COWARTS, Al -- In 1943, the Battle of Tarawa took place at Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands. This was a battle in the Pacific Theater of World War II, and was fought from 20 November to 23 November.
Over several days of intense fighting, approximately 1,000 Marines and sailors were killed in action. A small number of these casualties were buried in Cemetery 27, a military cemetery on Tarawa Atoll. From June 2015 to February 2016, History Flight, a non-profit organization located the remains of 39 individuals who gave their life in the Battle of Tarawa, and were buried there.
Among those was Private First Class James Ottis Whitehurst, who was attached to 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division. Whitehurst joined the Marine Corps on 20 May, 1941 and was killed in action on the first day of the Battle of Tarawa, 20 November, 1943.
After 74 years of absence, Whitehurst’s remains were finally repatriated on 11 April, 2017, when he landed at Tallahassee International Airport in Tallahassee, Florida. There he received plane-side honors from Marines with Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany funeral detail.
On 12 April, 2017, people from the Cowarts community lined the streets for the funeral procession with American flags and signs that said “welcome home.” Whitehurst was laid to rest near family at Cowarts Baptist Church Cemetery. Military Honors were rendered in front of the Marines with Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany funeral detail, Marines with his old unit, 2nd Bn., 8th Marines, and hundreds of people from the community.
First Lt. Peter Severson, an infantry officer with 2nd Bn., 8th Marines, said that being able to attend the ceremony meant a great deal to him.
“It’s good to share in that legacy and remember those that came before you, and obviously use that as motivation and inspiration to go forward and do the best you can do in your daily life and lead those Marines underneath you,” said Severson.
Larry Palmer, the oldest living nephew of Whitehurst, said that this experience has been a humbling experience to see his uncle returned home, and to see the Marines who gathered for this moment.
“They did an awesome job; the Marines from Albany and also from [his] company, they came here from North Carolina, which is awesome,” Palmer says. “They were so cordial and so friendly, and did a wonderful job. They are just really outstanding.”
Severson said that the ceremony was beautiful and that it was definitely a good showing and ceremony to remember a Marine who gave his life for our country.
He also said that the Marines from 2nd Bn., 8th Marines are very appreciative that they were able to come to and partake in the ceremony, and to be a part of him being brought home and the history that comes with that for their unit.
Palmer said that through this experience, he learned a lot about what the government does for their service members.
“I wasn’t aware of what the Marines and military did for these people that have been unaccounted for, but they do a tremendous job,” Palmer says. “They worked real hard and [History Flight], the people that recovered [James’] remains, that is phenomenal. They are to be commended.”
74 years is a long time to question what happened to a family member or loved one. Finally, after all of this time, James Ottis Whitehurst’s remaining family and community can gain some closure and rest easy knowing their Marine has finally been returned home.