of Marines brings families relief
Kentuckians part of quest to find bodies on island
By SARA SHIPLEY, The Courier-Journal
Giesin never met his namesake uncle.
Hugh "Max" Thomason of Bowling Green, Ky., has
compiled four thick albums about the life of his half-brother,
Clyde Thomason. "I thought the odds were against the site
(where the body was buried) ever being found," he said.
By JIM ROSHAN,
to The Courier-Journal
He only knew that Bill Gallagher could swim like a fish, and his
mother told him to throw his shoulders back and walk with pride so
that someday he, too, could be a Marine.
Likewise, Hugh "Max" Thomason barely knew his older half-brother,
Clyde, who joined the Marines when Max was still a boy. But his
mother saved snapshots of Clyde with a jaunty smile, and she
catalogued his letters from the front.
The two servicemen died in combat on a Pacific atoll in August
1942 during World War II. For nearly 60 years, their bodies lay
hidden under the sand on Makin Island, now known as Butaritari,
along with 17 other members of the Marine Raiders, an experimental
corps of guerrilla-style fighters.
But in the largest single recovery of military remains by the
U.S. government, the bodies of the two men are coming home, thanks
to a military forensics laboratory in Hawaii, DNA testing, a dogged
anthropologist and the remarkable memory of an old native islander.
It is an astonishing ending to the story about one of America's most
unusual fighting forces and the clumsy but successful raid that
brought America one of its first strategic victories over Japan.
Bill Gallagher and Clyde Thomason will be buried in Arlington
National Cemetery in August.
"This is a lifetime dream," said Giesin, 57, who lives in
Louisville. "If a person is willing to go and die for the country,
the least we can do is bring them back."
"All the families, I'm sure, are relieved, gratified, grateful
that the search was done," said Hugh Thomason, 79, who lives in
Bowling Green. "It closes a chapter."
THE MARINE RAIDERS have a place in World War II folklore.
Formed when Allied forces were desperate for a foothold, the Raiders
were the first American commando outfit.
The unit was heavily influenced by the unorthodox tactics of Maj.
Evans F. Carlson, who had observed Communist Chinese fighting
forces. Promising his recruits pain and glory, Carlson focused
training on hand-to-hand fighting and physical conditioning.
He favored consensus over chain of command. His troops' battle
cry was "Gung ho!" -- Chinese for "work together."
Carlson personally headed the battalion that attacked Makin
Island, one of the Gilbert Islands. Second in command was Maj. James
Roosevelt, son of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The raid on the Japanese-held island was intended to divert enemy
activity from Guadalcanal, where U.S. forces had landed 10 days
earlier. Arriving off the shore of the 60-mile-long island before
dawn Aug. 17, 1942, the Marines awkwardly inflated rubber boats that
had been carried in their submarines' torpedo chambers and slogged
ashore through heavy seas.
The target, a Japanese garrison, was empty. Then a rifle
discharged accidentally, unleashing a volley of return fire from
Within the first hour, the beach was littered with bodies. Some
83 Japanese died during the two-day raid. The official Marine count
would be 18 dead, 12 missing, although that number was disputed.
One of the survivors, Brian J. Quirk, wrote Giesin that his uncle
had died quickly. "He was killed right in front of me as we were all
blazing away at a machine gun nest," Quirk wrote in a 1991 letter.
"He rose to get a better position to see and fire . . . that's when
he was killed instantly."
Thomason, a sergeant who was leading the advance of the assault,
was shot as he burst into a hut where an enemy sniper was hiding.
His actions won him a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor, the
highest honor given for bravery in battle. It was the first awarded
to an enlisted Marine in World War II.
The Americans dodged Japanese fighter plane fire and sank two
enemy boats that landed in the lagoon. But as the Marines tried to
withdraw that evening, things worsened. Rubber boats piled high with
wounded men overturned in the surf, taking weapons and medical
supplies to the sea bed.
In a moment of desperation, Carlson tried to surrender to a
Japanese patrol, only to have his men accidentally shoot the
messenger. He thought hundreds of Japanese remained on the island,
while only a handful were actually left.
Eventually, about half of the remaining Raiders made it back to
the waiting subs on their own. The rest were picked up in a
rendezvous the next day.
Five Raiders who paddled back to shore to rescue the stranded
soldiers ended up missing. It is believed they were captured and
later beheaded, along with four other Raider prisoners, by Japanese
forces as part of a holiday festival. Their remains have never been
Carlson arranged with some natives to bury the dead. The mass
grave would be their resting place for 57 years. After a military
team searched the island in 1948 for the bodies and turned up
nothing, the soldiers were listed as "unrecoverable."
