A World War II Marine from Mammoth Cave who had been missing in action for more than 70 years will be laid to rest next weekend.
A funeral for Marine Corps Reserve Pfc. Albert Strange will take place Dec. 13 at Bob Hunt Funeral Chapel in Cave City.
Strange, who was assigned to Company E, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines, 2nd Marine Division, died on the island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll of the Gilbert Islands on Nov. 20, 1943 during an attempt to secure the island from the Japanese. The battle lasted three days.
“He got killed on the first day of the battle,” said Carolyn Sturgeon of Cave City, who is Strange's niece.
The battle produced heavy casualties for the U.S.
“This battle that he lost his life in has been called the Battle of Hell. It was thought to be the most fierce battles that the Marine Corps was ever in,” said Mike Wilson, commander of the Disabled American Veterans of Glasgow-Barren County, Chapter 20.
The island of Betio is rather small, consisting of about 300 acres.
“Being 300 acres meant everybody — Japanese or American— was within rifle range of each other in that battle,” Wilson said, adding that was a bit odd for that time period because it meant the U.S. soldiers in the battle didn't have support from other U.S. military forces, including support that could have been provided by off-coast Navy ships and planes flying overhead. “It just took it away and put it down to rifle-to-rifle.”
There were more than 1,000 Marines and sailors killed in the battle and nearly 2,300 who were wounded, he said.
“On the Japanese side there were about 4,800 Japanese on that island and out of that 4,800 there was only 7 percent of them killed and 146 of them were taken as prisoner's of war,” Wilson said. “He was 18 years old when he got killed and in fact, he had just turned 18 just a little over a month when he was killed. A young man just starting his life thrown into the heat of battle at 18 years of age.”
The battle was a huge success for the U.S. military because it allowed the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet to use the Gilbert Islands as a platform to launch assaults on Marshall and Caroline Islands in order to advance the Central Pacific Campaign against Japan, said a U.S. Army press release.
The U.S. servicemen who died in the battle were buried in several battlefield cemeteries on the island. The 604th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company conducted a remains recovery on Betio from 1946 to 1947, but were unable to identify Strange's remains.
In May, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, through a partnership with History Flight Inc., returned to Betio to conduct excavations of bone remains, which were analyzed by DPAA. To identify Strange's remains, scientists with DPAA used dental, anthropological and chest radiograph comparison analysis, which matched his records, as well as circumstantial and material evidence, the press release said.
Sturgeon's family never knew what happened to Strange.
“My grandfather wrote letters to the service, asking about him but never heard anything from them,” Sturgeon said.
Not knowing where he was or what may have happened to him was very hard on his family, she said.
Sturgeon's mother, the late Eva Marie Beal, was Strange's sister.
Sturgeon never met Strange, but remembers hearing her mother talk about him and knew the siblings were raised by their grandparents and were very close to one another.
In September 2016, the DPAA requested samples of Sturgeon and her sister, Marilyn Thompson's DNA.
“We waited for a whole year after we sent in the DNA,” Sturgeon said.
And then in October, they finally learned that their uncle's remains had been identified.
“We had been thinking we weren't going to hear anything back from it,” Sturgeon said.
Strange will receive a full military funeral, which will take place at Bob Hunt Funeral Chapel in Cave City.
The DAV will not be in charge of the funeral, but will be assisting the U.S. Marine Corps in whatever they need, instead, Wilson said.
He pointed out that servicemen and women always keep in the backs of their minds the thought of going home.
“For him to finally get to come home to all of us, it has a special meaning because one of our brothers has come home,” Wilson said.
This will be the first full Marine Corps funeral to take place at the funeral home.
Bob Hunt, owner of the funeral home, explained he has had other military funerals to take place at his funeral home, but none like what Strange will receive.
“It's a pretty big honor,” he said.
The Marine Corp's involvement in bringing Strange home will begin at the Louisville International Airport.
“There will be six Marines and the commander of troops who will meet his casket at the airport,” said Capt. Tyler Garrett with the U.S. Marine Corps at Fort Knox.
Marines will accompany Strange from the airport to the funeral home, led by a police escort, Garrett said.
During his visitation, there will be two Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, which is the same regiment Strange was assigned to during World War II.
“They are traveling out here from Camp Lejeune,” Garrett said.
Pallbearers for Strange will also be Marines. They will carry his casket to his burial site at the Cave City Cemetery, where a 21-gun salute will be given in his honor and “Taps” will be played, Garrett said.
A flag that will be draped across his casket will be presented to his family, Garrett said.
Sturgeon said she is glad that her uncle is finally returning home after all these years.
“I am glad he is getting to come home and be with my mother because that's what she would have wanted,” she said.