WWII hero’s remains return to home soil

By Scott Cooper
Staff Writer

For almost 59 years, the Castle family let a brother rest in a foreign grave.

Book excerpt

"As he drew abreast of the enemy position, Castle hit the deck and crawled to within 30 yards of the (machine) gun. The enemy crew discovered him and opened fire, hitting him several times. With the rest of us providing such supporting fire as we could, Castle crawled and dragged himself on toward the enemy, firing his Thompson submachine gun as he advanced. He struggled close enough to the enemy to throw a grenade, killing the gunner and two of the crewmen. The rest of us shot two riflemen near the gun. By the time (PFC Floyd) Bigelow got to Castle, he was dead ... in the bravest act that I witnessed in all of WWII."

— Excerpt from "Bless' Em All: The Raider Marines of World War II," by U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. Oscar Peatross, 1st lieutenant of the Makin Raid

But on Friday, the remains of World War II hero Vernon Castle came home.

Part of a legendary Marine raid on a tiny south Pacific island, Castle was buried Friday alongside 12 of his fellow Marines in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Castle was a native of Jet, and his relatives, some of whom still live in Alfalfa County, were on hand to say a final goodbye to their big brother.

“I wasn’t sure if this was the right thing to do,” Elmo Castle said before the burial. “We considered burying him in Jet. Then we found out that all 13 (soldiers) would be buried there (Arlington). We thought, ‘He’s been with them all this time; leave him with them.’”

Vernon Castle was a bugler in Company B 2nd Marines Raiders Battalion. He was trained later as a gunner.

Vernon Castle became part of a legend.

Castle’s company raided Butaritari, part of the Makin Atoll in the South Pacific about 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii, on Aug. 17, 1942. It would become known as the Makin Raid.

Storming the beach in rubber boats launched from two submarines, the offensive was successful, but many soldiers were killed or were unaccounted for when the companies returned to the subs. Vernon Castle was among the casualties.

The Castle family was notified by the U.S. Navy that he had been killed in action but his body had not been recovered.

A few days before the raid, Vernon Castle wrote a letter to his family and friends that was published in the Jet newspaper.

“I will certainly be glad to get back to solid Oklahoma soil and read a lot of Jet (news) papers,” he wrote. “I hope everyone is fine and realize the situation at hand and help take care of it.”

Vernon’s brothers Elmo, Richard and L.E. and sisters Vivian Yoder and Charlene Bathurst attended the ceremony on Friday.

“We didn’t know they would bring them back,” said Richard Castle, who was 3 years old when Vernon Castle was killed. “It’s a pleasant thing.”

Richard Castle and his brothers still live in the Jet area, running the 80-year-old family farm.

After the war, the military tried to find the Marines’ remains but declared them “nonrecoverable.”

But the U.S. Marine Raider Association continued to press government officials to keep looking.

“They (veterans and families) were instrumental in getting the government back to that site,” said retired Air Force Col. Larry Greer with the MIA/POW office at the Department of Defense. “If not for them, this would not have been possible.”

The Army’s Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii looked for the remains in May 1999, but again found nothing. However, a few months later, investigators found an island native who as a boy had helped bury the soldiers. He led investigators to the remains of 19 Marines.

Castle’s dog tags were among the remains.

“We were somewhat shocked to find what we did,” said Johnnie Webb, deputy director of the laboratory. “The rifles were still there. Radios were in there and grenades.”

After months identifying the bodies, laboratory officials notified the families that their loved ones’ remains would be returned and buried.

Six families chose private burials. Remains of the other 13 men were laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.

The raid is renowned in the Marine Corps.

Commanded by Lt. Col. Evans Carlson, the battalion arrived on Butaritari just before dawn. The mission was to destroy enemy forces and vital installations, capture prisoners and documents and withdraw. The idea was to divert Japanese attention from the fighting at Guadalcanal.

An accidentally discharged rifle soon after landing spoiled the element of surprise, but the battalion still achieved its mission. However, many soldiers were killed.

In a 1995 letter to Vernon Castle’s family, fellow Raider Ben Carson told of Castle’s heroics.

“Vernon had the distinction of being one of the few trained buglers to serve in the Raiders,” Carson said. He said Castle’s commander “told me personally that Vernon’s action that ultimately cost his life was one of the bravest actions he observed in his three decades of military service.”