Constable: St. Charles great-nephew to see Marine get proper burial 75 years after war

 
 
Updated 10/6/2018 9:09 PM
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  • For years, Ed Spellman of St. Charles has been working to find his great-uncle, a Marine killed in World War II and buried as "Unknown X-82" in a military cemetery in Hawaii. This week, the remains of Sgt. Harry "Bud" Carlsen are coming home for burial in the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood.

      For years, Ed Spellman of St. Charles has been working to find his great-uncle, a Marine killed in World War II and buried as "Unknown X-82" in a military cemetery in Hawaii. This week, the remains of Sgt. Harry "Bud" Carlsen are coming home for burial in the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Even though his great-uncle Harry "Bud" Carlsen was killed during World War II, Ed Spellman grew up hearing his mother's stories about her uncle. Spellman, who lives in St. Charles, will be on hand this week when his great-uncle's remains arrive home for burial in the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood.

      Even though his great-uncle Harry "Bud" Carlsen was killed during World War II, Ed Spellman grew up hearing his mother's stories about her uncle. Spellman, who lives in St. Charles, will be on hand this week when his great-uncle's remains arrive home for burial in the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Reflected in a photograph of his great-uncle, Ed Spellman of St. Charles talks about the years of effort to identify the remains of Marine Sgt. Harry "Bud" Carlsen 75 years after he was killed during the Battle of Tarawa.

      Reflected in a photograph of his great-uncle, Ed Spellman of St. Charles talks about the years of effort to identify the remains of Marine Sgt. Harry "Bud" Carlsen 75 years after he was killed during the Battle of Tarawa. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • This Jan. 22, 2017, photo provided by the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific shows caretaker Kenneth Miner in Honolulu preparing to disinter the casket of an unknown serviceman killed in the Battle of Tarawa during World War II.

    This Jan. 22, 2017, photo provided by the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific shows caretaker Kenneth Miner in Honolulu preparing to disinter the casket of an unknown serviceman killed in the Battle of Tarawa during World War II. Associated Press

  • In this Jan. 22, 2017, photo provided by the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii, engineering equipment operator Richard Cabatic starts to excavate the grave of an unidentified serviceman killed in the 1943 Battle of Tarawa before cemetery caretakers step in to carefully remove dirt by hand.

    In this Jan. 22, 2017, photo provided by the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii, engineering equipment operator Richard Cabatic starts to excavate the grave of an unidentified serviceman killed in the 1943 Battle of Tarawa before cemetery caretakers step in to carefully remove dirt by hand. Associated Press

  • Marine Sgt. Harry "Bud" Carlsen

    Marine Sgt. Harry "Bud" Carlsen Courtesy of Carlsen family

  • In this Jan. 22, 2017, photo provided by the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii, members of a Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency joint service detail prepare to drape the casket of an unknown serviceman killed in the Battle of Tarawa, a 1943 battle that was one of World War II's bloodiest.

    In this Jan. 22, 2017, photo provided by the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii, members of a Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency joint service detail prepare to drape the casket of an unknown serviceman killed in the Battle of Tarawa, a 1943 battle that was one of World War II's bloodiest. Associated Press

Arriving the day before Christmas Eve in 1943, the telegram had typos and a misspelled last name, but the message was clear: "Deeply regret to inform you that you son Technical Sargent Harry A. Carlson USMC was killed in action."

Carlsen, 31, who had a given name of Horace, went by Harry and was called Bud by family and friends, was storming Japanese strongholds on the beach during the Battle of Tarawa on the tiny island of Betio in the Pacific Theater of World War II on Nov. 20, 1943, when he was shot in the head and killed. He was buried on the island with a promise that his remains would be returned home after the war. Instead, he spent most of the next 75 years as "Unknown X-82" buried in Section F Grave 1212 in The National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in the Punchbowl Crater in Honolulu, Hawaii.

On Wednesday, great-nephew Ed Spellman of St. Charles will be one of Carlsen's relatives traveling to O'Hare International Airport to welcome him home. Relatives will hold a visitation from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday at Glueckert Funeral Home, 1520 N. Arlington Heights Road in Arlington Heights, before a service and burial at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, south of Joliet.

In this photo taken shortly before his death, Marine Sgt. Harry A. "Bud" Carlsen, right, poses alongside a fellow Marine believed to be his best friend, Burr Wilton Robbins. Robbins wrote a letter to Carlsen's girlfriend explaining how Carlsen was killed while charging a Japanese machine gun nest.
In this photo taken shortly before his death, Marine Sgt. Harry A. "Bud" Carlsen, right, poses alongside a fellow Marine believed to be his best friend, Burr Wilton Robbins. Robbins wrote a letter to Carlsen's girlfriend explaining how Carlsen was killed while charging a Japanese machine gun nest. - Courtesy of Carlsen family

"I got the call out of the blue in July that he had been identified," says Spellman, 58, who has been making phone calls, writing letters and attending meetings for years. His mother, Nancy, who lived in Arlington Heights, donated DNA in 2008 in an attempt to identify her uncle's remains, but she died in 2012 before a positive identification was made.

