flipped like a toy, and the Japanese aircraft who dropped live bombs on their positions that night. In the morning, they attacked with vicious vigor, pushing through the exhausted Japanese defenders’ position by position until early afternoon. The going gradually toughened as the Japanese, backed into a corner, determined to sell their lives as dearly as possible. Company B held the right flank anchored on the sea; as they worked their way through the fortifications along the Black Beaches, Marines began to drop from heat prostration, overexertion, and battle wounds. That night, the surviving Japanese mounted a banzai attack against Company B. They charged with bayonets, fired rifles and machine guns, and shot off their few remaining rounds of mortar ammunition. At some point during the fracas, a shell landed right in front of Kenneth Likens, and he fell.

“My son, PFC Kenneth Likens, on November 22 was reported killed in action,” wrote Gladys Likens in July of 1944. “He is buried on Betio of the Tarawa atoll. If he is dead, why haven’t I received his personal belongings? It is seven months since he was killed….”[3] This was the summer where the tide of war was noticeably turning. The Detroit papers were still excitedly reporting on the new Allied offensive in France; the 2nd Marine Division, heroes of Tarawa, were now fighting on another island called Saipan. Gladys, now a Gold Star mother, was concerned for her family. The loss of Kenneth was weighing heavily on William, and while the parents could accept that they would have to wait until the war ended to have his body, they still hoped for some physical mementoes.

As time dragged on, Gladys grew more frustrated. “We never received any of his personal belongings,” she stated in April of 1946. “They were listed as 1 dictionary, 1 envelope with coins and pictures, 1 pipe, 1 tooth and bridge, 1 band-watch, gold, 1 Testament, 1 spiritual almanac, 1 knife, 1 leather toilet kit…. We have never received or heard where these are but would like to have them.”[4] Her letter writing campaign was ultimately successful; that November, Kenneth’s belongings were located in a storage facility and forwarded to the family.

They faced a much larger problem, however. After multiple assurances that Kenneth’s body would be returned for burial, the Marine Corps informed the family that his remains could not be found. Gladys fired off another letter, her despair and disbelief pouring forth as she wrote.

You say all the bodies have been removed and you didn’t find his body.

I know mothers can’t believe it would happen to their boys, but I have always believed that he was alive and would come home some day. I believe it with all my heart. Is it possible that he has lost his memory or that he would swim to another island when the battle was on and [with] all that was happening he would lose his mind or memory[?]

Could you check the Marine Hospitals or send me the names and I will write.

He had a mark across his nose where it was cut when a boy, and a cut on the side of his hand between his little finger and wrist. Also he was hurt in the leg while playing football and it bothered him quite a while but seemed to be alright when he enlisted. He also had a slight sunstroke when he was around 16. It may have caused loss of memory.[5]

It was no use. Kenneth would not be coming home, and although Gladys kept hoping for news, she and William would go to their graves never knowing what became of their son. Marjorie grew up, married, and had a family of her own; she told her children stories of the “Uncle Kenneth” they never knew. It was Marjorie who eventually submitted a DNA sample in the hopes that it might be used to identify her brother, but she passed away in January of 2019 without knowing much more than her parents.

Two months later, Kenneth Likens was found.

He had been buried on Betio, just like the records said, in a long trench alongside some thirty other men who fell in the banzai attack or its aftermath. That location, termed “Row D” of the Central Division Cemetery (or Cemetery 33), was searched for after the war, but eluded the diggers of the 604th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company. Its exact location faded from memory and became one of Betio’s enduring mysteries.

Marines gathered for burial in a trench on Betio. USMC photo.

Almost 75 years after the battle, the non-profit organization History Flight began conducting excavations in the site of the former Cemetery 33. Their efforts finally led to the discovery of “Row D” and a long line of skeletal remains, still wrapped in their ponchos, wearing the rotted remains of leather boondockers. It so happened that Kenneth Likens’ remains were among the first exhumed, and the first to be identified. He was officially accounted for on 31 May 2019.

Kenneth Likens will be buried in Great Lakes National Cemetery on 25 October 2019.

[1] Michigan Death Records, 1867-1952, John A. Likens. A family account states that Jack died of pneumonia, which was likely the result of his chronic lung disease.

[2] This was a popular option for young men who wanted to get into the fight before the United States entered the war. Many later joined the American armed forces. There is no solid evidence that Kenneth considered this option, however.

[3] Gladys Likens, letter to Commandant, US Marine Corps (11 July 1944), Kenneth William Likens Official Military Personnel File.

[4] Gladys Likens, letter to Headquarters, US Marine Corps (15 April 1946), Kenneth William Likens Official Military Personnel File.

[5] Gladys Likens, letter to Captain Edwin C. Clarke, US Marine Corps (4 March 1947), Kenneth William Likens Official Military Personnel File.

One Reply to “Kenneth W. Likens”

  1. Great Lakes National Cemetery has the honor of interring WWII Marine Private Kenneth W. Likens, KIA, today, October 25, 2019, after full military honors are rendered and a service is held. Today, a grateful nation honors its commitment to leave no man or woman behind and “to care for those who have borne the battle.” Semper Fi Marine!

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