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