Marine Corps Pfc. James O. Whitehurst, of Ashford, Alabama, was 20 when he was killed on the island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands during a battle with the Japanese in World War II.
He was a member of Company E, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division. They were trying to take the small island from the Japanese and met a strong defensive effort from the enemy. Around 1,000 Marines and sailors were killed, and over 2,000 more were injured during the fighting which nearly wiped out the entire Japanese defensive force. Whitehurst was killed on the first day of the fighting, November 20, 1943.
Even with heavy casualties, the victory in Tarawa was a huge success for the US Navy Pacific Fleet. Having access to the Gilbert Islands gave the US Navy a base to further their Central Pacific Campaign against Japan.
Immediately following the battle, fallen US soldiers were buried in several cemeteries on the island. In 1946 and 1947, recovery operations were undertaken on Betio by the 604th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company. Whitehurst’s remains were not among those recovered.
In June 2015, History Flight, Inc., a non-government organization, alerted the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) to a gravesite they had discovered on Betio Island. They believed there to be 35 US Marines buried in the cemetery. The remains were turned over to the DPAA in July 2015.
The DPAA used dental and anthropological evidence to identify Whitehurst’s remains. They also used circumstantial and material evidence.
DPAA expressed their appreciation to History Flight, Inc. and the partnership they share in recovering fallen US servicemen around the world.
Whitehurst’s remains were returned to his family for burial with full military honors. He was buried on April 12th in Cowarts, Alabama, Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency reported.
16 million Americans served in WWII. Over 400,000 of them died during the war. There are still 73,070 unaccounted for from WWII.