Robert Leroy Zehetner
|HOME OF RECORD
Route 1, Brooksville, FL
|NEXT OF KIN
Parents, Roy & Irene Zehetner
|DATE OF BIRTH
July 2, 1924
December 16, 1941
|DATE OF LOSS
November 20, 1943
|CAMPAIGN / AREA
Tarawa / Betio
Killed In Action
|CIRCUMSTANCES OF LOSS
PFC Robert Zehetner was killed in action on 20 November 1943, during the first day of the battle for Betio, Tarawa atoll. His remains were buried in Western Division Cemetery (also known as Cemetery 11).
In 2017, unknowns recovered from the Tarawa cemeteries were exhumed from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. PFC Zehetner’s remains were identified on 20 June 2018.
|LAST KNOWN RANK
Private First Class
|STATUS OF REMAINS
National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific
Robert Zehetner was born in Cottonwood, Minnesota on 2 July 1924. He spent his youth in Redwood Falls along with his parents, Roy and Irene Zehetner, and younger siblings Lois, Thomas, and Janan. At some point in the early 1930s, the family moved down to Pasco County, Florida to live with Robert’s grandfather, Fred Zehetner, and uncle Donald. Robert attended Pasco High School in Dade City, and was on track to graduate with the class of 1942.
The attack on Pearl Harbor occurred In the winter of Robert’s senior year. In less than ten days, he dropped out of school and – because he was only seventeen – convinced his parents to let him enlist in the Marine Corps. Robert spent Christmas of 1941 training with the 6th Recruit Battalion at Parris Island. His eagerness to enlist might have reflected a desire to get into combat, but if so, Robert would have to wait. After completing his boot training, he was assigned to duty with the Marine Barracks at Naval Operating Base, Key West. Standing guard at the base was hardly glamorous, but at least it wasn’t too far from home, and Robert might have been able to spend a few liberties with his family.
On 26 October 1942, Private Zehetner received orders assigning him to the 6th Replacement Battalion. A three-day cross-country journey brought him to Camp Elliott in San Diego, California, where the battalion was organized and readied for overseas deployment. When they departed the United States in late 1942, the replacements might have thought they were headed straight for the Solomon Islands, where the fight for Guadalcanal was still raging. However, their ultimate destination was Wellington, New Zealand. Most of the men in the battalion would be assigned to battle-reduced regiments of the 2nd Marine Division, taking the place of Marines killed, wounded, or felled by tropical diseases in the Solomons. Robert Zehetner was posted to Company F, Second Battalion, 8th Marines in February 1943, just days after that company returned from combat.
PFC Zehetner would spend the next eight months training and socializing with his new comrades in Fox Company. Few details of this period of his life are presently known. Training accelerated as the months went on, and by October the entire Second Marine Division was taking part in massive, complicated landing exercises. In late October, Zehetner’s battalion boarded the USS Heywood and departed from New Zealand. After a few days at sea they reached Efate, where final rehearsals were held, and then headed west to the Gilbert Islands.
On 20 November 1943, 2/8 was ordered to seize and hold a landing zone designated Red Beach 3 on the island of Betio, Tarawa atoll. Company F was in the assault, and would land from amphibious vehicles along the leftmost sector of the beach. The first tractors reached the shore at 0917, and while few casualties were suffered before the Marines gained the shore, tenacious Japanese defenders quickly pinned the battalion to the ground behind a sea wall. Shock and confusion combined with unbelievably intense fire to stop Fox Company in its tracks.
PFC Robert Zehetner was killed in action on Red Beach 3 at some point during the first day of the battle. Exactly how he met his fate is not known. He may have been shot as he jumped over the side of his tractor, hit by shrapnel as he took cover behind the seawall, or struck down while making a vain attempt to move forward. He might even have been killed while awaiting evacuation; his parents were originally told that Robert had been wounded, not killed. They would not learn the truth until March, 1944.
Robert was reported to be one of 36 men buried in what the Marines called the “West Division Cemetery,” a large shell hole near Red Beach 1 – some distance from where he came ashore. However, it now appears that this was another error, and instead he was buried in East Division Cemetery, a four-trench burial ground established near the airfield. The Navy later removed the original grave markers and placed memorial markers instead. Robert’s was located in Cemetery 11 – the Navy name for West Division Cemetery – at Plot 6, Row 3, Grave 3.
In 1946, the 604th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company arrived at Betio to excavate the Marine cemeteries. They started at Cemetery 33 (the former East Division Cemetery) and quickly discovered that the makers were all memorials – no bodies were buried beneath. Eventually they happened upon an actual burial trench of Cemetery 33 and began recovering remains. Few of these had any means of identification, however, and after three years in Betio’s sandy soil, no recognizable physical features remained. While few personal effects or legible dog tags were found, the remains themselves were in decent condition.
On 21 March 1946, the 604th excavated “Marine #135.” He had no belongings or other identifying features – though the dental technician did note some silver fillings in his teeth – and the skeleton, when found, was missing its feet. The dead man was reburied in the Lone Palm Cemetery as an unknown on 27 March 1946. When the 604th left the island, they had no clues about the identity of “#135” or the whereabouts of PFC Robert Zehetner. They had not been able to identify him among the remains found at Cemetery 11.
In 1948, the Lone Palm cemetery was itself exhumed, and all the remains shipped to the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii. “Marine #135” was redesignated as “Betio X-79” and in June of that year was examined by the noted anthropologist Dr. Mildred Trotter. “A short young man of average build and muscularity,” she wrote. “The skull is average in size and a lopsided, broad oval in outline.” Dr. Trotter commented at length about X-79’s unique skull in hopes that some clues to his identity might appear. Unfortunately, no further clues could be determined, and the all-important dental chart failed to match any on record. Robert Zehetner’s charts were probably pulled for comparison, but his dental files did not show any indication of silver fillings. Thus, on 22 March 1949, X-79 was buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. The stone in Section E, Grave 523 was marked “UNKNOWN.”