Lost Graves of Tarawa

The Sacred Search

Most of the Second Marine Division had departed Tarawa by November 24, 1943, just three days after the amphibious assault had begun.  Chaplains and personnel from other units were left to deal with the dead. 

The Navy renamed Division Cemetery #3 as “Cemetery 27” and erected a monument with a memorial plaque inscribed with the names of men reportedly buried at that site.  Sergeant Moore’s name, however, was not on the plaque.

Following the war, in early 1946, a detachment of men from the 604th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company (604th QM GR Co.) arrived on Tarawa and began recovery operations that lasted until May. 

(Photo courtesy of History Flight)
There were many “memorial” graves with crosses and names on them, but no bodies were found in the graves.   Such was the case for Cemetery 27, the listed burial site for Fae Moore, as shown here.

The Graves Registration unit moved all American remains found on Tarawa to a central cemetery named Lone Palm Cemetery “for later return to Hawaii.”  Fae Moore’s remains were not among them.

Later reports noted that “Through bad record keeping, massive reconstruction on the island, and poor memories, almost half of the known casualties on the island were never found:  of the slightly more than 1,100 expected, only 532 sets of remains, from 41 separate burial sites were found and re-interred at Lone Palm Cemetery.”

The 604th returned to Betio Island in 1947 and removed all of the remains from Lone Palm Cemetery to a laboratory at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii for further identification.  After extensive efforts to identify all of the remains, it was determined that none of them could be associated with Sergeant Fae Moore –  or any of the Marines buried with him in Cemetery 27.  It was if the cemetery had never existed.

On February 24, 1947, Marine Commandant General A. A. Vandegrift sent a two-page letter to Mary Moore, noting the “fierce stress of battle on this small island” (Tarawa) and explaining that “hasty burial methods could not be avoided, and, consequently, we were unable to survey and to chart the burial places with full accuracy or to record all the details of burial information.”
After several paragraphs, the General wrote:  I regret extremely that I must inform you that the remains of your son were not found to be beneath the marker previously reported.  Subsequent investigation has revealed that in some instances well-meaning persons had erected individual commemorative markers in memory of our heroic dead.”

General Vandegrift concluded, “I am deeply grieved that there must now be added to your sorrow this most distressing information.  It is earnestly hoped that the continuing and unremitting efforts which will be made may yet lead to the location and identification of your son’s remains, in which event you will be notified immediately.

The General was right.  It was yet another grievous blow to the Moore family.

Grandma was really broken up by the news,” remembers her granddaughter, Mildred Moore Cooley. 

After all, Fae was her baby boy.  And with no body to bring home for burial, that was really disturbing.”

Mary Moore was determined that the Marine Corps would find and identify her son's remains.   During the first week of March 1947 she wrote two letters to General Vandegrift, advising him:

"I have a letter sent me Feb. 44 telling me just where the grave was...it is as follows -- Grave 23, Row "A" Division Cemetery 3, Tarawa Atoll, Gilbert Islands...I know he also has his watch buried with him and it has his name on it.  I have a letter from one of his buddies telling me all about how he was buried and I know he is not among the unknown."

"I will not give up," she proclaimed.  And she didn't.

But her son was not found.  Nor were hundreds of others who had died on Tarawa.

By 1949 all of the U.S. servicemen that had been found buried on Tarawa – including the “unknowns” – were transported to the the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu for burial in the so-called “Punchbowl Cemetery.”  Some, however, were sent to the United States.

On February 28 1949, a Board of Review declared the remains of Marine Sergeant Fae Moore as “non-recoverable.”  That determination was surely sad news for Mary Moore, who – at age 73 – may have concluded that her boy would never come home.

In fact, the passage of time and development on Tarawa in the subsequent decades of the 20th century would seem to have proven her right.  The Korean War came and went, and the dead on Tarawa seemed not only lost – but forgotten.  Mary Moore died December 1, 1958 in Chadron, Nebraska, at age 82, never to see the return of her son’s remains.

The notion that there were any Marines or Sailors still buried on Tarawa seemed to have vanished from public consciousness for more than 60 years.

In the 1970’s, the Department of Defense (DOD) established Central Identification Laboratories in Thailand and Hawaii in an effort to coordinate POW/MIA recovery efforts in Southeast Asia – and eventually to recover and identify missing Americans from all previous conflicts.  In 2004, DOD established a task force called the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) to account for Americans listed as Prisoners of War or Missing in Action from all past wars and conflicts.

In the private sector, a new non-profit organization called “History Flight” was taking shape.  Founded in 2006 by Mark Noah, an airline pilot and aviation historian, History Flight is based in Marathon, Florida and was originally focused on “keeping World War II aviation history alive.”   But it wasn’t long before that changed. 
Noah and his History Flight crew visited Tarawa in 2006 searching – not for buried Marines – but for a downed airplane lost to history in the Betio lagoon.  It was then that Noah learned about the “lost graves of Tarawa.”  History Flight conducted extensive archival research in a quest for more clues about the graves.  Two years later a History Flight team returned to Tarawa to locate former cemetery sites and scan them with ground penetrating radar for any remains.  They located 11 of the lost graveyards and the remains of some 123 Marines.

On the government side, JPAC began to stumble. Following a series of scandals and a revelation by the Associated Press of an internal government study alleging inept, wasteful, and corrupt management, JPAC came under the close scrutiny of Congress.   Their motto had been “Until they are home,” but Congress, the media, and some of the American public began having reservations about their work.