"I was a doubter," Hugh Thomason said. "I thought the odds were
against the site ever being found."
YEARS PASSED before the Marine Raiders Association -- a
tight-knit group of aging Raiders and their relatives -- persuaded
the government to try again.
The government enlisted the services of the U.S. Army Central
Identification Laboratory, a high-tech forensics lab in Hawaii
originally created to track down those missing and killed in action
"It's a one-of-a-kind laboratory in the world," said Col. David
Pagano, its commander. "We are the only nation in the world that
brings our fallen comrades home, identifies them and returns them to
be interred in America. Every one of those lives are important to
Investigators visited the island three times in 1998 and 1999.
Initial interviews with islanders did not turn up the site. Remote
sensing equipment found bits of metal, but no graves.
Then anthropologist Brad Sturm met again with an old islander,
Bureimoa Tokarei, who said he had helped bury the Marines when he
was 16. Sturm had him imagine what the area looked like years ago,
using an old road system as a template.
"We finally found an old road intersection, that wasn't really
visible unless you knew it was there," Sturm said. "He put a pin
flag about 10 feet away from where we finally found them."
Digging trenches by hand with the help of islanders, the
forensics team unearthed 20 skeletons, along with dog tags, helmets
and live grenades. Nineteen bodies were Marines, and one was a
A military color guard accompanied the remains when they were
brought back to the lab in Hawaii for identification.
The bones were assembled, numbered and characterized by race,
age, height. Forensic dentists matched teeth with dental records. In
four cases, DNA samples from the person's maternal relatives were
used to make an exact match. The process took about a year, said
Robert Mann, the senior lab manager.
The lab put together a thick book of documentary evidence for
each family. Hugh Thomason, sitting in his living room recently,
paged through pictures of his brother's remains. The complete
skeleton was laid out for a photograph, like a formal pose.
"This is Clyde," he said. "Look at his teeth. They're still
THE FAMILIES of the dead have spent hours similarly
assembling the memories of their loved ones. Thomason and his wife,
Jean, spent two months compiling four thick albums about Clyde's
A history buff and retired political science professor, Thomason
became the family curator of Clyde's legacy. The bronze Medal of
Honor rests in his living room in a box with its original pale blue
ribbon. On the fireplace mantle sits the silver mesh-encased
champagne bottle that in 1943 christened a Navy destroyer, the
U.S.S. Thomason, named after his brother.
"It's probably fair to say I really didn't know him, or at least,
I didn't know him the way I do now after reading all his letters and
putting all this together," said Thomason, who spent nine years on
active duty in the Marines himself. "It made me regret even more his
loss. He was such a promising young man -- smart, full of fun,
Giesin had heard tales of his uncle's heroism since he was a boy
growing up in Michigan. He and his mother would stay up late at
night watching and re-watching the 1943 movie "Gung Ho," which
depicted the raid.
"He was supposed to have been a great athlete, into swimming,
football, very shy," Giesin said. "My mother always told me to throw
my shoulders back, walk proud, to show respect for the kind of man
Giesin later joined the Marines himself, serving in a reserve
unit, partly out of admiration for his uncle. But his interest in
the subject waxed and waned over the years as he married, moved to
Louisville and built a career as a state social services employee.
Then in 1989, someone handed him a book called "The Corps: A Call to
Arms," a semi-fictional account of the Makin Island battle.
Wanting to put the ghost of his uncle to rest, Giesin began
trying to find out more about the raid. Ultimately, he met other
Marine Raiders who were pushing to have the remains recovered.
Giesin wrote letters to Congress and provided the forensics lab with
bits of information to help. He even found a contact for the native
islander who later nearly pinpointed the grave site.
GIESIN HAS copies of articles from magazines in the 1940s
and '50s about Carlson's Raiders. Spent bullet casings and vials of
sand from Makin Island sit on his kitchen table.
He is fascinated by the Raiders, whom he considers to have
demonstrated the ultimate courage. "The uniforms they wore were dyed
black. This is strictly James Bond stuff back in the '40s. They
wanted to blend in with the night," Giesin said.
Both Giesin and Thomason and their families plan to attend the
official funeral in August as their relatives are laid to rest at
"I feel like we have a bond with these other people who died
there," Giesin said. "I feel like we owe them something, really."