Marine pallbearers in dress blues carried Pfc. Charles Oetjen to the grave Saturday, ending a journey spanning more than 10,000 miles and seven decades.
In 1943, Oetjen left his hometown of Blue Island as a 17-year-old Marine recruit and was killed in what was likely his first taste of combat, the brutal landing on the tiny atoll of Tarawa in the South Pacific a few months later.
Oetjen’s remains and those of nearly 40 of other Marines killed in the Battle of Tarawa were unearthed from a shallow mass grave last year.
On Saturday, he was reburied beside his parents under the shade of a towering arbor vitae bush at First Evangelical Lutheran Cemetery in Alsip.
“He is home with his parents,” said Ken Oetjen, a second cousin who was one of a dozen relatives who attended the funeral Saturday. “This is where he belongs.”
Dozens of others who attended the funeral had heard of Charles Oetjen only from newspaper stories about the saga of his return.
Allan Stevo lives a block from the house on Walnut Street where Charles Oetjen grew up. Saturday, he stood beside Anthony Zemaitis, a 31-year-old former Marine who went to the same high school as Charles Oetjen. Air Force veteran John Bure left his home in Lake Forest at 7 a.m. to make the trip to Alsip after reading about Oetjen.
The tiny atoll became the grave of 6,000 troops killed in just 76 hours of combat — more than 1,000 Americans and nearly 6,000 Japanese. With thousands of corpses strewn across an island barely 800 meters across at its widest point, military leaders hurriedly buried Oetjen and his fellow Marines in ditches, hoping to abate the clouds of flies that covered the battlefields.
Bulldozers carved shallow trenches. The Marines wrapped their dead in their rain ponchos and laid the bodies down to be covered with sand.
In the rush to fortify the Tarawa to continue the advance through the Pacific, the locations of the buried bodies were covered over or inaccurately recorded. Oetjen was among 500 other American dead considered unrecoverable when the military gave up the search in the 1950s.
Paul Schwimmer, a land surveyor and former Green Beret, has traveled to Tarawa a dozen times with History Flight, a non-profit devoted to locating the remains of American military dead overseas. The Ann Arbor resident had made the 30-hour flight and drive to Tarawa soon after a decade-long investigation led History Flight to the spot where Oetjen had been laid beside nearly 40 other Marines.
“We made a promise to these kids,” said Schwimmer, who admitted he talks to the soldiers’ remains as he does the delicate work of identifying the bodies. “We tell ’em we’re going to bring them home.”
Schwimmer lingered at the cemetery Saturday, one of only a handful who watched as cemetery workers lowered Oetjen’s casket. Nodding toward the grave, Schwimmer observed: “That’s American soil.”