clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

73 years after he left home, a Marine returns to Blue Island

Marine Pfc. Charles Oetjen of Blue Island. Oetjen was killed in the Battle of Tarawa, one of more than 1,000 Marines and 4,500 Japanese troops who died in three days of combat in 1943. Oetjen's remains will be buried Friday in Alsip with full military honors, after a non-profit spent years searching the tiny atoll of Tarawa for the bodies of more than 500 American troops that were never recovered after the battle. | Provided photo

The phone call sounded like a scam intended to appeal to Ken Oetjen’s sense of patriotism and family. Was Oetjen, the caller asked, related to Charles Edward Oetjen, a Marine private from Blue Island who died in World War II?

Charles was indeed Ken Oetjen’s second cousin, though all he knew was that Charles was killed 10 years before Ken was born. Was Oetjen’s family interested in recovering his remains from Tarawa, a distant atoll in the Pacific Ocean? the caller asked.

It had taken dozens of investigators more than a decade to unearth Oejten. He was one of hundreds of U.S. troops, and thousands of Japanese, buried in mass graves scattered on Tarawa, a narrow spit of sand and coral covering a little more than two square miles.

Charles Oetjen’s remains will arrive at O’Hare International Airport on Friday, roughly 73 years after the 18-year-old left his home on Walnut Street for basic training. Burial with full military honors will take place at 10 a.m. Saturday at First Evangelical Lutheran Cemetery in Alsip.

“I tell you, it sounded like one of those things, where they ask you to send them money,” recalled Ken Oetjen, who knew little about his cousin; Charles Oetjen’s short life was seldom discussed at family gatherings.

“Maybe that’s why they never talked about it, because he’d never made it back. We never knew.”

A  team from the non-profit History Flight excavates the site of a mass grave holding the bodies of U.S. Marines killed in the 1943 Battle of Tarawa. | Provided photo
A team from the non-profit History Flight excavates the site of a mass grave holding the bodies of U.S. Marines killed in the 1943 Battle of Tarawa. | Provided photo

Ken Oetjen has learned a great deal about his cousin, and the Battle of Tarawa, in the 18 months since the call from History Flight investigator Paul Dostie. A retired police detective, Dostie had visited the island several times with his cadaver-sniffing dog.

For three days in November 1943, Tarawa was the site of some of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific Theater. More than 6,000 Japanese and American troops were killed on an atoll just 800 yards across at its widest point.

All Ken Oetjen could recall his father saying of his cousin was that he died in combat “and never made it out of the lagoon,” Ken Oetjen recalled. That description of Charles’ final moments could easily be true, said History Flight founder Mark Noah.

Marines on the beach at Tarawa take their position to attack the airport. | Sun-Times library
Marines on the beach at Tarawa take their position to attack the airport. | Sun-Times library

The landing at Tarawa was a bloodbath, and Oetjen’s unit was in the first wave. The Japanese had heavily fortified the island, and seasonal low tides meant the landing craft could not get past a reef surrounding the atoll. The Marines had to wade to the beach, up to half a mile, into withering machine-gun fire.

The massive casualties and tropical heat meant the fallen were buried in mass graves. Then, the rush to build an airstrip meant the locations of hundreds of Marines’ bodies were lost. Military officials ended the official search for remains in the 1950s.

History Flight has devoted more than a decade to the search, and maintains two offices on Tarawa, where concrete Japanese bunkers still line the beaches and residents regularly stumble across bones and unexploded ordinance, said Mark Noah, History Flight president.

For more than a decade, staff and volunteers for History Flight have tracked occasional discoveries, pored over old photos and accounts of the battle, and probed Tarawa with ground-penetrating radar and cadaver-sniffing dogs, trying to determine the location of grave sites.

Peace Corps volunteers on Tarawa Atoll in 2002 discovered the remains of a U.S. Marine while digging a hole for a lamppost. Such macabre discovers are common on the tiny island. | Provided
Peace Corps volunteers on Tarawa Atoll in 2002 discovered the remains of a U.S. Marine while digging a hole for a lamppost. Such macabre discovers are common on the tiny island. | Provided

Peace Corps volunteers digging a hole for a lamppost in 2002 found the body of a Marine, History Flight volunteers learned more than a decade later. It took two years to find that lamp post, when Dostie spotted a Facebook page run by Peace Corps alumni. In 2010, Dostie visited the atoll with his dog, which led him to the burial site. Soon after, ground-penetrating radar found irregularities in the soil.

Oetjen’s remains were the first identified among 43 Marines whose bodies had been laid in a trench and covered with sand. Oetjen was identified from his reconstructed dog tag and dental records.

Buried with him was Lt. Alexander “Sandy” Bonnyman, who received the Medal of Honor for leading a mission to bomb a Japanese bunker. A building and parking lot had been built over the burial site.

“Once we had Charles Oetjen, we knew we had found the 8th Marines, Cemetery No. 2,” Noah said.

It took another two years to fully exhume the bodies, Noah said, who said the effort took more than 40 staff and volunteers, and some $3 million. Hundreds more bodies remain scattered around the island, as well as several thousand Japanese soldiers and Korean forced laborers.

And who was Charles Oetjen? His family are learning only now.

Since that first phone call, Ken Oetjen has devoured History Channel documentaries. He and his sisters reached out to the Blue Island Historical Society, which had a box with farewell cards and a few short letters home from the lonesome young Marine. Yearbook photos from Blue Island High School, long ago renamed Eisenhower, show Charles played baseball and basketball.

Charles Oetjen dropped out of high school to enlist. After training in San Diego and New Zealand, the 18-year-old Oetjen and the rest of the 2nd Marine Division joined the assault on Tarawa. Based on his enlistment date, Tarawa might have been Charles Oetjen’s first time in combat, Ken Oetjen said.

“I think he was just a typical young kid who wanted to go out and fight to defend his country,” Ken Oetjen said. “I tell you, I have teared up a couple times since all this started. I’m sure I will again.”

For information about funeral services, contact Krueger Funeral Home at (708) 388-1300 or visit http://www.kruegerfuneral.com

Americans who died on Tarawa were buried hurriedly in shallow graves. | Sun-Times library
Americans who died on Tarawa were buried hurriedly in shallow graves. | Sun-Times library