CAMP DOUGLAS (AP) – The body of Pfc. Norman W. Mortensen laid in a mass grave in the South Pacific for nearly six decades.
On Saturday, Mortensen’s body was finally returned to rest in Wisconsin, under a shady tall tree on a family burial plot at Camp Douglas.
Mortensen, 22, was shot by Japanese forces at a seaplane base at Makin Atoll in the South Pacific on Aug. 17, 1942. His body was located in December 1999, along with those of 18 other U.S. Marines, after an elderly islander who helped bury them led investigators to the grave.
“He was not lost, but he was not home,” said the Rev. Maxine Gray, who officiated at Saturday’s military burial. At the service, Marines joined war veterans, family friends and Mortensen’s relatives, including his only surviving sibling, Arleen Meyer, 78, of Milwaukee.
Marine Corps officers presented Meyer with an American flag, Mortensen’s dog tags and five medals—the Purple Heart, Good Conduct, American Defense Service, Asian-Pacific Campaign with one Bronze Star and World War II [Victory].
Private burial services are planned for five others found in the grave, said Brian Quirk, 79, who survived the raid. A ceremony is planned for the rest at Arlington National Cemetery on Aug. 17, the anniversary of the ill-fated attack, he said.
Meyer said her parents, John and Katherine Mortensen, always wanted their son’s body returned, but died thinking it would not happen.
“We’re so proud. They’re probably up there wondering what’s going on down here,” said Meyer, who also accompanied the body back from Hawaii.
Mortensen enlisted about 10 months before his death after finishing his freshman year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
On the day he died, about 220 Marines from the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion stormed ashore to attack a Japanese garrison at Makin Atoll.
Nineteen soldiers are believed to have died during the first attack, and another two are believed to have drowned. Another nine were inadvertently left behind on the island, and were eventually caught and beheaded.
Before the battalion left the island, its commander arranged for an islander to provide them with a Christian burial.
The Marines were placed together in a sandy grave which remained undiscovered for decades, despite periodic military searches.
Officials used dental records and DNA to identify the bodies after they were located in 1999,
Meyer, who was 19 at the time, remembered receiving the telegram that brought news of her brother’s death. She and her five siblings lived with their parents on a farm in Camp Douglas.
The family turned down burial at Arlington, opting instead to bury Mortensen next to his parents.
“We’re sure that’s what they would want,” Meyer said. “We’re so proud to have him home.”