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A Marine comes home from the war after more than 70 years

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 29/03/2017 Mandy McLaren
The remains of Marine Pvt. Harry K. Tye are borne to his grave at Arlington National Cemetery on March 28, 2017. He died 74 years ago in the Battle of Tarawa, one of the bloodiest clashes between U.S. forces and Japan in World War II. © John McDonnell/The Washington Post The remains of Marine Pvt. Harry K. Tye are borne to his grave at Arlington National Cemetery on March 28, 2017. He died 74 years ago in the Battle of Tarawa, one of the bloodiest clashes between U.S. forces and Japan in World War II.

David Tincher never knew his great-uncle Harry Tye, but he had vivid memories of his grandmother gazing at the picture on her mantel of the big brother who never came home from the war.

“Every year at Christmas and his birthday, she would cry about him and say, ‘If they ever find him, bring him home and take him to Arlington. That’s where we want him to be.’ ”

More than 70 years after Marine Pvt. Harry K. Tye was killed in one of the bloodiest battles of World War II, Tincher on Tuesday honored his grandmother’s wishes and saw his uncle buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Tincher, 50, with his wife, Lori, and daughter, Morgan, the only members of the family able to make the journey, traveled from their home in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Under drizzling skies and barren trees, they watched as Tye received a funeral with full military honors.

Soldiers handed Tincher a folded American flag and, according to Marine custom, casings from the 21 rounds fired during the service.

And two of the nation’s top Marines, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly, both retired generals, helped honor the man Tincher knew only from family stories.

“I think my grandma would be unbelievably and eternally grateful for this,” said Tincher, who served for 14 years in the Air National Guard. “This was one of the things that really shaped her life, and the entire history of the family.”

Secretary Kelly attended the service because he feels a bond to Marines from all eras, said a spokesman from his office. “He also appreciates the dedicated effort underway by DoD and its partners to locate, identify and return to the U.S. those servicemen and women killed in overseas theaters. He repeated to me the slogan of the POW/MIA community — Never Forget — and said he’ll personally never forget them,” said David Lapan, acting deputy assistant secretary for the Department of Homeland Security’s office of public affairs.

The Battle of Tarawa, one of the most brutal waged in the Pacific theater, was fought in the Gilbert Islands around Thanksgiving of 1943.

It is believed to be the first amphibious landing in which U.S. forces encountered strong beachhead resistance from Japanese soldiers, and heavy losses built up on both sides.

But most families of killed or missing U.S. soldiers were not notified until weeks later — most, by telegram and most, such as Tye’s family, around Christmas.

The family lived in the small town of Gallagher in West Virginia. Family lore has it that Tye was a bit of a “hell-raiser,” Tincher said.

Marine Pvt. Harry K. Tye © History Flight Marine Pvt. Harry K. Tye

He was just 21 when he died, killed on the first day of the battle, Nov. 20, 1943, according to History Flight, a nonprofit group that works to recover the remains of missing military members.

Many of those who died in battle were buried on the beach where they had fallen. The military returned at the end of the war to reclaim the dead, but Tye was never found, and in 1949, a military review board declared his remains “unrecoverable.”

Tye’s father, Fred, refused to accept the news, Tincher said. Later, he would fight to bring his son home himself.

He first tried to join the military but was unable to do so. He then joined the Peace Corps, serving in Japan for three years and traveling throughout the southeast Pacific as often as possible in search of his son, Tincher said.

Fred Tye died in 1973.

Two years ago, Tincher and other family members received phone calls from History Flight saying that the group thought Tye’s remains had been located.

“We were all pretty shocked. We had kind of over the years given up hope,” said Tincher, who, along with other relatives, provided DNA samples to confirm the identification.

More than 82,000 service members remain missing, nearly 90 percent lost during World War II, according to the Defense Department. But Mark Noah, who founded History Flight 14 years ago, said time is running out to make those identifications.

Only 620,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II were alive in 2016, according to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs statistics, reducing the likelihood, as time progresses, of returning remains to family members who have any real knowledge of the missing service members.

“What’s important to realize is that a lot of families still don’t know that this is going on, that the mission still continues to bring their loved ones home,” said Jennifer Morrison, an electrical engineer and History Flight volunteer who helped find Tye’s living relatives.

For Tincher, Tuesday’s ceremony was far more emotional than he had expected. There was the presence of Mattis and Kelly.

“It shows the commitment the Marines have to their own,” Tincher said.

“It gives me hope that they can align with this administration to bring every American soldier home, whether they’re from World War II or Korea or Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan. It doesn’t matter,” he said. “They all should come home.”

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