Home was literally half a world away when Marine Pfc. Emmett L. Kines was killed in World War II nearly 75 years ago. The Grafton native was only 24 years old when he died in a gruesome battle in the Pacific.
But until this weekend, he still hadn’t made it home yet.
Kines is believed to have died in the first, fierce day of fighting the Japanese at the Battle of Tarawa in November 1942. He had only been in the military a year when he lost his life.
There were massive casualties on both sides—more than 1,000 Americans were killed and 2,000 were injured. Bodies littered the 285-acre island with no real way of disposing of them. Many were simply dumped in a mass grave to clean up the beach.
But after 73 years of being buried there, Kines is finally back home in Grafton.
On Friday, National POW/MIA Recognition Day, his remains were brought home to Grafton complete with police and military escorts after being flown into Pittsburgh.
On hand was his only remaining living sibling, 90-year-old Betty Huffman. She was present when his remains arrived at the Donald G. Ford Funeral Home.
She hugged her brother’s flag-draped coffin, finally reunited with her long-lost brother.
She and other family members will also be there Monday when he’s laid to rest at the West Virginia National Cemetery in Pruntytown with full military honors.
He was gone, but never forgotten—especially happy days spent on a family farm prior to his enlisting in the military.
“Being a Marine was something he always wanted to do,” Huffman told the Mountain Statesman. “I was with him all the time. I was closer to him than anyone else. Being on the farm with him were the happiest days of my life.”
His remains were found buried on the remote Pacific island last year along with 34 other Marines. Military officials had declared them non-recoverable in 1949.
History Flight, a 13-year-old nonprofit organization based in Florida, spent more than a decade locating the lost graves of the Battle of Tarawa, painstakingly identifying remains and making arrangements for the servicemen to be returned home, said founder Mark Noah.
It’s hard to imagine what these servicemen went through in this battle, he said.
“[The island] looked like a lunar landscape, littered with 6,000 corpses decomposing in the equatorial sun. Because time was of the essence, bulldozers were used to create 4-5 foot deep burial trenches for the large number of American dead,” he said.
After doing in-depth research including site visits, the group concluded there had been a “minimum of 43 temporary cemeteries scattered across the island ranging from one to over 150 bodies in all the separate burial grounds.”
Despite their work, hundreds of additional servicemen are still believed to be buried somewhere on the remote island. Noah hasn’t given up on any of them, nor has his team or the volunteers who make this possible.
Earlier this year they located 13 more Marines and have plans to repatriate them, too.
“Every time one of these men goes home is just wonderful. I like to tell people it’s like putting a little bit of America back into America,” he said. “It’s important to give closure to the family, and to also restore the dignity of the missing individual. So we are very pleased that Emmett Kines is back where he belongs.”
Linda Ford Edwards, who has been part of making arrangements for his viewing and other final preparations, said she considers it an honor to be in the presence of a national hero.
“This is so unusual and it is a privilege to be part of honoring a soldier like this. It really overwhelmed me to think what had actually happened to him, as well as the lengths people went to find him. The people at History Flight had been working for 15 years trying to piece his life back together,” she said.
“The journey from the time he died until we got him right back here in Grafton is unbelievable. But I truly believe it was meant to be.”