"He was like a big brother to her. She was very fond of him," says Spellman, who grew up in Arlington Heights. "We talked as she was dying, and I felt a responsibility to follow up. There are a lot of families out there that don't know this is possible."

Carlsen's great-niece, Jane Carlsen-Goodman Hilmer, shares Spellman's passion for finding out everything they can about her long-dead great-uncle and will travel from her home in Montana to be here for this week's events.

"I've been accumulating so much information that is heartwarming," Hilmer says, noting that she found out a week ago on her 67th birthday that her uncle's best friend and fellow Marine, Burr Wilton Robbins, gave his son the middle name of Carlsen.

After his mother, Nancy, died in 2012, Ed Spellman of St. Charles took over her quest to find her uncle, Harry "Bud" Carlsen, who was killed on a tiny island in the Pacific during World War II. He has all of Carlsen's documents and even his letters home.
  After his mother, Nancy, died in 2012, Ed Spellman of St. Charles took over her quest to find her uncle, Harry "Bud" Carlsen, who was killed on a tiny island in the Pacific during World War II. He has all of Carlsen's documents and even his letters home. - Rick West | Staff Photographer

Spellman opens an extensive scrapbook that features the death telegram, photographs, documents and a half-dozen letters Carlsen mailed back to his parents in Brookfield during the war -- including his final letter, dated Sept. 13, 1943.

"I thought I might be back in the States for this next Xmas but I guess it is no soap," Carlsen wrote. "Maybe I'll make the next one."

Carlsen, an auto mechanic with no children, moved to California after his divorce and joined the Marines 12 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. "I don't care about being back," he wrote his parents in his final letter. "But I would like to see you and Dad once more anyway."

Hilmer says she takes comfort in letters from Carlsen's fellow Marines, noting that everyone liked him and shared their grief.

"He climbed out of a tractor in which he had come ashore. While he was rushing a Japanese machine gun emplacement, the enemy fire killed him instantly," reads a letter from his battalion's chaplain.

"He was only a few yards to my left at the time, and only a few minutes before, had waved to me and smiled," reads a letter from Robbins. "'Swede' died like a true Marine, bravely and fighting …(His death) has hurt many people. More than you can ever imagine, and it is just one of those things that we must all lock up in our hearts and forget."

Harry "Bud" Carlsen's last letter home to his parents before he was killed during the Battle of Tarawa in 1943.
  Harry "Bud" Carlsen's last letter home to his parents before he was killed during the Battle of Tarawa in 1943. - Rick West | Staff Photographer

One of 1,143 American Marines and sailors killed along with 5,000 Japanese during the three-day assault, Carlsen was buried by his friends near where he died, in cemetery 33, row 3, grave 31, with a promise that his remains would be reburied in the United States after the war.

But his name was lost when he was reburied elsewhere on the island and he was given the moniker "Unknown X-82" when he eventually was buried in Hawaii, says Rick Stone, a former police chief who served on the POW/MIA Accounting Command in charge of identifying dead soldiers and conducted his own investigations through the Chief Rick Stone & Family Charitable Foundation when he became dissatisfied with the government's work.

Killed during an assault on the Japanese-occupied island Betio during World War II, Marine Sgt. Harry "Bud" Carlsen was classified as "unknown" and buried in a military cemetery in Hawaii. His remains were identified in July and are being flown back to Chicago this week.
Killed during an assault on the Japanese-occupied island Betio during World War II, Marine Sgt. Harry "Bud" Carlsen was classified as "unknown" and buried in a military cemetery in Hawaii. His remains were identified in July and are being flown back to Chicago this week. - Courtesy of Rick Stone

Spellman, who has three children with his wife, Vicki, says his father fought in World War II, his great-grandfather served in World War I, and his great-great grandfather fought for the Union during the Civil War. Spellman credits Stone; William L. Niven, who wrote a book titled "Tarawa's Gravediggers"; and Mark Noah, who founded a Florida-based not-for-profit called History Flight, for working to find and identify military people killed overseas.

Being able to lay his mother's uncle to rest will bring Spellman some comfort and the end to an emotional journey.

"I sensed there was a lot of pain there," says Spellman, who tears up as he reads through his great-uncle's last letter home. "This is tremendously satisfying."

Constable: 'Swede' died like a true Marine, comrade's letter read

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