Marine Killed in WWII Returned Home for Burial

Corporal Raymond A. Barker died fighting with the US Marine Corps in World War II but his body has only recently been discovered and identified. He was buried with full military honors at Spring Grove Cemetery in Delavan, Wisconsin, on Saturday, 5th May 2018.

On November 20, 1943, the US attacked the Japanese forces on Betio, an island in the Tarawa Atoll of the Gilbert Islands. Around 1,000 US Marines and sailors were killed and over 2,000 were wounded during the three-day battle. Barker was one of the fatalities, dying on the first day of fighting at the age of 22.

For decades, authorities classified Barker’s body as “nonrecoverable.” Last year, however, the Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) utilized “advanced investigative techniques” to find places on Tarawa that they believed had been used to bury fallen US troops. It is the DPAA’s responsibility to account for fallen troops to their families and to the government.

John Gibbus, Barker’s nephew, said that the DPAA found some bones and used DNA samples from living family members to positively identify the remains.

Marines alongside an LVT-1 “Alligator”
Marines alongside an LVT-1 “Alligator”

A second Marine was also discovered at Tarawa and returned to the US for burial on Saturday. Marine Corps Sergeant David Quinn was buried in Temple, New Hampshire, also with full military honors.

A group of Marines was on hand when Barker’s casket arrived in Wisconsin. They saluted his casket before carrying it and placing it in a hearse. A group of onlookers gathered, waving American flags and saluting Barker as he was taken through the streets of his hometown.

The governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, ordered flags flown at half-mast in honor of Barker and his service.

Barker served in the 2nd Tank Battalion of the 2nd Marine Division. He was buried next to his parents. Previously, a gold star had marked his place in the cemetery while he was listed as missing in action.

A Marine fires on a Japanese pillbox.
A Marine fires on a Japanese pillbox.

The Battle of Tarawa was one of the bloodiest in World War II. The US suffered nearly as many casualties in three days of fighting there as they suffered in six months of fighting at Guadalcanal Island.

The Gilbert Islands were considered important to the US commanders as they were the first in a string of “stepping stone”s that would allow the military to cross the Pacific on the way to Japan. Operation Galvanic was thus launched in November 1943 with the intention of capturing key points on the islands.

The Japanese had heavily fortified the Tarawa Atoll, including the island of Betio. Though Betio is only two miles long and half a mile wide, it contained 100 pillbox bunkers, seawalls, an elaborate trench system, coastal guns, antiaircraft guns, heavy and light machine guns, and light tanks. The natural reefs of Betio’s beaches were augmented with barbed wire and mines. The island was further defended by over 4,500 Japanese troops.

Empty helmets and spent artillery shells mark the graves of Marines who fell at Tarawa, March 1944.
Empty helmets and spent artillery shells mark the graves of Marines who fell at Tarawa, March 1944.

The US strategy for conquering Betio required precision timing but that timing was thrown off almost from the very beginning. Heavy turbulence slowed the boarding of the landing vessels by the Marines. An air attack scheduled to occur before the invasion began was delayed, throwing the rest of the timing off. The landing vessels were forced to wait, exposed to enemy fire, until the air raid occurred.

On top of everything else, the tide was lower than expected that morning. The troop transports made it onto the island, but the boats with the heavier equipment got jammed on the coral reefs. Marines had to abandon their boats and wade through the chest-high water while being shot at by the Japanese. Many died in the water. Those who got to shore were exhausted and many of them were wounded, without any means of communicating with the supporting forces. And things got worse when the abandoned craft and dead bodies hampered the landing of reinforcements.

By the end of the day, 5,000 managed to land on Betio, but another 1,500 had died in the process.