Green Valley’s John Keker isn’t the only World War II veteran getting his dog tag back after losing it more than six decades ago. Two more have been returned and at least three more are on their way to owners or relatives thanks to the efforts of Shane Fender, a reservist with the Australian army who came across a box of tags last year while deployed in the Solomon Islands.
Keker was profiled in a June story in the Green Valley News after Fender tracked him down and returned his dog tag. From there, the story shot around the globe and several groups are lending a hand. As of Friday, Fender had returned a dog tag to the relatives of Edward Eugene Phemister, a soldier with the 1st Raider Battalion who was killed in action in Guam on July 26, 1944. He has also made contact with three more relatives of dog tag owners and is awaiting addresses so he can mail the tags to them.
Keker, 88, got his military dog tag back in February. He served in the Marines from 1942-45, and was stationed for part of that time in Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands northeast of Australia. “I am so glad my story is helping to get some more dog tags back home,” Keker said. “It’s too bad about the vets that are no longer with us, but I am sure their relatives will be happy to get them back.”
Fender said reading the story and seeing a photo of Keker with his dog tag and also a photo of Keker in his uniform at 17 brought him “great joy.” “Seeing and hearing this moment from John and his family is the sort of stuff money can’t buy,” Fender said. “Besides his war service, John sounds like a great guy with true communal spirit, and pretty dapper when he was young.”
The Associated Press picked up Keker’s story and it went viral on a journey that has brought a dozen or so emails to the Green Valley News from all over the world, including offers to help find the owners of the tags.
One of the go-getters in the search party is Bruce Burlingham, historian for the U.S. Marine Raider Association, a non-profit group whose mission is to preserve the history of World War II U.S. Marine Raiders and to advance education, including scholarships for native born children in the Solomon Islands. Fender contacted the Marine Raider Association in February. He gave Burlingham the names and any other information on the tags. Burlingham was able to identify six Marine Raiders, the units they served in, last known residence and some dates of death. That group included Keker, who was listed as a private first class in E Company with the 2nd Marine Raiders Battalion.
“I called (Keker) and told him that his dog tag had been recovered on Guadalcanal,” Burlingham said. “He remembered losing the dog tag and said he never thought he’d see it again.”
Burlingham said that after some research, he located Morris L. Phemister, a cousin of the late private first class Edward E. Phemister, who was also on Fender’s list. He called him in southern Illinois to arrange for the dog tag to be returned. “I receive many requests for help in identifying and locating Marine Corps veterans, both living and dead, for a variety of reasons,” Burlingham said. “Shane is one of three Australians who have contacted me in the last two years to request my assistance with returning dog tags found on Guadalcanal…