When the casket is lowered into the very ground Dwight Ekstam died protecting, it will contain a Marine officer’s uniform and, beneath that, what was left of Ekstam’s body when it was dug from a far-away mountainside. 68 years later- Ekstam finally is coming home. The only way his family could be happier is if his little brother had lived to see it.
The Moline Marine, a 2nd lieutenant, was the co-pilot aboard a B-25 bomber the military acknowledges never should have been cleared for takeoff on April 22, 1944. The weather that night was not fit for flying. When the bomber vanished, the seven men aboard were believed to have perished at sea, rather than on the remote island in the South Pacific now known as Vanuatu. A month after the crash, an island native found a pistol that had been assigned to the B-25, and the first of several searches was launched.
But it took nearly 70 years for a team of excavators and forensic scientists, dropping into the dense jungle from ropes, to unearth the fallen men. The dig produced wedding bands, teeth, coins, dog tags and portions of the men’s skeletal remains. Two weeks ago, one of Ekstam’s first cousins, Bruce Peterson of Port Byron, got a phone call from the head of POW/MIA affairs for the Marine Corps, Hattie Johnson. It was the fifth of seven such family notifications on her list.
For Peterson, the news of the discovery and his cousin’s homecoming delivered a two-sided blow. He was thrilled, of course. But he wished he could share it. When Ekstam shipped out to serve in World War II, he was 22 years old, and his little brother, Dean, was 12. It was just the boys and their mother in those days, because their father already had passed. Peterson was a mere toddler then, but he came to know plenty about the Marine-cousin who was lost in the mountains. Dean Ekstam, who was more like a brother than a cousin to Peterson and his sister and brother, had spent much of his life looking for an end to his family’s war story.
“He made two trips to the island — in 1952 and again in 2000,” Peterson said Thursday. “He even made a memorial there, so that in itself speaks to how he felt. Shortly before he died in 2007, he found out the plane had been located, but they hadn’t started the recovery operation.
“He knew there was a possibility of remains being found, so he had a mouth swab for DNA.”
And that’s what the military needed to get their match.
For now, all of the Marines’ remains are in Hawaii, but they will be sent to each surviving family for proper burial. When the time comes, Ekstam’s remains will be accompanied home by a Marine of equal or greater rank. “It never dawned on me the military would be this benevolent,” Peterson said. “It’s not like they’re shipping home a package, saying, ‘Thanks for your service.’ They are doing what they have said they would do, which is to leave no one behind.”
The family is planning…