Remains of Heroic WWII Medic From Omaha Could Finally Return Home

Battle of Buna-Gona.
Battle of Buna-Gona.

There is a chance Nebraskan Hymie Epstein may arrive home over 70 years after he was killed during the Second World War in Papua New Guinea.

His body was quickly buried on the battlefield in December 1942 during brutal combat.

Following his death when only 22, the former swimming and football star at Omaha Technical School was lauded in his hometown, especially by the city’s Jewish populace.

He was a champion in their community, said Renee Corcoran, executive director of the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society.

Unfortunately, his family never had the opportunity to lay his remains to rest. Now they may have the opportunity.

Epstein and other soldiers killed in New Guinea were buried on the battlefield.  After the war, any remains that could be located were collected and interred in the Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines.

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency is currently disinterring caskets from 49 graves marked ‘Unknown’ from the cemetery and forwarding them to the agency’s laboratory located at Offutt Air Force Base.

All 49 graves hold the bodies of servicemen killed in the Battle of Buna-Gona, a two-month operation on New Guinea that killed almost 700 U.S. soldiers between the middle of November 1942 and mid-January of 1943.

Among the deceased were 16 from Nebraska and 43 from Iowa.  Including Epstein, 106 of those soldiers are still registered as ‘missing in action.’  Epstein is the sole Nebraskan.

As part of the identification procedure, DNA extracted will be tested against DNA samples obtained from the kin of at least 80 of the missing soldiers, including Epstein, explained Katie Skorpinski, the forensic anthropologist leading the investigation.  DNA is still being sourced from family members of those listed as missing.

Thus far, 38 sets of those remains have been taken to the Offutt lab for identification, with the newest arriving early in March. The remainder are expected to arrive in the next two months, said Aelwen Wetherby, a historian at Offutt working for the accounting agency who has examined the battle.

It is the second largest identification mission for the lab, which opened three years previously.

Epstein was one of approximately 11, 000 soldiers to participate in the battle for Buna, one of the first land conflicts of the Pacific War.

Epstein, born in Russia but raised in Omaha, is remembered by Kevee Kirshenbaum, 93, who still resides in Omaha.

They lived one block from each other.  We used to ride bikes together when they were nine or 10 years old, he said.

Epstein graduated in 1939 and joined the Army in 1941.

He trained as a medical assistant, and as such did not carry a weapon.  Epstein was attached to the 126th Infantry Division, one of the 32nd Division’s three regiments.

For weeks in New Guinea, the soldiers assaulted Japanese troops who were dug in at fortress-like bunkers fronted by marches.

They were poorly trained, poorly equipped amateurs, and they were combatting against battle-experienced veterans, explained 97-year-old Clarence Jungwirth of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, one of the remaining living veterans of the battle.

Some of the fiercest fightings occurred around a location called Huggins Roadblock. Epstein died while attempting to reach the isolated, 200-square-yard patch to stop the Japanese advance along one of the trails through the jungle.

Epstein died close to the Roadblock two weeks after the battle started, tending soldiers while under heavy fire.  He was the member of a team making a treacherous walk through the jungle to supply the beleaguered outpost.

Japanese snipers had stopped Epstein and his commander, Maj. Bert Zeeff, on the road, holding them down.  When a soldier shot through the neck 10 feet from them, Zeeff told Epstein he was not obligated to go because of the intense enemy fire.

He went anyway crawling to the soldier on his stomach.  After the man was treated and his wounds bandaged, Epstein quietly crept back to his foxhole.

He did the same for two other soldiers before an enemy bullet killed him.

Epstein’s unselfish acts gained attention after his commander related the story to Chicago Daily News correspondent, George Weller.

He had seen many men do things in the swamp that are unbelievable, he said. You never know which man is going to be an excellent soldier and who would not.  When they are handing medals around, mine can be given to Hymie Epstein.

When they left Burma there was a ceremony at the cemetery, Jungwirth remembers.  Out of 11,000 men, only 500 of them remained.

The division and its three regiments earned unit citations.  Two soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor, and dozens of others received the Distinguished Service Cross.

Epstein’s parents, Morris and Sarah, accepted a Silver Star and Purple Heart on behalf of their son in June 1943.

Members of the Omaha Jewish War Veterans post, named for Epstein but now disbanded, unsuccessfully sought to have his award elevated to a Medal of Honour in 1950, and again in the latter part of the 1970s, Omaha World-Herald reported.

He is very much a legend in their family, said Howie Halperin, 66, of Omaha, a second cousin. He was a great person.

Many months may pass before Epstein’s family knows if his remains are amongst those sent to Offutt.  Relatives said it would mean a great deal if an Omaha hero could return to Nebraska.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE