CHICAGO — By the end of WWII, there were approximately 79,000 servicemen unaccounted for, their bodies never identified or never found.
USMC Technical Sergeant Harry Carlsen of Brookfield was one of them, until his remains finally returned home after 75 years Wednesday.
“I don’t have words. No one can ever know how much this means to my family who has searched for him all these years,” said his great-nephew, Ed Spellman of St. Charles.
Harry ‘Bud’ Carlsen enlisted in the Marines 10 days after Pearl Harbor. He was assigned to Company A, 2nd Amphibian Tractor Battalion at the age of 31. The news of his enlistment was a surprise to many family members who never had the opportunity for a proper goodbye. Every letter that arrived to his family in the two years after was cherished and read many times over.
“The last letter he sent, he talked about wanting to come home for Christmas and how it just wasn’t in the cards for him this year,” Spellman said.
It was just two day before Christmas that the telegram arrived saying Sgt. Harry Carlsen had been killed by enemy fire along the beach of Tarawa on November 20, 1943.
“The worst part,” recalls Spellman, “was his body was never recovered.”
In the intermediate aftermath of the fighting, service members who died were buried in cemateries on the island. Four years later, many of those remains were interred at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii.
For years, the family pressed for answers and requests for any personal belongings, to which they received responses saying all efforts were being made.
“It was painful for the family,” Spellman said. “One of those things where no one wanted to really talk about it.”
It was Spellman’s mother that continued the pursuit to find her uncle. In 2008, she submitted her own DNA samples, in hopes that science would help bring their loved one home. While she passed in 2012, other groups like honorflight.org continued the search to identify the thousands of servicemen that lie under ‘unknown’ markers.
So it was a complete surprise when Ed Spellman received a voice message that said his mother’s DNA samples were a match for one of the "unknown" soldiers from the battle at Tarawa.
“People need to understand what this means to the families to finally have some closure. To be able to finally honor their loved ones,” Spellman said.
On Saturday, Sgt. Harry "Bud" Carlsen will have a proper military burial at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetary in Elwood.