Michael Leo Salerno
|HOME OF RECORD
1901 Fuller Street, Philadelphia, PA
|NEXT OF KIN
Mother, Mrs. Mary Salerno
|DATE OF BIRTH
March 26, 1924
February 17, 1943
|DATE OF LOSS
November 20, 1943
|CAMPAIGN / AREA
Tarawa / Betio
Missing In Action / Declared Dead
|CIRCUMSTANCES OF LOSS
On 20 November 1943, the Third Battalion, 2nd Marines embarked in LVTs and landed on Red Beach One, a heavily defended strip of sand on the island of Betio, Tarawa atoll. PFC Michael Leo Salerno, a member of K/3/2, was initially reported as missing in action after the bloody assault, and later declared dead.Salerno’s remains were exhumed from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, and officially identified on 27 September 2018.
|LAST KNOWN RANK
Private First Class
|STATUS OF REMAINS
Michael Salerno was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on 26 March 1924. He was raised along with his siblings by John and Mary Salerno and attended local schools. As a young adult, he made a daily commute from his home at 1901 Fuller Street to a factory on the corner of G and Lycoming Streets, where he worked for the Jacquard Knitting Machine Company. And, like a good citizen, he registered for the draft when he turned eighteen.
The year was 1942 and, like the rest of the nation, Jacquard was on a wartime footing – so much so that its machinists and lathe operators were classified as war workers, and women were being hired not just for the steno pool, but in the machine shop itself. Although he was eighteen years old and well fit to serve, Salerno might have been given a temporary exemption from the draft due to the nature of his employment. However, the need for fighting men eventually outweighed the needs of the Jacquard factory, and Salerno was informed of his pending induction early in 1943. Rather than wait to be told where to go, he elected to join the Marine Corps and entered the service on 17 November 1943.
Private Salerno completed his boot training with the 6th Recruit Battalion at MCRD San Diego, and learned weapons and fieldcraft at the Infantry Battalion Training Center at nearby Camp Elliott, California. This training occupied the spring and summer of 1943. By early fall, Salerno earned a promotion to Private First Class, and was on his way across the Pacific with the 26th Replacement Battalion. He spent a brief time ashore at Noumea, New Caledonia before embarking aboard the USS Tyron for the final three-day leg to Wellington, New Zealand. On 10 October 1943, he officially became a member of the 2nd Marine Regiment, Second Marine Division.
Although initially assigned to the regiment’s headquarters company, PFC Salerno only spent two weeks in that capacity. He was one of a handful of replacement Marines assigned to the regiment’s Third Battalion, Company K on 25 October 1943. He had no time to acquaint himself with his new comrades: that very day, his battalion boarded the USS Arthur Middleton in preparation for a complex set of training maneuvers scheduled to take place within the next few days. On 1 November 1943, the ship departed for an unknown destination.
Salerno had been in New Zealand for only three weeks; he would spend almost three more aboard the Arthur Middleton, making whatever preparations he could in the cramped space of the transport’s crowded decks and troop compartments. The ship anchored at Efate for four days before setting a course for an island codenamed “HELEN.” PFC Salerno would have attended briefings about his battalion’s role in Operation GALVANIC, heard lectures about the enemy situation, listened to rumors about how the Navy would pulverize the tiny island before he even got ashore, and tried to pick up useful information from the Guadalcanal veterans in his platoon. None of it would be enough.
On 20 November 1943, 3/2 disembarked from the Arthur Middleton and climbed into amphibious landing vehicles that would carry them to their designated landing zone on Betio, Beach Red One. They started taking fire while still thousands of yards from their objective, and the men crouched in the open-topped vehicles had plenty of time to think about what lay in store as the ponderous LVTs beetled towards shore in “a slow, ponderous turtle race.” At 0910, the first of the vehicles ground ashore and the carnage began. By nightfall, scores of men from Company K alone were wounded, and forty-nine were killed or missing in action.
PFC Michael Salerno was one of those who disappeared during the day’s fighting. No eyewitnesses reported seeing him fall; those who did either failed to recognize the young replacement or quickly became casualties themselves. For a time, it was hoped that the missing men – Blanchette, Carbone, Cetrone, Johnson, Lukie, Madonia, Salerno, Stewart, and VanEngen – were only wounded and would eventually turn up at a hospital in the rear. These hopes proved to be in vain. PFC Robert C. Johnson’s remains were found buried in an isolated grave on Betio; PFCs Andrea J. Madonia, Robert V. Stewart and Louis J. VanEngen were identified among those remains recovered from the island after the war. The remaining men were deemed non-recoverable, and their cases were closed in 1949.
Unbeknownst to their families, the remains of Blanchette, Carbone, Lukie, and Salerno had been recovered after all. They were buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific as unknowns.
In January 2017, a DPAA team exhumed the remains of Tarawa Unknown X-267 from Plot E, Grave 219. According to the history in his case file, this unknown man was originally buried in Cemetery 11 after the battle. The 604th QMGRC examined his remains in May of 1946, but found no identifying materials and were unable to make a tooth chart. X-267 was reinterred in Lone Palm Cemetery Plot 4, Row 3, Grave 13 – one of the last burials on the island. The following February, X-267 arrived at the Central Identification Lab in Hawaii. The lead anthropologist, Dr. Mildred Trotter, determined he had been “a short young man 21-23 years old, of slender build and average muscularity.” However, the condition of the remains was such that her team could not do much more. X-267 was declared unidentifiable, and given a military burial in 1949.
On 27 September 2018, X-267 was finally identified as PFC Michael Leo Salerno. His sister, Jean Roman, remembered seeing Michael leave “early in the morning” on a day in February, 1943. “And that was it, we didn’t see him any more.” Seventy-five years later, she finally learned how her brother died: blast injuries that destroyed most of his body.
“He was just a kid,” Jean told reporters. “I’m proud of him, though – but I wish he was here.” (1)
Michael Leo Salerno will be buried in Saint Dominic Cemetery, Philadelphia,
in a family plot beside his parents
on 27 April 2019.
(1) Brian Holmes, “Idaho Life: No longer an unknown soldier,” KTVB (Boise, ID), last updated 15 November 2018.