74 years after WWII death, Marine’s remains come home for burial
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At 75, Jerilyn Ann Heise is looking forward to being close to her father for the first time.
Second Lt. George S. Bussa’s remains, buried for decades under the sand and soil of a tiny Pacific island after he died there in World War II, are to be interred Tuesday at Arlington National Cemetery.
The WWII-era Marine from Chicago’s North Side never met his daughter. She was about 14 months old when he was killed at 29 in the Battle of Tarawa in November 1943.
“It’s quite a feeling,” said Heise, who lives in Minden, Nevada. “It’s quite an honor that I’m about to do this. And I hope there’s more and more of the families that their loved ones didn’t come home, that were buried there on Tarawa, to bring them home. But, you know, 75 years later, not a lot of relatives are still around.”
Lt. Bussa’s remains were discovered in the summer of 2016, after History Flight — a non-profit dedicated to finding bodies of American soldiers — located a Marine burial site on Betio, one of the Gilbert Islands and the location of the Battle of Tarawa, named for a nearby atoll.
In the same vicinity, researchers also found the remains of 1st Lt. Alexander “Sandy” Bonnyman, Jr., who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his ferocious fighting in the battle.
Lt. Bussa’s remains were transported to a lab in Hawaii, and he was identified through mitochondrial DNA, which is traced via the maternal line, said Army Sgt. 1st Class Kristen Duus of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
Scientists from that agency and the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System used DNA from a saliva sample provided by Robert Zalesky of Round Lake Beach. He’s the 68-year-son of Lt. Bussa’s sister, Evelyn.
“I just wish my mom would have still been here” to see his return, said Zalesky.
His mother — who died in 2009 — was about 18 when her brother was killed.
Lt. Bussa was the son of Clara and Andrew Bussa, a varnish mixer at a factory. They lived at 1801 W. North Ave. Relatives believe young George attended St. Stanislaus Kostka grade school. The Bussas had three other sons in the service — Andrew Jr., Harry and William — who all made it home safely from the war.
George Bussa’s first cousin Joe Patt, 83, was about 8 when he died. Patt, a Northwest Sider, still remembers the gold star banner displayed in the Bussas’ front window — a symbol showing they’d lost a family member in the war.
The repatriation of Lt. Bussa’s remains is bringing some closure, Patt said, because “I was young then. They didn’t say too much to a kid. It was a different world in those days.”
Lt. Bussa was posthumously awarded a silver star for his service at the Battle of Guadalcanal, where, after his commanding officer was evacuated due to illness, “he assumed command of a platoon and wiped out three machine-gun nests,” according to a 1943 edition of the Los Angeles Times.
At the Battle of Tarawa, which lasted several days, 1,000 marines and sailors were killed and another 2,000 were wounded. Mr. Bussa died the first day.
The battle was a “huge victory” for the Americans because controlling Betio helped the Pacific fleet mount assaults on the Marshall and Caroline Islands, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
Heise’s mother Helen had met and married Lt. Bussa in California, where he trained. After his death, Helen Bussa remarried and raised young Jerilyn in Los Angeles and Inglewood, California.
Heise and her husband John traveled east to be waiting Saturday for her father’s remains to arrive at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. At his burial Tuesday at Arlington, she also will be accompanied by her daughter Kelli Rytky and her husband Jeremy, her son Ryan and his wife Brandi and her grandchildren, Colie, 12, Beau, 10, Levi, 7, and Abbey, 1.
“I think it’s really great for my grandchildren,” Heise said. “It’s an important occasion for them.”
The remains of 201 service members were identified in the government’s 2017 budget year from WWII, the Korean war and the Vietnam war. According to the defense agency, 83,000 remain missing from those and other wars, with an estimated 41,000 of them presumed lost at sea.
Heise’s mother and the Bussas were always friendly, but she said that being raised in California, as well as the passage of time, left holes in her knowledge of her father. She wishes she’d asked more questions when her mother was still alive.
“There’s so much of that part of my family I don’t know,” she said.