Pictured left to right: Lion Dean Craig; WW II, Korea, and Viet Nam veteran Lion Jim Vaughn; Dr. Stephen Perkins, and Program Chairperson Lion Beth Flud. (Photos by Dean Craig)
By Dean Craig Okmulgee Lion
Tuesday's Lions Club meeting was more than just a history lesson provided by Dr. Stephen Perkins, OSU Associate Professor of Anthropology, by giving us first-hand information regarding the exhuming and identifying WW II remains on the island of Tarawa. He explained that he had called a colleague, who told him he had just returned from Belgium looking for the remains of a downed WWII pilot from a military plane that had been uncovered. Dr. Perkins told his friend if he was ever invited to do that again, he would be interested in going, never thinking that he would get the call. But, he did! When they were landing on Tarawa, Dr. Perkins' friend commented that they had fenced-in the landing strip so they won't have to run the pigs off to land the jet.
History Flight, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to finding and recovering MIA's, especially from WW II, through the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, sponsored the trip. Tarawa was one of the bloodiest and costliest (Marine casualties) three-day battle (November 20-23) during WW II. The U.S. Marines lost about 1,000 men but the Japanese lost 4,690 men. The Marines only captured 17 Japanese because those who weren't killed committed suicide because it was considered "not honorable" by the Japanese people to be taken prisoner. And, because of the tropical heat on the island, this caused bodies to rapidly decompose, so the bodies were just "interred" in long graves dug by bulldozers. The plan was to return after the war to get the bodies, but this didn't happen. In 1949, the U.S. Military Department declared all WW II MIA's (approximately 73,000) "unrecoverable" and the cases closed. Counting the Korean Conflict (which was described as a "police action" by President Harry Truman because it was not declared a war by the United Nations), there remains about 78,000 MIA's.
What is so ironic is that a lot of WW II debris still remains on Tarawa. The population is around 16,000 people, on a rather small area, with 30% unemployment. Their main source of income is the selling of fishing rights to the Chinese and Japanese, figuring that if they didn't sell the rights, the Chinese and Japanese would just fish there illegally, anyway. Dr. Perkins had current pictures of the rusting debris of tanks, bunkers, iron pill-boxes for machine-gun bunkers, and the Vickers 8-inch guns pointed to the south because that is where Japanese Admiral Shibiazaki thought the U.S. Marines would attack. Instead, the Marines out-smarted the Japanese forces and over-ran the Admiral's bunker from the north and he and his junior officers were killed while trying to flee. Within three days, the Marines had secured Tarawa. Dr. Perkins believes there are still about 700 remains on the island.
The Japanese had occupied Tarawa on December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor, because the island was such a strategic and vital advantage point. One of our guests was Charles Otto, whose cousin, Cpl. Dmitri Otto, USMC, was killed on the first day of fighting on Tarawa and is listed on page 445 of a book by William L. Niven, "2015 Tarawa's Gravediggers: One of the Greatest Mysteries of WW II Finally Solved". Another book Dr. Perkins mentioned was by Joseph Alexander, "Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa". There was a lot more information that I couldn't squeeze in for this article, so that's why you need to attend our meetings to hear "the rest of the story", as the late Paul Harvey would say. And we're still looking for the rest of our new members that we need. Come join us! "WE SERVE".
P.S. Don't forget--we will be serving pancakes 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church on March 21. Y'all come, ya' hear!